Friday, March 8, 2013

Big questions on a big day

'Be the change that you wish to see in the world.' - Gandhi 

Today is International Women’s Day.

As a woman, a sister to a sister and a brother, a daughter to a mother and a father, a feminist, an advocate for women’s rights and someone who loves women and men, today is very important to me.

I feel incredible joy that I have had the opportunity to receive an education in two previously male-dominated fields, business and now public policy. I’ve had access to meaningful work and volunteer opportunities. I spent most of my twenties living in places where I could walk or bike around at any hour of the day or night safely.

I’ve enjoyed living and traveling alone and doing pretty much whatever I darn-well-please. 
My parents don’t care if I choose to have a partner or bear them grandchildren.
I don’t even consider my gender when getting into the driver’s seat of a car or casting a ballot.

A lot of the world doesn’t live this way. 
Even my grandmothers didn’t enjoy all of the freedoms that I do today.

I’m not saying that these privileges aren’t also things that every woman deserves or that I have never faced gender discrimination.
What I am saying is that I feel grateful for these privileges in light of our global context.

Now on to what this means for me today, on International Women’s Day. I believe that today is important, not just as a day on it’s own, but as a time to start reflecting and dialoguing on where we have come from, where we are and where we hope to go.

I say ‘we’ both in the collective sense and in the sense that ‘we’ are a world full of individuals. I believe that we too often make the marginalization of women and girls something that ‘someone else' does without first critically examining the role that each of us individually plays in a global system of gendered inequality.


Like many people living in South Africa, I have been thinking a lot about gender-based violence these past weeks. There have been two very high-profile femicide cases this month in South Africa. One involved a famous South African Olympic Athlete fatally shooting his girlfriend. The other was a gruesome gang-rape murder of a 17 year-old girl.

These two murders have pushed the issue of gender based violence in South Africa to the front of every newspaper, to the ‘breaking news’ on every newscast, and onto everyone’s lips – talk show hosts, university professors, discussion groups, the President in his State of the Nation Address… you get the picture.

Despite recent attention, gender based violence is not a new issue in South Africa. Every 6 seconds a rape is reported and every day, 3 women are murdered by her intimate partner. (South African Medical Research Council, 2012)

Despite being constantly on my mind, I have been hesitant to write about gender issues in a country where I am a foreigner.

I struggle with how gender inequality in the developing world is often portrayed and wonder if we often lose sight of the crux of the issue?

Patriarchy somehow becomes something that exists somewhere else, gender-based violence something that happens ‘over there’ and by ‘someone else’.  We don’t often critically examine how we interact with these systems in our own lives.

Here is an excerpt from a recent article in the Toronto star. While rightly covering an important and serious issue, I wonder what the writer was attempting with her sensationalism and finger-pointing.

‘As a woman in South Africa, you worry when you leave your house and you worry when you get home. You are never safe.
It is a violent, macho, testosterone-fuelled place. I visited for two weeks eight years ago and don’t want to go back. One bed-and-breakfast host pulled out a gun and another pulled out a giant knife. The hair on the back of my neck was in constant electric shock- mode. I felt safer in Pakistan.

What’s most worrying about South Africa’s violence to women is the general acceptance of it. Men are not ashamed of beating and raping women. Most husbands think that’s their right. And many women agree.’

Either way, Steenkamp’s gruesome story fits into the country’s damning narrative of men killing women. And in the court of social conscience, it provides yet another opportunity for South Africans to examine their misogyny.’

Not to diminish the writer’s experience, but does a 2-week visit to a country give an outsider the expertise to boil an issue down in the ‘court of social conscience’ to a country being full of misogynists?
I agree that gender based violence is a major issue that requires significant attention, but wonder what the international portrayal of a place as scary and woman-hating aims to accomplish?

Every day, week and month I spend here unveils more complexity in what previously seemed straight-forward issues to me.

Instead of focusing on gender based violence and the marginalization of women and girls as something that happens ‘in Africa’, ‘in THAT neighbourhood’ or ‘next door’, I think we need to take a deeper look at the issue instead of ‘other-izing’ it.

Protest against GBV at UCT

A few weeks ago I attended a protest at the University of Cape Town. Thousands of people attended, classes were cancelled and the vice-chancellor, professors and students took to the podium.
The vice chancellor caught me off guard.
He challenged us to question what we were protesting and to start by examining ourselves. To start by examining how we with our thoughts, actions and words play into a system of patriarchy.

This is much more difficult to do than to raise a fist against a monstrous perpetrator.

Horrendous inequalities between men and women exist all over the globe, in different ways and with varied severities.  Marginalization of women and girls exists in the very fabric of our societies and affects us all. So why do we so rarely examine our own actions and how they perpetrate an unacceptable status quo?

For me, International Women’s day provides us with a starting point to do this.

What about my actions?

I have engaged in small talk with other women and men about how a woman is dressed ‘too’ revealingly.
I have remained silent when others use condescending language towards women, or the word ‘rape’ to describe what happens on the sports field.
I have doubted myself and other women’s thoughts and abilities and normalized behaviours that are not acceptable.
I’ve silenced other women and undermined their experiences.
Although I have a significant amount of privilege, I don’t always use my voice.

I’ve blamed others without first exploring my role.
What I have done is not ok, even if society says so.
Today, I pledge to try to be better.

I believe that perpetrators of gender based violence and femicide SHOULD be held to account.  Issues should be discussed, debated and put in the news. Movements of individuals standing up against issues affecting women are powerful and I fully support them.

Within this, lets also try to do something powerful within ourselves:

Let us consider our love for each other, our love for women, our love for ourselves. And if we do indeed have that love, as I believe is natural in humans, let’s take a look at our actions.
How might we perpetuate a system that marginalizes over half of the world’s population and how we can interrupt it?

Let’s commit to doing better for the women we love and women around the world. And let’s start with ourselves. 

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