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Why I completely, categorically, absolutely do not support Women’s Day

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

It’s not often that I get mad. When I’m surrounded by offensive people, I prefer to sit in the corner with earphones on, pretending whoever is talking is saying agreeable things like “You are pretty. Have a cookie”, instead of whatever bigoted nonsense may in fact be coming out of their mouths. Women’s Day, however, gets me really mad. Earphones-out, kicking-things, swearwords mad. Here’s why. 

1. It’s not about women at all

I’m going to get the most petulant out of the way first: if it’s Women’s Day, how come it’s a nice big fat holiday for everybody? Before you accuse me of pettiness, bear with me. Consider our country and its various social layers. What is the likelihood that a woman who is most in need of Women’s Day is going to be taken out to a nice lunch by her partner and told she is wonderful? What is the likelihood that anyone at all, of whatever gender, is using the day to volunteer at a women’s shelter or raise money for survivors of domestic violence? Who is actually spending the day working in order to boost gender sensitivity in companies or educate managers on equal pay? 

Let me tell you something: the women who are celebrating Women’s Day don’t need it. And the women who need it the most are not touched by it.

The chances are that because most of the women in our country are working in menial jobs, they probably don’t get the day off anyway. As Blade Nzimande pointed out recently, there is a significant gap in income between white and black workers but an even bigger one between women and men. Given the power dynamic in South Africa women, especially black women, are usually not working in the kind of jobs where one gets a public holiday off on full pay with a manicure thrown in.  

In all likelihood, those that do get the day off get to spend it watching their sons and husbands getting vrot because it’s a public holiday (whoohoo) and dondering them senseless in the evening because they didn’t serve the chips fast enough. Women’s Day is not for women. Period. It’s just one more day they don’t get off.

2. If we were actually equal, we wouldn’t only get one day a year 

At what point is the government going to realise that Women’s Day is a token gesture, and as such, just plain insulting? We wouldn’t need a Women’s Day if we had true equality, and we wouldn’t need mushy advertising campaigns to pacify us if there weren’t real issues to cover up. 

Actually, that goes for the media as well. Think over what you may have read today, the radio shows you may have heard. Women’s Day was originally meant to commemorate the women-led protests against the dompas in 1956; since then, it has evolved as a recognition of the social, political and economic service women provide and, as such, a drive to ensure their equality.  

But did many of the articles you read or the phone-in shows you listened to touch on really weighty issues of equality, or how it may have evolved since then? Did you find much edifying material in your Facebook or Twitter feeds? No, because most of the coverage consists of “women are amazing” themes (because generalisation is the enemy of inequality). Or “girl power” platitudes (please, just kill me now). Or, worst of all, commercial advertising for promotions that run on the back of Women’s Day, but do nothing for women at all (get a half price steak on Women’s Day!).

Here are some facts you won’t hear broadcast in the media today, or, I’ll wager, at any point this month (Ed: Except here, you clever Daily Maverick reader, you). 

Way more women are unemployed than men, not just in South Africa but worldwide; 150% more women than men have no formal education; teenage pregnancy is shooting down the career prospects of young women left, right and centre. Even in so-called “liberal” countries, such as the USA, 23% of women achieve tertiary qualifications versus less than 14% of men—yet are paid on average over 20% less in equivalent positions. Worldwide, just 3.5% of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs.

And that’s before you get to South Africa, which is so much worse off. We have the highest rape statistics of any non-war-torn country in the world; there is an epidemic of hate crimes against black lesbians; and in a recent study of a control group at a women’s shelter, the majority of residents said that domestic violence was the norm in their community, not the exception. Our women are assaulted for wearing the wrong length skirt, for heaven’s sake.

Compare these stats to those of Norway and Sweden, two countries that introduced tough legislation for gender empowerment and education around gender awareness. Norway boasts 44.2% female board members across all industries, and Sweden has set as its target 40% by 2015.

Clearly government intervention works. So why can’t we follow suit? Let every company dedicate 9 August to training workshops on gender-conscious management; let schools dedicate a day to education on gender violence and other issues of inequality. Since we are already evidently unconcerned about the loss of productivity given to a public holiday, taking some time out of business shouldn’t be a problem; we may as well use that time on education. Which brings me to…

3. It costs the government money that could be given to more useful causes  

It is perhaps arrogance that I am trying to write this column at all after having read the excellent Helen Moffatt’s thoughts on the subject. Nobody, I am convinced, could have said it better. In fact, I think I’ll just quote her directly: 

“Ditch the pointless sodding public holiday (estimated cost to the economy: R7 BILLION). Stop bleating about the month of women. It’s PATHETIC, considering it’s open season on South African women 24/7, year in, year out.… Here’s a better idea. Instead of the jamborees and a long weekend of more boozing and beatings and rapes, take the money—the obscene piles and piles of it you intend to waste—and use it to fund Rape Crisis, which is having to CLOSE ITS FUCKING DOORS because you don’t think it’s worth supporting, never mind that it does priceless work, not just in enabling women and their families to pick up their lives after they’ve been blown apart, but in taking an enormous burden off both the public health and criminal justice systems. Fund the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children, which is literally having bake sales to keep running. All those NGOs that have lost their overseas funding because of the economic crisis – how about funding them, the hundreds that work with the poorest of the poor (which, SURPRISE! equates women and children).”

