The Ministry of Women is not here for us
Recognising the structures that create, endorse and maintain oppression requires hard work, and an unparalleled level of introspection. We check ourselves and our complicity in structures, we chip away at our blind-spots, we craft our ideas over and over again as our thoughts are never fully formed. We think and we think again, an endless circular pattern that underscores our commitment to knowing more and doing better. We change our minds and return to the drawing board and read more. We are always journeying towards an ever-receding horizon. We never arrive, we are always in motion, always re-thinking.
This process is necessary as we are often complicit, whether tacitly or overtly, in the very thing that we seek to eradicate - whether it is patriarchy, capitalism, racism, classism, ableism or other oppressive practices. We are human, fallible and often wrong and often blinded by privilege, so we journey deep inside ourselves to root out the parts that challenge our beliefs. It is a process that requires that I recognise the layers of privilege embedded in being, among other things, a light-skinned, middle income, able-bodied coloured women. It is an uncomfortable, yet profoundly crucial process.
Earlier this year, actress Emma Watson stood on stage and introduced the United Nations programme "HeForShe". It extended a "formal invitation" to men to the feminist movement and raised the collective side-eye of feminists who disagreed with centralising men in the narrative of violence against women, and who took issue with several troubling statements.
Mia McKenzie pointed out how Watson's statement that "I want men to take up this mantle. So their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice", expressed a view that "women deserve equity and equality because of our relationships to men. Continuing to re-enforce the idea that men should respect women and fight for women's equality because mother/sister/daughter/whatever perpetuates the idea that women don't already deserve those things based solely on our status as human beings." Mychal Denzel Smith pointed out how "feminism" (and by extension any movement in support of women) should not make men comfortable as "they've sought ways to blame women for the oppression they face, or in the most charitable version of events, attempted to derail conversations by saying: "The real issue is…"
Feminism has been grappling with the issue of how to deal with male allies, which is incredibly complex and often allows the watering down of the cause to easily digestible ideas that can open a pathway to co-opting patriarchy in serving a pseudo-feminist agenda.
In this vein, the Ministry of Women has branded this year's 16 Days of Activism efforts as " Count Me In: Together Moving a Non-Violent South Africa forward" in a campaign that claims to "generate awareness on the protection of women and children with more focus on mobilising men and partnering with them to also assist in the fight against this scourge of violence on women and children". It takes up Watson's invitation, mires it in a deeply patriarchal agenda, and churns out misogyny as a means to "end violence against women" by means of victim blaming, ignorance and anti-feminism. The Ministry of Women in the Presidency has, through a lack of self-reflection and a blindly patriarchal agenda, become part of the violence themselves, awash with complicity.
As quoted in a FeministsSA media statement, endorsed by activist groups who attended the meeting, last week Minister Susan Shabangu argued that "men are supposed to be protectors of society. Men are supposed to be protectors of families. We need to bring back these protectors of society. We need to mobilise our protectors." She further stated that women "cannot be victims anymore and need to "get their confidence back". Also expressed at the meeting was the idea that women must be submissive, that feminism is un-African, that women abuse men and their aggression is a problem, and a call from Princess Dineo to "cut all funds for centres for abused women and children, as they should be dealing with these issues at home".
This rhetoric, underscored by profound victim-blaming, reproduces standard misogynistic tropes that endorse the view that women themselves are the problem and the cause of the violence they face. Additionally, we need saving from the very people who perpetuate violence against us. They need to save us from themselves. The views expressed at this meeting are a reminder of WEB du Bois's pointed question: "How does it feel to be a problem?"
These standard misogynistic tropes and anti-feminist statements are inherently violent. They function as silencing techniques, a way to prevent us from speaking about our lived experiences and demonise women and radical ideas as the cause of their issues. They employ rhetoric that excuses everyday violence, push a patriarchal agenda and collude with a violent system. Fundamentally, the department is unwilling to recognise the root cause of gender-based violence is those they seek to co-opt and claim as protectors. Instead, they demonise feminism and women themselves, a patriarchal tactic that has a high success record. We need to be speaking about how we, both as parents and society, are raising boy children, looking to the root cause of their learnt behaviour and the environment that we are creating and sustaining through our action and inaction.
As stated last week, violence is not reduced to physical acts. It's reflected in a myriad of things that make up our world: the way we speak about things in the pervasive, patriarchal discourses, the way we experience the world, the structures that we perpetuate. It's often subtle and deeply embedded. However, when we do dare to speak a lived experience that does not serve dominant views and agendas, we are told that they are theories and abstract ideas, unrelated to the lives that people are living on the ground.
As Jen Thorpe states: "Patriarchy is not an abstraction or a theoretical concern as stated by the Minister. It directly feeds our epidemic of sexual and intimate-partner violence. A South African women murdered by an intimate partner every eight hours is not an abstraction. Tens of thousands of brutal rapes per year are not theoretical abstractions." It is the department that is caught in an abstract reality, where women are the cause of violence and violence fits a very neat description and definition.
Reality can often be skewed in the name of agendas that ignore what doesn't fit their model of the way the world works, even in the face of hard facts and figures. We are being fed fables and deserve better than a department that comes in our name, yet colludes with patriarchy and serves its agenda.
According to Minister Jeff Radebe: "Beyond the 16 Days of Activism, there is a year-long programme which will monitor and evaluate the extent to which lives have improved through the implementation of laws and programmes aimed at eradicating violence against women and children." But will this monitoring programme take into account our mornings spent wondering which clothing choice will illicit the least unwelcome responses? Our endless contemplation about which streets will be the most populated on early morning runs or walks home from work? Our frustrations at the unwelcome advances and glass ceilings in the workplace? Our sleepless nights spent wondering whether reporting sexual violence will help at all, or whether we will be blamed? Or the way misogyny creeps into every part of our lives, where patriarchy is inescapable? Will it measure how often we are ignored when we speak our lived experience? The measure of violence in our lives is not neatly calibrated.
The troubling views expressed by the Department of Women are rife with deeply entrenched patriarchy, and a lack of critical thinking. There is no attempt at complexity and no consideration of the structures that create and maintain violence. Fundamentally, there is zero recognition of their own complicity in the violence of the everyday through a failure to think beyond their own ideas. Ultimately, when you undertake the painful process of introspection, when you submit yourself to the very critique that you level against others, sometimes you will look in the mirror and see who owns you. You will see that you are caught in the grips of patriarchy, racism, capitalism, classism or oppression by another name. Sometimes you will look in
the mirror, and realise that you are the part of the problem.
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler