Gender struggle: feminists should embrace intersectional power
Protests show that a shift in thinking about gender is paramount
The struggle to rid SA of systemic oppression and violence targeted at vulnerable groups, especially black womxn*, can only realise its goal when the mass feminist movement reimagines itself through a more intersectional approach.
This transition is necessary to interconnect different campaigns by various affected interest groups against the scourge of rape, murder and other forms of abuse for greater effect.
Intersectionality as a fairly new concept illustrates the interplay between all forms of discrimination that could be based on gender, race, age, class, socioeconomic status, physical or mental ability, gender and sexual identity, among others.
The South African feminism movement has been dominated by cis** females, with the power base shifting between black and white womxn over the years, depending on the cause.
However, as thousands of mutilated bodies of lesbian, bisexual and trans black womxn killed by homophobic men pile up in mortuaries alongside those of cis females who are fatally brutalised by their partners and strangers, the status quo has been shaken at its roots.
A recent report by Africa Check showed that SA’s femicide rate for 2015 was four times higher than the global average.
The acknowledgement that there needs to be a broader focus was manifested in the intentional inclusion of marginalised voices within the #TotalShutDown movement that staged protests against gender-based violence across the country two weeks ago.
However, as Loyiso Saliso, one of the organisers of the nationwide marches said, there were still remnants of expressions by other identities, especially transgender womxn, that the movement was still not for them due to entrenched biases that feminist cis females still had to unlearn.
"We have transgender feminists, we have lesbians, bisexuals and queer and all of those identities in our spaces, we have differently abled womxn, the deaf womxn who are part of the struggle and that is why we decided on intersectionality, so that we do not leave any womxn out," she said.
It was the university student feminists, who during the #FeesMustFall protests that swept the country from 2015, stood in defiance of patriarchy’s obsession with silencing the voices of womxn, while reaping the benefits of their contributions. In her study about the role the student protests played in shaping how intersectionality became woven into the country’s feminist movement and body politic, Stellenbosch political science professor Amanda Gouws wrote that they reintroduced discussions of the concept of intersectionality into the public debate and academic scholarship. Male students had tried to dominate the space — as had been the norm — while punctually allowing cis females to step in for optics.
The young womxn tore down the exclusionary nature of political protests in SA by pushing to the fore gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans students whose voices would emerge among some of the leading faces of the movement. The students identified as "radical intersectional African feminists".
Gouws tells Business Day she has observed the transition even on social media platforms, such as Twitter, where hashtags such as "the future is female" are being replaced with "the future is intersectional".
"This destabilises this idea that there are only men and women, that there are only two sexes and also highlights the silence around the needs and interests of nonconforming people and the violence they experience. We have the highest levels of corrective rape and I don’t like that term. #TotalShutDown has as one of its goals … the exposure of the needs and interests of gender non-conforming people," she says.
However, Saliso’s experience, when dealing with the #TotalShutDown protests-turned-movement, showed that because of the newness of intersectionality, a process of unlearning and learning had to be undertaken by all feminists.
"We have a lot of learning and unlearning to do as a society and I feel that we do have differences, yes, and it will not happen overnight that we become a tight-knit intersectional movement," Saliso said.
However, until then, the well-intentioned movement finds itself apologising to transgender people who were victimised by other marchers. Insults were hurled against them. Posters bearing wordplays such as "we are not ovary-acting" were seen as problematic because they implied the effects of gender-based violence were only felt by those with ovaries. "Apparently there were other womxn at the march that were victimised by other marchers – we do not forego that at all, we’ve come to apologise to those womxn; some womxn do not understand intersectionality — but they must be willing to learn," she said.
On the day, womxn of all races wore black and red in solidarity with all the victims of gender-based violence, as they sang and chanted war cries across SA’s major cities during the #TotalShutDown marches.
Their chilling chants of "no means no" alarmed men, many of whom stood on pavements watching in what appeared to be awe. But as the womxn walked in a mass march formation, difficult conversations about what inclusivity and diversity in the movement really mean were the subdued dual struggle.
Sandile Ndelu, a young feminist lawyer working with transgender people in the African feminist movement cited the #TotalShutDown as an example of when it became palpable that trans people felt that the march had not done enough to include them, their wants and concerns.
"We can’t say we are going to give people time to learn about the LGBTIQ community when we know it’s the weekend and there are gender nonconforming womxn in some places being beaten, raped, murdered, mutilated — how do we measure that urgency of the communities who are demanding that people must move, say we can’t keep waiting on you?" Ndelu said.
Equally, the womxn felt questions over the exclusion of men from the movement was a distraction. "We said no man, no potential perpetrators, no apologists of your friends who are rapists and violators and no enablers of your friends to continue violating womxn because men do a lot of lip servicing but they do nothing in terms of their deeds and their action, they harbour and are keepers of their friends who do these things," Saliso said.
The womxn made it clear when they met with President Cyril Ramaphosa that they were not looking to men for solutions, but rather wanted to present the government with the interventions they had devised for implementation and had compressed into 24 demands.
The set of 24 demands was representative of each year that the state had failed to "ensure our constitutionally entrenched right to be free from all forms of violence since the establishment of our democracy".
* This article refers to womxn to include genderfluid, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, trans and nonbinary people. The reference also detaches man from a womxn’s identity that has inherently been reliant on the man for its definition.
**Cis refers to someone who exclusively identifies as their sex assigned at birth. The assignment and classification of people as male, female, intersex, or another sex assigned at birth is often based on physical anatomy at birth and/or karyotyping.