4. It’s a gateway to sentimental horseshit

A personal bugbear of mine: I abhor sugar-coated generalisations. As such, the greeting-card “feminism” (or rather, girlyism) that appears every Women’s Day leaves me with a nausea I’m sure, as a good person, I do not deserve.  

Here’s a thought: fighting for gender equality does not involve spewing forth platitudes about the strength of a woman on one’s social media profile, and then forgetting about equality for the other 364 days. Witticisms such as Marilyn Monroe’s (which did the rounds a few times) “Women who aim to be like men have no ambition” are—forgive me—pointless. They are lip service, and not even rational lip service at that.

Worse, the gender struggle is apparently so far behind other struggles that we have not yet seen that such clichéd generalisations are deeply offensive. Imagine, if you will, swapping the dialogues around Women’s Day with sayings around race.  

I saw one post, for example, that said: “If there were no women, money would have no meaning.” Or: “No man knows more about women than I do, and I know nothing.” Or: “The strength of a woman lies in her soul; her Godliness.” Or even my personal favourite, “Women have strengths that amaze men. They carry children, they carry hardships, they carry burdens, but they hold happiness, love and joy. They smile when they want to scream. They sing when they want to cry. They cry when they are happy and laugh when they are nervous.” 

Now substitute other traditionally marginalised groups where you read “women”: for example “blacks”, “Jews” or even “homosexuals”.

The result would get you lynched. This kind of nonsense is one step from “Some of my best friends are women”. And it’s certainly a mile from feminism.

Here is a reality check. Having a vagina does not make you a saint. (File this for Mother’s Day: pushing a child out of said vagina does not enhance saintliness either.) It is in how you live your life as a person, male, female or anywhere in between, that makes you worthy of celebration. It is how you embrace your role as woman, mother, person, or anything else that makes you who you are. And I can tell you honestly that for every wonderful woman I know, I know at least one wonderful man. That’s not the issue. The issues are the constructions around gender and the way they are abused. Those are the things we need to break down. 

So no, women do not have some magical, inherent strength that we have to light sparklers for on Women’s Day, and that should not be the purpose of the day, either. Seriously, has everyone gone bananas? When did we start thinking like this?

5. It reinforces divisions and false identities 

If one wants to turn to the more theoretical aspect of identity politics (which I know most don’t, so I’ve left it for last), it also becomes important to ask the rather obvious question of why we are defined according to our bodies rather than our experiences. Or, for that matter, why so many of our experiences are informed by something as arbitrary as a physical identity. As Judith Butler explains it, definitions of the body are as much a construction as other, less tangible definitions of identity and should be treated as such. 

In other words, we should be moving beyond this black-and-white division of gender. In practice, this means two things: Firstly, not to think that giving women a token “Women’s Day” is a solution and to work on real integration that will eventually not require the specification of gender.

Secondly, embrace in the interim all aspects of gender equality. In other words, to fight not only for “women” vs. “men”, but to incorporate in the struggle all ways of living that are not strictly hetero-normative. This means the gender struggle should, until we have evolved to a point that no longer requires such distinctions at all, incorporate issues of violence and abuse against anyone who isn’t plonked firmly at the straight-male end of the spectrum, i.e. intersex and transsexual people, traditionally defined women, and gays and lesbians. Ideally, we will eventually move past such arbitrary guidelines for identity definition, but until then, the gender war is not just “men” vs. “women”. There’s a whole school of non-male, non-straight people who are being ill-treated, and if we want to create awareness of these gender politics, our struggle for equality should try to be a little more inclusive.  

Women’s Day is meant to commemorate the enormous service that the country’s women provided in their willingness to protest. The day commemorates women’s equality in terms of what they bring to the economy, their service to politics and their ability to play an equal role in shaping society. Most of all, it commemorates women’s willingness to fight for justice.

So why, nearly 60 years later, does the day we use to commemorate exactly these contributions fail to draw attention to the persistent inequality in all the same areas? It’s a sorry indictment that women are still being paid less, sidelined in leadership, and abused in society – and that’s what our Women’s Day should focus on. DM


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