OPINION | Women's day: Time for leisure is not a luxury. It's a basic human right

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Women's Day and Women's Month should signal a deep commitment to justice for all that also involves the right to leisure, writes the author.
Women's Day and Women's Month should signal a deep commitment to justice for all that also involves the right to leisure, writes the author.
Photo: Artem Varnitsin/EyeEm/Getty Images

When women marched to the Union Buildings in 1956, they weren't just marching against the pass laws but also for the right to justice and leisure, writes Juliana Claassens.

As we go marching, marching

Unnumbered women dead

Go crying through our singing

Their ancient call for bread Small art and love and beauty

Their drudging spirits knew

Yes, it is bread we fight for

But we fight for roses too

In the poignant Trade Union song, "Bread and Roses," beautifully sung by a group of Welsh women in the film, Pride, the singers demand freedom for the countless women who have died but also for men who "are women's children, and we mother them again." In this song that goes back to the Suffrage movement, these women invoke the basic human right of having enough food to eat, but also acknowledge that it is not only bodies that starve, but hearts as well. This is why they sing about fighting for bread and "for roses too."

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The haunting lyrics of "Bread and Roses" attest to the right to leisure which, according to Martha Nussbaum, is one of the basic rights essential for human flourishing that goes beyond mere survival. In addition to the right to food, adequate shelter, freedom of movement, bodily integrity, owning land, and being in control of one's environment, Nussbaum's list also includes "Play. The ability to laugh, play, and have time for recreational activities". 

In terms of the above mentioned song, the right to leisure for which the singers are yearning involves the ability to go buy flowers, to plant and pick roses. Or maybe to arrange flowers in a vase, revelling in their beauty. Fighting for roses thus can be said to stand for a range of recreational activities that presume financial means, in addition to the time and opportunity to engage in leisure, free from worrying about subsistence or survival. Bread and roses. Roses and bread. In this song, there thus is an intrinsic connection between the quest for justice – that also affirms the importance of beauty and joy –– and the freedom to act, and sometimes also just to be.

Leisure time is a basic human right 

I probably have been thinking a bit more about the right to leisure on my recent sabbatical in Germany – one of the cherished benefits of the academic life that frees one to conduct research and not worry about administrative chores and teaching. After a conference in Salzburg, my family and I spent a couple of glorious days travelling in Italy. As I found myself slowing down, falling into a routine of travelling, walking, swimming, exploring, eating, reading, and sleeping, I also started noticing other women at leisure. Local storekeepers in the tiny village in Cinque Terre who, at sunset, swim in a rock pool after most of the tourists have left, clearly enjoying time with family and friends as they have done so many evenings before. Or the couples dancing outside the Duomo in Milan, including one woman dancing with her dog as the street musician's lovely beats filled the square.

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These women know that having time for leisure is not a luxury, but a basic human right. Having time to just be, rejuvenate, and regroup forms an essential part of catching one's breath before one starts to work again. And one could also say marching, and fighting, again. 

It is interesting to think of this right to leisure in terms of our annual Women's Day. To some extent, Women's Day has become synonymous with leisure in the form of pampering packs and spa treatments that have become the corporate way of celebrating this public holiday. 

Right to spend time with family and friends

However, this particular emphasis bestowed upon Women's Day misses the central link between justice and leisure that is at the heart of the often difficult and messy struggle for human dignity and freedom associated with the Women's March to the Union Building on 9 August 1956. Women of all colours and creeds were "marching, marching" to protest the much-despised Pass Laws that restricted many black people's freedom of movement, kept families apart, and denied them the all-important right to leisure. The right to spend time with family and friends. The right to laughter and play and engage in a variety of recreational activities.

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Both Women's Day and Women's Month thus signal a deep commitment to justice for all that also involves the right to leisure, especially for those women in South Africa who wish they can just have some respite from the seemingly never-ending violence and abuse. May we this year, as we ourselves find time to play, to laugh, and to (re)create, join in the song that touches, "A million darkened kitchens; A thousand mill lofts gray," with the radiance "That a sudden sun discloses."

For the people hear us singing  Bread and roses, bread and roses."

Prof Juliana Claassens is Professor of Old Testament and Head of the Gender Unit in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.

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.

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