The notion of “celebrating” women’s day (or the whole month) has always struck me as a rather odd and, to a large degree, an unproductive one. Not because sex and gender are not experienced as real by people (despite sex and gender being cultural constructions) or because patriarchy is not deeply oppressive and harmful to all of us (but most acutely to women), but because it is unclear how these often sentimental and patronising celebrations will actually disturb or challenge destructive and dominant male power in our society.
In theory, spending an entire month focusing on the myriad of ways in which patriarchy (culturally embedded male domination) silences, disempowers, marginalises, physically harms and kills women in South Africa and across the world, sounds like a good thing. If we all utilised this day (or the month) to challenge the gender hierarchy and the powerful misogynist culture it reproduces (as some people laudably do), we might make progress in eradication gender discrimination, marginalisation and oppression in our society.
Racial and gender oppression is about power. Until late into the twentieth century it was taken for granted that white men of a certain class and geographical origin had the divine right to decide how our lives ought to be structured, what rules we ought to live by, what we ought to think, say and do and – just as importantly – what we are not allowed to think, say and do.
To this day, who is given a platform to speak, who is listened to on that platform, whose ideas are promoted and celebrated and whose ideas are vilified and de-legitimised, all still depend to some degree on the colour of your skin, on your sex and gender, on your sexual orientation and on how much money you have in the bank. It is no accident that a white man like me has acquired a modicum of influence in the South African media.
Unless there is a fundamental change in our culture – in the economic relations in our society, in how our society is structured – white males will enjoy a disproportionate degree of economic and cultural privilege.
Celebrating the women in our lives in a manner that affirms their place as second class citizens (albeit, sometimes loved and respected second class citizens); as warm and fuzzy carers who need the protection of men; or even as exceptional role models who achieved great success; without asking hard questions about the system that continues to perpetuate discrimination, disadvantage and harm based on sex and gender roles, serves to entrench and mask male domination – instead of disturbing it.
I am not saying there is no value in celebrating women’s day or women’s month – just as there remains some value in celebrating gay pride. Such events can help to build solidarity among those who are oppressed and can provide a platform for contestation, affirmation and revolt. If a women’s day (or month) event is used to do some of the hard “political” work – and does not become a tool used by the patriarchs to co-opt women in their own oppression by preventing them from challenging the power relations in society – it might still do some good.
My fear is that women’s day and women’s month celebrations in South Africa are often conceptualised and implemented in ways that do not disturb male power and patriarchy. Is that why a surprising number of men (if by no means all men) embrace the notion of women’s day and women’s month – or at least do not actively oppose it or complain about it, because it supposedly promotes discrimination against men?
It is striking that the many of the people who complain bitterly about the official use of racial identities – people who refuse to classify themselves as white, and argue loudly that race-based affirmative action is “reverse discrimination” – remain silent as we are asked every day to classify ourselves in terms of our sex or gender. Few insist that they are neither men or women and that it is inherently dangerous – a bit like Nazi Germany – to insist on classifying people in terms of their sex or gender.
Many men do not complain about the fact that there is a special holiday set aside to celebrate women. But imagine the howls of protest that will follow if there was a special day set aside by the state to celebrate black South Africans and their achievements. The News24 comments sections and Twitter would have exploded with outrage if the government ever were to introduce a special day to celebrate the achievements of black people who, after all, continue to be the victims of deeply entrenched prejudices and who continue to be the victims of the systemically entrenched ideology of racism on which Western civilisation is founded.
Why do so many (but of course not all) white South Africans feel so threatened when the cause of the marginalisation and oppression of fellow South Africans is identified as racism and when race is invoked to challenge the continuing patterns of social and economic disadvantage and harm?
Yet a surprising number of the same people embrace the idea that humans are divided into two distinct sexes and genders, voluntarily classify themselves as male or female (when we know that these categories are invented and, in any case, can never accurately capture the full spectrum of sexual characteristics or gender behaviours of individuals), and seldom oppose affirmative action based on sex or gender in the same vociferous tones as they do affirmative action measures based on race.
Until the advent of democracy the law treated women as second class citizens in numerous ways and women continue to be discriminated against today – albeit not often sanctioned by legislation. Why is there then little outcry from the usual suspects about gender-based affirmative action? Is it because the usual suspects are not threatened by gender-based affirmative action because they know patriarchy is so deeply and securely entrenched?
To put it differently, is it perhaps because the sex and gender hierarchies are so entrenched and the power differentials between men and women so deeply embedded in our culture, that the classification of people in terms of their sex or gender and even the celebration of the oppressed group (women) on women’s day do not pose a fundamental threat to the system and to those who control it?
Or is it also partly because the racist narrative of black people being “dangerous”, “unpredictable”, “threatening” – a narrative developed by white colonisers to justify their oppression and marginalisation of black people – is deeply entrenched in the psyche of many white South Africans and determine the way many of them react to demands for redress?
If this is correct, any assertion of a racial identity by a black South African and any use of race as a means to effect redress for past and on-going racism is experienced as an existential threat by those white people who have internalised the racist narrative about “dangerous” black people.
Even as whiteness still dominates in our society – both culturally and economically – to many fearful whites it may well feel as if their very existence is being threatened by a group of people whom they used to oppress but they do not understand, whom they seldom interact with on a truly equal basis, and whom they were taught to fear from the day they were born.
If this is correct – and I am open to reasoned and unemotional debate on this point – it would be striking that many of the fearful and irrational white men would seldom have exactly the same violent reaction to notions of women oppression.
This would not be unsurprising. After all, most men are (at least partly) raised by one or more women. Most people attended school with women, date women and sometimes sleep with women. Many live with or marry a woman.
These interactions with women all occur in the context of a society in which patriarchy and the values associated with it are deeply entrenched, so when women assert their identity as women on women’s day it is probably not experienced in nearly the same threatening manner as when a black person asserts his or her racial identity.
This allows many middle-class men to embrace the sentimental celebration of women’s day. (I am here, for the moment, specifically talking of middle-class white men and wish to avoid engaging with the complex issues that arise in more traditional communities across South Africa.) That is why women’s day events and many of the activities arranged around women’s month often placate rather than disturb men’s dominance and power.
I am sure there must be events and activities arranged around women’s day and women’s month that truly engage with power imbalances and the gendered structures that reproduce them. But, in my opinion, the overwhelmingly sentimental and patronising discourse around the celebration of women on women’s day and women’s month won’t cut it.
As long as women’s day celebrations do not disturb all men, do not make us uncomfortable or fearful or angry (either angry because our power is being challenged or angry because of the injustice of gender discrimination), there can be little use for the day. DM
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Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.
"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon