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Towards an indigenous feminism: Feminist Barbie, tomboy girl, disruptive slay-queen and the connected crone

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Prof Darlene Miller is Convenor: Citizenship Studies at the Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs, Unisa. She has held various senior research positions in South Africa (Human Sciences Research Council, Plaas — Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies), Paris (International Science Council) and New York (Human Rights Watch), and was the Director of the Institute for African Alternatives (IFAA, South Africa).

The spirit of no surrender continues to grow as the feminist woman arrives as a global phenomenon. She has seen male governance, and she has found it wanting.

Stage 1: The tomboy girl — the spirit of no-surrender

A strange phenomenon is gripping the world today: while the men are making wars and trade deals, girls and women are imbibing a feminist Barbie spirit and crowding in their millions, draped in pink, to watch the feminist movie take on the Barbie doll.

Now the tomboy girl is a different creature: Google says, “she probably isn’t into Barbie. When the term ‘tomboy’ first appeared, in the mid-16th century, it actually was a name for male children who were rude and boisterous. But by the 1590s, the word underwent a shift toward its current, feminine usage: a ‘wild, romping girl, [a] girl who acts like a spirited boy’.”

A girl with spirit. Feminist Barbie and tomboy girl thus share something important — they are girls, and women, with spirit.

As a young woman, feminism for me was about railing against the male machine: I had discovered a systematic plot against women, a society designed to have women serve the needs of others — men and children — before their own.

The feeling of feminism was a visceral one — I knew that we were being shortchanged, but I did not have the words or the language to express the rage at the injustice I was feeling as a girl of just 11 or 12.

These feelings of injustice coincided with my second experience of sexualised violence at the time, in which some inebriated men had caught me on a public field and hoped to feast their bizarre desires with my body. I fought my way, on my own, out of that violent encounter.

So when the language of feminism helped to interpret the systemic aspects of my personal rage, I embraced it.

And so I learnt to rage and fight: it became my murky space of comfort. My feminist radar was on constant high alert for the everyday manifestations of systemic violence against women, the everyday injustice, unfairness, discrimination, different standards, hypocritical lies that prop up the system of male domination in its various institutional contexts.

Witnessing the weight that women carried, our trajectories towards social disposability as we reach more mature ages, the weight of statehood that we carry at the local level: all this left me in a state of perpetual rage over decades.

At some point, the rage had to burn through: the fire had to be contained if not quenched, or I would burn at the stake of my own disruptive anger. If I were to find any kind of stable space in this terrain of injustice that was the African landscape, I would have to find some degree of acceptance.

And so I did. I endeavoured not to constantly rage. I endeavoured to contain the fire. This was my first stage of acceptance.

Stage 2: Acceptance and surrender, the space of contradictions

In the endeavour to not self-combust, some compromises have to be made. These compromises can take different forms — they could involve acquiescence to the institution of marriage in the interests of some protection against vulnerability or participation in the liminality of romantic love; the compromise could be the participation in places of work or higher learning where authentic identities are blurred, made fuzzy as some attempt to integrate into patriarchal systems of governance is accepted.

These compromises place goals and objectives related to personal and/or social advancement in front of other possibilities, suspending disruption as our central mode of engagement. This surrender brings with it rewards and greater social acceptance.

The resisting body is now the acquiescent body. It brings with it a feeling of unease too, and if inhabited for too long, assimilation into patriarchal systems is a likely outcome. Change is then postponed indefinitely, and rancid old age awaits like a crooked crone.

So no, our acceptance has to be partial: a necessary compromise that is a strategic space for the rebel-woman. I stand firmly within the space of the rebel-woman: I have made my compromises, but I reject the crooked crone, I embrace the Connected Crone. What do I mean by this?

Stage 3: Indigenous feminisms — adding the Indigenous spirit, the connected crone

First, the Crone is an old and wise woman, she in Africa whose knowledge has been eviscerated through epistemic injustice.

Those of us with female reproductive organs carry and birth, the ancestral lines. But this is not a mere physiological exercise. There is spirit in our DNA — we carry trauma from generation to generation, our cells hold memory so we reproduce woundedness, or strength, or both.

Understanding the spirit of our ancestry, where we came from, how our peoples were, their variable strengths and weaknesses, their place and sense of place, all of these aspects of Indigeneity provide a full and intersectional account of our identity.

But this “seek and she shall be found” is not historically determined: it is agentic. We choose what we do with this knowledge of our Indigenous past, its presence in our present. I choose to place this Indigenous spirit in the service of reconnection over dispossession.

Reconnection with our Indigenous identities presents us with the opportunity to harness our connections to the land, to the earth and to Planet Earth in order to break such cycles of woundedness. This is the value and meaning of Indigenous feminism for me today.

This stitching together of past, present and future that is required of the rebel-woman, spirited Barbie, tomboy girl, now has to draw on spirit, and this is where Indigeneity is able to teach us.

This is not the indigeneity of tribalistic divisiveness or the dismissal of Western science. It is the enlightened embrace of different civilisational knowledge from across the globe — east to west, and north to south, local to global, personal to political and from the individual body to abstract theory. The theoretical methodology therefore draws on the nested hierarchies concept by the human geographer, Neil Smith, in which the body resides within the context of different socio-political spaces.

For many of us who were known as the “tomboy” girls, the women who did not accept their ascribed gendered spaces, my story is not so unique: the rebellion, the disaffection, the refusal to comply and acquiesce, this takes a different form from decade to decade.

Her identity may range from Tomboy to feminist Barbie or disruptive slay-queen. But she is always there, ever-present: that spirited girl who questions why she is being mistreated just because she is a girl. Globally today there is evidence of this “rage against the male machine” — girls and women have been staging various protests against male-dominated governments from Russia to Latin America.

This spirit of no surrender continues to grow as the feminist woman arrives as a global phenomenon. She has seen male governance, and she has found it wanting.

From the youthful voice of a Greta Thunberg, to the accusatory tones of a Dr Arikana Chihombori, these voices grow louder and restive. And reconnecting to Indigenous wisdom as June Bam does with her plant knowledge in “Ausi Told Me”, or advocating reMatriation as Bernadette Muthien does, or understanding local statehood through the “ordentlike vrou”, the respectable woman, as Elaine Salo did: these matriarchal systems of governance and matriarchal leadership are our path to an alternative future.

My active citizen is the “connected crone”, it is a community-centred citizenship that departs from masculine, state-centric citizenship. The connected crone defies disposability and stitches, threads past, present and future into golden threads for a society that becomes a safe space, Ixhanti, for women and LGBTQIA+ and our offspring, our future generations. DM

Prof Darlene Miller is Convenor: Citizenship Studies at the Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs, Unisa. She has held various senior research positions in South Africa (Human Sciences Research Council, Plaas — Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies), Paris (International Science Council) and New York (Human Rights Watch), and was the Director of the Institute for African Alternatives (IFAA, South Africa). 

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  • Robin Smaill says:

    The good news about gender equality is that it is happening in incremental bits from one generation to the next. When I ask mature White women about the marriage of their grand parents they talk of dominant males. Their fathers were less dominant and their own marriages it is more or less equal partners. But with their daughters marriage they are definitely equal partners. The good news is that companionable marriages create an ideal environment for children. I suspect that the Black culture have only just started down this journey of change.
    My other suspicion is that racial and gender equality are correlated. When a person judges another of being inferior or not worthy of respect it is the same prejudice. Unfortunately, the alpha male (toxic masculinity) is not a good parent, education of children is not a priority and certainly a woman’s place is in the home.
    When I hold my hand against my wife’s the size difference is symbolic of a different function but there is no indication of different quality.

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