Life, etc

Women, football and song

By Rebecca Davis 14 September 2012

‘Women’s Month’ is over, but work among women’s organisations goes on year-round, and some of them are finding alternative avenues through which to fight for women’s rights. REBECCA DAVIS spoke to two women who are tackling empowerment through very different measures: football and singing.

How many successful women football players can you name? Ask Jos Dirkx that question and she’ll rattle off a whole catalogue. Dirkx doesn’t see football as a man’s sport. She sees it, in fact, as the perfect tool to encourage women to view themselves as deserving equal resources to men and as being able to participate in sport with as much spirit, courage and tenacity as men. 

Dirkx is only 25 years old, but she has already packed a whole lot of living into that span. She has been a resident of five continents and 10 countries and worked on projects ranging from female genital mutilation to the rehabilitation of Sudanese refugees. Now she lives in Cape Town, where she is the founder and director of an organisation called Girls & Football SA (G&FSA).

It was while completing a Masters in Political Science and Economics, a joint collaboration of Norway’s Bjørknes Høyskole and the University of Stellenbosch, that Dirkx first became interested in the intersection between gender and sport. Of particular interest was how gender norms shape the very different ways in which women’s and men’s sports are treated. In 2010, with the World Cup around the corner, Dirkx decided to explore ways in which football could be used as a tool for female development.

“Football is such a global, unifying sport, but it’s also a sport residing in an obviously male domain,” she said. “Tennis, swimming – these sports are considered more gender neutral. But football is typically male, and that’s demonstrated in the huge inequalities that exist between women’s football and men’s football.” 

Despite the fact that South Africa’s women’s football team, Banyana Banyana, has been far more successful than their male counterparts in recent years, they still receive a fraction of the budget allocated to the men. A City Press investigation in February revealed huge discrepancies in the incentives paid to the two teams, too. While each Bafana player receives a bonus of R45,000 for a win in an official international match, Banyana players received only R5,000 each for winning their Olympic Games qualification matches.

And money isn’t the only way that men and women are treated differently in sport, Dirkx said. She pointed to the way the media handles male and female athletes. Quite apart from the fact that male sports receive an overwhelmingly greater amount of media attention to start with, there also seems to be a limited range of roles that women are slotted into. “Basically, you’re either the soccer babe or the struggling female athlete. There’s so much over-sexualisation,” sae said. (One is reminded of the spine-chillingly awful ‘makeover’ that You magazine subjected Caster Semenya to, in order to “prove” her femininity.)

Dirkx said that in a particularly sport-obsessed society like South Africa, athletics can be of enormous utility to tackle social issues. “In the case of football, for instance, it’s a tool to talk about the issues affecting women without men feeling too threatened,” she said. And so G&FSA was launched, and by June 2010 had already won its first award. In the organisation’s two years of existence, the accolades haven’t stopped rolling in – in February of this year, the group received a letter of recognition from Michelle Obama.

G&FSA’s unique offering involves a combination of media, education and sport.  Its first workshops took place in Kayamandi in August 2010, and since then it has worked in communities all over the Western Cape. Dirkx stressed that their focus is not the development of hard soccer skills – “We’re not here to find the next Portia Modise!” she laughed – but rather to use lessons from the football pitch as primers for real-life issues. “We work on issues surrounding teamwork, leadership, self-respect and health.” 

The group works only with girls. “We think it’s important to keep these as girls-only spaces, because honestly, the associations that many of the girls we work with have of men and boys is that they are unsafe,” said Dirkx. She described herself as a “massive feminist, and I proudly call myself that. I know ‘feminist’ is seen as a scary word for women and men my age, but all feminism means is equal rights for men and women.”

While Dirkx conceded that Women’s Month attracted a lot of negative press, she still finds the event that inspired the commemoration of Women’s Day in South Africa deeply inspiring: the 1956 Black Sash march of almost 20,000 women to the Union Buildings in Pretoria in order to protest the pass laws. “What was so amazing about that march is that they weren’t just marching for women. They were marching for everyone,” she said. It’s an illustration of the point that fighting for rights does not have to be a partisan struggle – men, too, have a vital role to play in ensuring equality between the sexes.

