‘Ugly feminist’ or necessary scream?

2016-11-20 07:44

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Fees Must Fall – Student Revolt, Decolonisation and Governance in South Africa, edited by Susan Booysen

Wits University Press

300 pages


‘In the beginning is the scream. We scream… The starting point of theoretical reflection is opposition, negativity, struggle. It is from rage that thought is born, not from the pose of reason, not from the reasoned-sitting-back-and-reflecting-on-the-mysteries-of-existence that is the conventional image of ‘the thinker’.’ – Holloway, 2002.

Black urban women are a force unleashed in the #FeesMustFall movement.

Their struggle tactics are radical. Women students at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Rhodes University (Rhodes) and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) employed the feminist activist tactic of stripping to show disgust at society. They stood topless at their barricades, most of them young, black women. These acts evoked the memory of Leymah Gbowee’s Women in Peace movement in Liberia. When forcing the warlords and the men to make a truce, they occupied the hotel where the peace meetings were being held and threatened to strip.

As the 2012 public furore over Brett Murray’s images of President Jacob Zuma displayed, revealing intimate parts of the body in the urban context still offends many black South Africans (traditionally, women in rural areas went bare-breasted in public, so taboos around nudity are constructed differently). The bare-breast protest by Rhodes and Wits women students thus smashes through prevailing social norms, even activist norms.

Politics begins with the scream. The scream is not pretty. The scream tears at the social fabric of society. ‘Ugly feminists’ is about the body of the feminist and the necessary ugliness in the feminist and/or radical act.

‘Ugly feminists’ ascribes hatefulness to the feminist body as it vocalises its radical aggression. The demure African ‘girl’ has been kicked aside by this advancing movement, and many patriarchs – sweet patriarchs, bullying patriarchs (or both, as is often the case) – are shocked by such temerity. My personal favourite is the black woman student leader who wears high-fashion suits, has natural hair dyed a blonde-orange in a gorgeous fish plait and wears green or blue contact lenses, depending on her mood. I call her the student movement’s avatar because of her changeling styles.

Older African women give disapproving looks, and older feminists brought up in the jeans and scruffy union T-shirt traditions of earlier activist movements are bewildered by fashion statements. Activism is as much about image as it is about protest marches for the #FeesMustFall woman and those who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Queer, Intersex or Asexual (LGBTQIA).

The young black women smashing through the barricades of patriarchal society are not alone in Africa. They form part of a rising tide of women activists who are questioning African patriarchal leadership in South Africa and beyond.

While evidence of the women demographic in Africa in the 21st century is still limited, a number of anecdotal observations about various kinds of struggles can be made. The diversity of the women subjects on the #FeesMustFall barricades defies stereotypes. The women and LGBTQIA demographic in the #FeesMustFall movement are not yet empirically established either. However, in multiple contexts the presence of women and LGBTQIA activists is visually in evidence (at vigils, at marches, in public media statements, in meetings). The attire of the young, predominantly black activist women (when they have their clothes on) makes loud statements that symbolically scream at society: ‘We are here and we have been invisible for too long!’ Their choices of clothing are a conscious and assertive part of their activist identity, evident in their public appearances: big African headgear and earrings; Black Panthers-style (the US 1960s African-American liberation movement) black pants and T-shirts; bold African prints and, importantly, free black hair. In a society that upholds straight and smooth hair as disciplined citizenship, they have claimed freedom for their hair alongside their rights to activism and activist leadership.

Representational democracy and ‘tea-party’ negotiations à la those at the 1991 Convention for a Democratic SA (Codesa) are decried by the #FeesMustFall students as weak instruments for social change, as the students insist when they say that ‘tea-party’ change is not part of their agenda. In fact, the students eschew the modified feminisms that have adapted to patriarchy in South African society in which feminists assume conventional roles of mothers, wives, sex(y) objects (one characterisation of the woman who compromises her feminism in this way is that of the ‘sexy feminist’, who apparently claims her body while she/it simultaneously feeds the ‘male gaze’ – as was said during the Luhlaza Leadership Initiative Focus Group in September last year) and various forms of docile labour (Foucault, 1995). In this sense, then, they often ‘disrespect’ African elders by refusing to listen to the cautions of university leaders such as vice-chancellors.

Their bodily stance when they do this is often not demure, but rebellious, aggressive, angry, resistant.

For many in South African society, this kind of militant irreverence may be seen as offensive, even ugly. Feminist activism thus challenges existing gendered hierarchies in society.

The womanist activism of the #FeesMustFall students embodies this kind of ‘ugly feminism’: a radical social challenge that begins with the scream.


City Press and Wits talk on Fallism

WHERE: Wits School of Governance, Donald Gordon Auditorium, Parktown campus

WHEN: Tuesday, November 15, 5.30pm for 6pm

Read more on:    education  |  fees must fall  |  protests

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