Feminism for whom?

2014-10-22 18:45

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Milisuthando Bongela asks where the underprivileged black woman is in the midst of all this trendy feminism

I know a woman who empties bath water, washes panties, and makes beds and sandwiches for a living.

I don’t know what her wages are, but she doesn’t spend much on rent or transport because she lives on the property of her employers, who love her like a family member because she raised their two children and five animals.

She serves me too when I go visit my friends, and she thanks me for visiting as if I was visiting her.

Behind the smiles I trade with her when we catch up in broken Zulu – a break from the sentimentally instructive English she spends her day hearing, and a respite from my guilt in accepting her tray offerings – the intersections of my relationship with her, my relationship with my friend and my relationship with my black feminism collide.

The words to express the nebulous feelings of discomfort when the woman serves me juice have eluded me for as long as I have been on the receiving end of her labour. But as I deconstruct all this, my growing self-awareness brings with it the inconvenience of principle.

Privilege detests labour. Having money can weaken the limbs to laborious tasks like washing one’s own panties or the ring around one’s own dirty bath. I have noticed it in myself.

The busier I become, the less I prioritise fundamental “black woman tasks” like ironing my clothing and hand-washing my underwear.

Fundamental black woman tasks. The idea that these faculties are fundamental to being black and female is naturalised in my understanding of who I am as a black woman, despite the obvious conditioning that these exemplify.

It doesn’t only influence who I am, it influences how I’ve been conditioned to understand black womanness.

Dressed in a uniform and stripped of her birth name, the idea of uSisi, Aunty or your pick of any Anglo-Saxon moniker she has been given by her economic guardians, leads me to the murky waters where racism, classism, sexism and feminism meet.

Where is feminism today, when at the base of the four isms, the black woman still bottom feeds? It is rightfully concerned with the Sisyphean task of emancipating all women from the control of what feminist activist bell hooks calls the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”, a system that victimises everybody, including white men, in varying degrees.

In a recent talk hooks had with Gloria Steinem at The New School in New York, the feminist stalwarts admit that although the movement has made strides in the past six decades, the issue of feminism in the domestic space has barely been touched.

The many cases of male-to-female domestic violence give credence to this, but so does the highly problematic female-to-female or madam-to-maid domestic relationship, especially in South Africa, where domestic labour has been systematically forced upon the black woman for 362 years.

This female relationship lives outside of today’s Beyoncé-, Taylor Swift- and Emma Watson-endorsed pop-feminism. It is perhaps unconsidered by Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel Feminist, who arguably is in fashion because feminism is currently in vogue.

While it gives me hope that feminism will overcome its lunatic reputation as a man-hating lesbian orgy in the public space, the next cool thing next year might trump its present trendiness.

That is the nature of trends, but this one might pass us by without proper examination in the role we all play in entrenching sexism and the rest of the cast of isms.

Is it an exercise of freedom or a remnant of oppression to be served tea in bed at 7am by a person who is deprived of mothering her children so that yours can have their beds made for them?

As a feminist, am I breaking the cycle of power when I expect another woman to do the things I hate doing, the things I consider beneath me just because she desperately needs the measly rands I offer her at the end of the month?

The same things my white female feminist friend admits she was horrified to be “forced” to do when she was 19.

When the women’s suffrage movement in 19th-century America had the choice of uniting black and white women under the flag of freedom for all women; under its white female leadership, it chose to champion the needs of white supremacy by assigning to white women the role of nurturing young white supremacists from their blue or pink cradles into the men and women who enjoyed the benefits of the Jim Crow laws.

The fairy tales they grew up listening to before bedtime ensured they were as far away from the reality of their helpers as possible, thus retaining their contentious innocence.

The results of that are similar to the way South African society is structured. Except in ours today, race and class are in bed together exploiting our history’s guaranteed black labour model.

Little black girls in some South African households are no longer fundamentally linked to the notion of washing their own or others’ underwear as beneficiaries of the supposed death of one of the isms.

Whether that is progress or entropy is debatable, but it calls to question the role of white and black feminists, especially women, in the domestic space, where attitudes are nurtured.

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