Sexism in the city

2014-05-19 10:00

After listening to a radio discussion about women binge drinking, Milisuthando Bongela realises we need to talk about sexism in all its complexity

“They are an embarrassment to womanhood.”

“The ones from PE are the worst?…?worse than their fathers?...”

“Although I’ve never touched it myself, it’s true, we women are out of control.”

This is a loose translation of some of the opinions in an Umhlobo Wenene FM discussion about the World Health Organization reporting that an estimated 41.2% of South African women are binge drinkers, making them the worst binge drinkers in Africa.

This is not a record to be proud of, but I was reminded of how deeply entrenched sexism is in my beloved Xhosa culture.

Men and women of all ages, subtly encouraged by the male hosts, took turns expressing their disgust at “females” for letting this happen to them, each indictment delivered with the ease of habit.

I wanted to phone in but I knew my view (that alcoholic absent fathers, drunk wife-beaters and rapists, high on nyaope, are even more of a danger to society yet this doesn’t invite a man-bashing caucus) would fall on laughter and deaf ears.

I wanted to address the inherent sexism in the approach to the subject.

Sexism is not as top of mind as racism in South Africa and I accept why that is. One always has to be more aware of how sexism disguises itself. Imagine if this was a discussion on Talk Radio?702 about black people drinking instead of women, and how it would sound if callers were talking in the same tone.

Surely, an upset caller would complain about this being a racist segment and another would probably state the connection between stress and increased reliance on the bottle as a coping mechanism?

Actress Bonnie Mbuli recently tweeted a truth that quickly became a controversy and a vile excuse for calling her names. The tweet read: “If you wanna cook and clean and make tea like a crazy person, marry into a Xhosa family.” Bonnie is absolutely right.

It varies from family to family but the culture of women and children tending to the husbandry and housework while the men sit together smoking, eating meat and drinking, drunk in philosophical conversations, is very familiar to my upbringing.

My father wrote his PhD thesis on the laws of isihlonipho among the 13 different groups of the Xhosa people. It’s a skilful breakdown of every aspect of Xhosa life and culture – from how to sit, what foods to eat and what our totems are, to the differences between modern and traditional funerals.

It is very clear from the hierarchy of traditional Xhosa society, where the old man is at the top and the little girl is at the bottom, that this is an entrenched social structure.

The thing about sexism in a deeply patriarchal society, similar to racism, is that its custodians are usually people you love, respect and admire, and want to mimic to get their approval.

The custodians of the culture that ensures women do all the housework in a Xhosa homestead are not men.

They are our mothers, aunts and grandmothers. I have witnessed makotis in their traditional roles and it is never the men that say “scrub the floors, make the tea, cook the meals, wash the dishes and don’t carry your mouth” – it’s the women.

Like Uncle Toms on a slave plantation, the system recreates itself from its victims.

While women do laborious work to ensure their families are fed, from a distance, it doesn’t look like it hurts. This is because these roles are so entrenched, they have been naturalised. The way my mother doted over my father was beautiful to watch as a child. He was a king at whose feet we served.

But my father also treated my mother like his queen. The kneeling wasn’t literal; the submission didn’t take away her agency as a strong Xhosa woman. So is it fair to call it blatant sexism? Yes and no.

When the act of submission isn’t corrupted by the hunger to control and to abuse someone along gendered lines, it won’t be sexism, it will be love.

But as long as social problems are gendered, we are not there yet.

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