And that fight for rights doesn’t always have to be sombre in tone. To mark this year’s Women’s Day, G&FSA ran a “Fiercely Female & Awesome’ campaign in collaboration with Pick n Pay, calling on artists internationally to create a design inspired by the 1956 march, to be printed on T-shirts to be released on the International Day of the Girl Child, on 11 October. The winning image emerged as a female footballer in action against a blaze of starlight: it’s strong, fresh and fierce, much like Dirkx and her cause. 

Johannesburg resident Charlotte Fischer is also preoccupied with female empowerment, but from a very different perspective. Fischer is the Executive Director of the South African Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity (Sacred). “Discussions in the Jewish community about the need for a religious action centre started three years ago, and Sacred was launched last September,” she said. “The thinking behind it is that, being Jewish, it’s not enough just to go to synagogue and have a relationship with God. You have to play a part in making the world a better place.”

Sacred has two sister organisations internationally, the Religious Action Center (RAC) in the USA and the Israeli Religious Action Centre, and  their aims are to fight all forms of religious discrimination as well as to make a broader contribution to civil society activism. “We live in a country that has the highest Gini coefficient in the world,” Fischer said. “But we can’t improve South Africa without also being willing to tackle the inequalities in our community.”

Fischer said Jewish communities around the world are experiencing a crackdown on women’s rights. She cited the ultra-Orthodox dictate in Israel whereby women and men are segregated on buses, with women forced to sit at the back, and the case in January where women were not permitted to address the audience at an Israeli gynaecology conference. Fischer said this crackdown is due to extremists within the Israeli political sphere gaining new power.

In South Africa, nothing quite so extreme is happening, but the first issue Sacred has chosen to tackle is the issue of Jewish women being excluded from singing at secular communal events. Over the last few years, at events like the Israeli Independence Day ceremony in Johannesburg and Holocaust Memorial Day ceremonies nationally, not a single woman singer has featured. 

“Jewish law doesn’t have one clear position on women singing,” Fischer explained. “In the Bible, women sing in front of men. Some people say men can hear women singing as long as it’s not religious. But in Israel, women sing, at Auschwitz, women sing and women in South Africa have always sung, up until the last three years.” She clarified that the events at which women are being excluded from singing are communal, secular events, at which no one particular interpretation of halacha – Jewish law – should dominate. “It’s not appropriate that in a communal space, the most extremist interpretations should be kowtowed to.”

In May, Sacred released a video as part of a campaign to change this state of events. The video featured South African Jewish women pointing out that women’s rights are enshrined in the country’s constitution, and that the ban on women singing constitutes gender-based discrimination. It made news in Jewish newspapers around the world, and Fischer described the response as “extraordinarily positive”, with the exception of one reaction which likened excluding women from singing to excluding cheeseburgers from a kosher diet. (This prompted an opinion piece on the Israeli website Haaretz titled “Welcome to Johannesburg, where women are cheeseburgers”.)

On Women’s Day last month, the campaign entered its next phase, when women (and some men) met in Johannesburg to perform a flash mob silent song protest. The participators gathered outside the SA Zionist Federation and played the tune to traditional song Hava Nagila – but instead of singing the words, they held up placards bearing the lyrics. (If you can’t imagine how this worked, here’s the video).

The aim was to put pressure on the SA Zionist Federation to ensure that a policy is put into place to outlaw discrimination on the basis of gender at communal secular events. “We believe in freedom of religion, so the idea is that it would be made easy for men to leave these events if offended, and the moments where women would be singing will be marked clearly on the programme,” Fischer said. Though she said the response from the community to their Women’s Day action has been “very positive”, the battle is not yet won. 

There will be those who suggest that there are more pressing South African – or Israeli – social issues for the group to attend to than singing in the synagogue. But Fischer said it’s simply an issue of equality. “We’ve just had this huge struggle in South Africa to say that people are equal. Here we are with our amazing constitution, and we’re not treating everyone equally. We should fight that battle wherever we find it.” 

Furthermore, she suggested, the infringement of rights is a slippery slope. “It starts with singing, and next thing it’s the segregation of buses. The real issue here is the right of women to their place in the public space.” DM

Read more:

  • Girls & Football SA website 
  • “There are many ways in which women can win,” on the Mail & Guardian 
  • “Welcome to Johannesburg, where women are cheeseburgers,” on Haaretz 
  • Sacred website 

Photo: Girls & Football SA founder Jos Dirkx puts girls through their paces on the football pitch.


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