Opinionista Kathy Magrobi 1 December 2020

Voices to be reckoned with: What it takes for women to be heard

It’s easy to be cynical in a world where gender activism is the stuff of PR campaigns – Women’s Month promotions, a statement for the 16 Days of Activism. But getting women’s voices heard can start real change, if we’re willing to make the space.

In South Africa, four out of five experts quoted in news media are men. Quote This Woman+ is an initiative that is trying to change this. We’ve created a database of women experts for journalists to draw on when looking for insights and analysis on the news of the day. As the plus at the end of our name indicates, the database also includes voices that may be marginalised or underrepresented for other reasons, such as disability status or sexual identity. Our hashtag says it all: #LeaveNoVoiceBehind

But as both director of Quote This Woman+ and as an expert on the database myself, I know that amplifying the voices of women is two steps forward, one step backwards. As a woman, owning your narrative takes courage. Many of us South African women are not socialised to own the spotlight. Some of us – sometimes true leaders in cutting-edge fields – defer to others when called and asked for interviews on things we’re actually competent on.  

In November, as part of a month-long crowdfunding campaign to expand the database in 2021, we hosted a women-centric storytelling event, to explore just how deep so many of us women must dig to step up and speak out in owning our voices.

For media entrepreneur Verashni Pillay, the battle is monumental because of the generations of socialisation that women have to fight back against.  

“Women are taught to be self-deprecating and to not promote ourselves too much,” she says. “The fact is that we are the first generation who are really being allowed to come forward after millennia of women being told to be quiet. It’s hard to shake off that.”  

Sexual health expert Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng says it took a series of miracles to go from being a young girl in the apartheid bantustan of QwaQwa, “having to learn how to throw stones at a moving Nyala”, to being named in 2020 as the UN’s new special rapporteur for the right to health.

Mofokeng says her journey – from a boarding school where girls’ language and bodies were policed, into the gender-biased world of medicine – convinced her that young women shouldn’t have to rely on miracles. “It doesn’t sit well with me that luck is what young girls need to survive their homes, bad parenting, a country full of violence and public health systems. Luck is just not enough… For me, it’s a personal vision and a personal mission to ensure that all of us can live in a world where women are affirmed, where we can be loud, laugh from our bellies and be heard.” 

Shireen Motara struck a similar note, in sharing a childhood memory of having her hair shaved off after a lice outbreak at school, while the girls with long, straight hair kept theirs. That memory of once feeling “alien” is part of what guided her to becoming a women’s rights activist today.

Cheryl Benadie, coach and facilitator, spoke in her story of the helplessness she felt as a girl watching her father beat her mother: “Whether we tried to speak up, it didn’t help. Even though we cried for help, neighbours didn’t hear us. My voice, whether written or spoken, wasn’t powerful enough. Over time, I just felt my voice getting stuck deep, deep inside my throat.” Benadie describes this silencing as a very real force: “When people think that women’s voices are too dangerous, because they might remove the mask, and show men for what they are doing to hurt women… they have to try and bury women’s voices,” she says.

Benadie says it was only as an adult, in a healthy and secure relationship, that she began to see the possibility of finding her voice. “Through many years of trying out the different voices that did not sound like myself, I’m finally beginning to rediscover the true voice of who I am,” she says.

The story told by law student and model Esihle Mhluzi is both about growing up with a physical impairment as a young girl in the Eastern Cape, and so much more than this. As an advocate for others with impairments, Mhluzi was motivated at a very young age to find her voice and become an unashamed champion for herself and others. The experience of watching school sports from the sidelines, “although devastating at the time, ignited in me the determination to never accept the limitations which other people were creating”, she says.

Mhluzi, an ambassador for Free State fashion, says her path to finding her voice started with self-acceptance. “I believe that my journey as a phenomenal woman began the day I started embracing what my body now was. We need to take control of our own narratives and define what beauty means for ourselves. What many would call overcompensation, I called tapping into my brilliance,” she says.

I started Quote This Woman+ after literally losing my voice, watching my career disintegrate as a result of a chronic medical condition called trigeminal neuralgia, that affected my ability to speak without being in agonising pain. I found that voice again, in the power of women’s voices. The world is filled with women just as amazing and inspiring as those who shared their story with us. All that’s needed is for them to be given a platform to be heard. DM

Help Quote This Woman+ amplify women’s voices by supporting their crowdfunding campaign at quotethiswoman.org.za/donate

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  • It is remarkable that in this day and age of digital media, women in general still face the enormous hurdle of ‘masculine dominance’. In most ‘western’ countries they are finding their voice. What is staggering is the unmitigated level of ‘persecution’ they still endure in many ‘developing’ and predominantly or wholly Islamic countries. In the peculiar case such as the USA, we see how many ‘black’ women (but not men!) as a minority group are challenging the ‘authority’ of white and male (mostly Republican) class barriers.

    • “Challenging authority ” therein lies the crux of the feebleness when it comes to gender, race, or any other ism we have in this society. I see in modern society we are are groomed to accept the hierarchical chains we find ourselves in and strangely, we obey these plastic cages that the ” law” or the “society” or the “religion” puts people in…. race, colour, religion, orientation, gender political party… and when we all should have a voice, something in the “ether” tells us that that if we speak out, we are “challenging authority”.
      When women break free from thier own perceptions of subjugation, they will weild their wonderful wisdom on the world, and good men will be grateful too.

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