Guest Column

Despair is a luxury we can't afford

2017-11-30 10:44
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Ayesha Fakie

I am tired. I heard the other day on the news about President Jacob Zuma launching this year's #16DaysofActivism. He said it should extend beyond these 16 days, we should ensure the safety of women and children throughout the year. Noble words.

So I wondered if he had an awakening (unlikely), if this was just more political BS (probably), or if he has a special calendar, like so many special rules for him and him alone.

I am so tired of this. Political theatre and campaigns and hashtags. I'm not tired because we're talking about it; that men are surprised by just how much women and genderqueer persons face on a daily basis. That, seemingly suddenly, from Hollywood to politics people are suddenly taking sexual allegations seriously. No, this is good.

What I am tired of is feeling there'll be an inevitable backlash to this moment in late 2017 where gender-based violence and #believeher and #metoo are trending. Turning points in feminist progress inevitably results in a violent backlash from patriarchy.

I'm tired of the still-binary thinking that it is only cis-women who suffer under patriarchy. I am tired of suspecting that the nation's attention happily focuses on women and children during these 16 days because it is natural and acceptable for a paternal society to "save the women and children". 

I am tired of the systemic nature of gender-based violence and the nation-state's role in it. I am tired that we still have to have these campaigns because for some reasons society still isn't ready to accept women, transpersons (who are women or men, no prefix needed!), genderqueer folk or anyone outside the gender normative spectrum are people.

Patriarchal violence affects everyone. Every person. Not objects, or accessories to society, men, or families. Not ad hoc afterthoughts. It affects humans. It affects all of us. It is sexual assault, non-consent, street harassment, bullying, body-shaming, removal of bodily autonomy, anti-choice, toxic masculinity, emotional suppression, and calls to 'be a real man'. And so, so many more.

It affects even the cis-gendered, heterosexual man. It affects people who identify as gay or bisexual, transgendered, queer, femmes, intersex, asexual, those too feminine, those too masculine, the androgynous, the girly lesbian, the feminine straight, and the very-masculine gay dude. It demands of men, in bell hooks's words, a suppression of emotion, and an act of psychic mutilation that if not carried out will affect their self-esteem.

This is patriarchy. This is violence from the state, society, all the way down to toxic, violent and fragile masculinities, itself something caused by the harms patriarchy inflicts on us.

Even though I work in this field, patriarchy has conditioned me (all of us, over a lifetime) to think of patriarchal violence as directed at women, and that gender issues are women's issues. That the binary thinking of gender as two opposite poles is correct. Gender is a set of socially constructed modes of being, ever fluid within the bounds dictated by patriarchy for specific social contexts. Pink used to be the colour for baby boys a century or so ago, after all, demonstrating how "patriarchy has no gender".

But patriarchal violence doesn't act alone. It has fellow travellers, even bedfellows. Our national and global system is a hypercapitalist, white supremacist, violent patriarchy. And, I dare say that in South Africa, even in 2017, we haven't even yet begun to get to grips with its impact when adding the crime against humanity that apartheid was, which itself was deeply gendered, leaving us with gendered wounds.

This is the heart of intersectionality.

This is how we see – on a regular, damning basis – the violent gendered assaults in our land. How little kids are sexually assaulted in schools by the teachers we entrust them to; how, when pointing that out, I am called 'radical and militant' on feminist issues; how women and genderqueer persons are killed trying to leave abusive relationships; how boys who don't conform to whatever definition of manhood are victimised; how lesbians suffer 'corrective' rape; how transphobia is the number one killer of transpersons; how society erases transpersons and how we force them to erase themselves, fearing for their safety; how black, queer women face the harshest weapons of patriarchy at the hands of society: police, courts, social welfare systems, intimate partners, employers. How we throw around words of blame and shame like uppity, bitchy, bossy, aggressive, f—t, moffie, whore and its unique, very evocative Afrikaaps equivalent.

The so-called leader of the free world in his brash, nativist, gutter approach has reenergised the venom behind the colloquial for women's anatomy, declaring it can be grabbed at whim. Its Afrikaaps equivalent, to me, someone from the Flats, is significantly harsher in the violence it evokes than any version of the c-word. And that too pervades.

Language is important. Not only in the obvious of how to translate these gender justice terms to meaningful concepts in the rich, nuanced varieties that shape our nation. But how to demystify it; how to make it something un-foreign. Because it is.

The mistake patriarchy forces us into thinking is that terms, concepts and language that promote equality is hard work for no reason, or that it is an elite imposing a secular, academic or Western slant on life that make most people go "so there's ANOTHER word we can't say now?"

Our work shows gender equality and justice are there for the taking. We cannot, must not cede it to the hateful. From working in black, rural, poor and marginalised communities to affluent white schools in the southern suburbs, the response to gender training and gender justice dialogues shows that it is not something people knee-jerkingly push away. People are interested.

Farmworkers, community activists, schoolkids, teachers, youth, and professionals at work, even religious leaders and some institutions want to explore gender justice. This reenergises me. I realise despair is a luxury we cannot afford. And through doing that, we work to make ourselves appreciate the depth of variety within gender so that we can help build a gender just society that one day, maybe, we can call reconciled.

- Ayesha Fakie is the Head of Sustained Dialogues at the Institute for Justice & Reconciliation

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    16 days of activism  |  gender equality
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