Dr Tebogo Mashifana and Mr Lebogang Seale recently penned an opinion article that first appeared in the Star on 14 August 2020.
In her book, Nervous Conditions, Zimbabwean author and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga tells a fascinating but disturbing story about a family’s festivities to welcome a relative who has recently completed his studies in England.
A cavalcade of motor vehicles announces the arrival of Babamukuru, and his family at his relatives’ rural village. Almost the entire clan has come out to welcome Babamukuru from his hometown, where he is the headmaster at a missionary school.
Amid the revelries, a young girl, Tambudzai, describes how she and her female peers have been left the task of making sure the uncle and the other elders are fed. “I had a special task. I had to carry the water dish in which people would wash their hands… I knelt and rose and knelt and rose in front of my male relatives in descending order of seniority, and lastly in front of my grandmothers and aunts offering them the water-dish and towel.”
The setting might be in the 1960s, when Zimbabwe was under white colonial rule, but its message still rings true today, because of the enduring gender discrimination and toxic masculinity in South Africa and elsewhere. Tambudzai’s toil is a stark reminder of the struggles that many girls and women in rural areas still endure despite the arrival of democracy in 1994. If you were, for instance, to describe the image of Tambudzai going through such paces to some rural, or even urban folks, their responses will reveal the prevailing toxic masculinity: she is being initiated into womanhood or marriage and/ or she will make an ideal wife.
It is no coincidence that later in the same book, Tambudzai’s pleas to go to school are summarily dismissed by her father, who demands of her: “Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables.”
This is hardly surprising. These stereotypes of femaleness are so deep-seated that they have become the defining ‘virtues’ of what it means to be a true woman. This is not a new phenomenon, but what is concerning is how rural women and girls are perennially overlooked in the national narrative for women emancipation.
Look at the avalanche of social media posts about Women’s Day. The day was reduced to platitudes heaped on women according to their physical beauty and/ or their motherly or wifely duties, rather than their contribution to social and economic development.
Just as predictably, mainstream media was complicit in allowing social media to set the news agenda, going with the flow. There were no stories of women crashing through glass ceilings, working in the deepest levels of mines or working on the farms. There was no narrative of the plight of those singlehandedly raising families in grinding poverty. The voices of women queuing for ages before trickle fed communal taps were conspicuous by their absence, as were those of the women still fated to walk miles fetching firewood, because they simply cannot afford to use the electricity for cooking.
As Dangarembga puts it in Nervous Conditions, “this business of womanhood is a heavy burden (because)… when there are no sacrifices to be made, [women] are the one(s) who have to make them.”
It is not that urban women are immune from the perils of gender-based violence and exploitation at their workplaces, homes and public spaces. The façade of the posh homes in the upmarket suburbs muffles the screams of women at the hands of their intimate partners. Behind those high walls is a woman and/or girlchild living in fear of physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse.
But it is the rural women and girls who are in the frontline of poverty, deprivation and domestic abuse. In a misogynistic patriarchal society as ours, they are the most discriminated and abused because they are less conscientised about their human rights, particularly regarding sexuality and reproduction. More often than not these decisions are imposed upon them to the detriment of their health, economic and social well-being. They are at a higher risk of sexual harassment and gender-based violence with little access to justice and redress.
It is time for the government and everyone else who claims solidarity with women and their rights to stop the grandstanding and walk the talk. Empowering women is critical to their wellbeing but also their families, their communities and the economy as a whole – and the best, perhaps only, way is to invest in quality education so that this generation and the ones that come afterward are finally emancipated in word and deed.
- Dr Tebogo Mashifana is senior lecturer, Chemical Engineering Technology at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).
- Lebogang Seale is the senior manager, Strategic Communications, UJ.