No law or edict, just or unjust, moves the elements by virtue of its existence alone. It must be dutifully enforced by servants of the order and acceded to by subjects of the system. Legislation, therefore, cannot cure a social ill without the aid of civil society. An agenda of progress, if it is to succeed, must move beyond paper.
This disparity between written proclamation and implementation is one that is apparent in the contemporary feminist movement. When legislative battles have been waged and won, the movement finds itself on the frontline of a culture war. Make no mistake, the battle to overthrow entrenched legal sexism is by no means over. Too many of our sisters around the world, in countries like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran, are strangled by the hands of authoritarian states that seek to control and subjugate them. Their testimony is disregarded in court, they are mandated to obey their husbands and seek his permission to leave the home, they cannot travel unaccompanied by a man, they cannot seek a divorce…the list is indeed too numerous to be included here. They are shackled by the law to the whims of the patriarchy. Our endeavours to aid them in ending their servitude will not cease until they are afforded the absolute equality that should never have been denied to them. However, even in secular democracies like our own, where gender equality is guaranteed by a progressive constitution, the patriarchy and misogyny thrives. It is the disease that breeds beneath the skin of the law and causes the body to fester. It is high time we eradicate it.
How then do we diagnose this blight while the legal skin is seemingly without blemish? The state is a human invention that shapes human experience, but in its absence, human experience will not cease to exist. In the absence of suppressive laws, civil society may fill the repressive role. Let us not sell ourselves the illusion of progression by buying the delusion that only the state stood in its way. In the same way that the end of Apartheid in South Africa did not automatically and wondrously vanquish racism within its borders, ushering in a race-blind meritocracy, the end of institutionalised sexism did not spell out the demise of the patriarchy. If the lived experience is to change, the societal perceptions – the somewhat subtler sexism – must change. This is our project.
Conformists to this doctrine of subtler sexism are conditioned to think that women ought to fulfil a pre-ordained role in society. They hang an expectation of domestication above her head. As she grows up, they teach her to cook and clean with the expectation that her husband, inexplicably incapable of sharing the load, will require it of her some day. This, says the particularly regressive wing of the patriarchy, is the place of the woman – managing the affairs of the home, birthing and raising children, while the man goes out to seek work and sustain their livelihood. These reactionary voices masquerade as magnanimous, by citing a principal of separate but equal – the notion that the respective natures [a problematic concept on its own] of the male and female prescribe their particular roles, which, while different, are equally valuable. This extends to the caucus of misogyny in the professional world that believes certain spaces in the workplace are to remain a male-only club. Even the scientific community is not immune from this scourge, as Nobel laureates express appalling sexism concerning the presence of women in the lab. This is egregious. There is no justification for, and indeed no nobility in, stifling the potential of one’s fellow and confining her to a box. Of course, this is not to say that women who fill traditional gender roles are party to an inherent evil. Rather, it is the normative expectation and the intolerance of deviation from it with which we take issue. A woman’s place, we assert, is wherever she chooses it to be.
This normative expectation extends to the woman’s place in civil society. She is expected to embody typical ‘feminine qualities’ and is criticised heavily for losing her ‘ladylike composure’ when she becomes too assertive for the tastes of male-dominated society. Her sex life is held to a different standard than that of an equivalent male – she is shamed for being sexually active, while he is lauded for it. Debates even rage on what is appropriate for her to wear, as if the way she clothes her body is a matter of public interest that ought to be decided by legislators and religious clerics. Under the banners of ‘modesty’ on one side and (ironically) ‘freedom’ on the other, her choice as an individual is subordinated by the cultural and religious norms of the group. Indeed, her body is seen as an entity in the public domain and so she is charged with protecting it from the predatory male gaze. An intolerable culture of cat-calling means that she is forced to face the carnal impulses of perverse men on a daily basis. If she is harassed or even raped, she is blamed for dressing ‘inappropriately’, for being a ‘temptress’ oblivious to the inherent dangers of the world. This is a view which sees the woman as a sexual object that must be protected, as opposed to a person who must be respected. Through its lens, sexual violence is seen as a predator in whose shadow we must quiver and from whom we must seek refuge. When the beast mauls a woman, she is seen as foolish for not taking the necessary precautions. While seemingly well-intentioned, this view is tremendously counter-productive. We are all too capable of slaying the barbarous beast.
The extent to which the sexist mindset has embedded itself into the public psyche is, at closer inspection, rather daunting to those of us who wish to challenge it. The subordination of women is so engrained within our culture that many of us have become blind to it altogether. Think of the notion that the purported Designer of the Universe, who is believed to govern the totality of existence (and presumably must be genderless), is afforded a male pronoun, by default. Or that when the title of doctor, or lawyer, or engineer is mentioned, the prevalent mental picture is that of a male. How then shall we overcome this entrenched social ill?
A culture of silence appeases ignorance. If we allow patriarchy’s spokesmen to have a monopoly on debate, we will have lost the culture war. We need to stand by the ideals enshrined in our progressive laws and defend them when they are attacked by the reactionary impulse. Ours must become a culture in which sexism is seen as toxic. Those who espouse patriarchal ideas must be challenged, whether they are political candidates or religious leaders or any other figure in the public eye. Our arguments are stronger than their voices are loud. We cannot afford to let them bury us beneath heaps of vitriol.
At a time when feminism – the project to achieve gender equality by championing the historically suppressed woman – is slurred as a machine to generate hatred towards males, it is imperative that as men, we reaffirm our commitment to the movement. We must acknowledge our privilege and create a climate of solidarity where we stand by our female counterparts to battle sexism and misogyny. As beneficiaries of a historical injustice, our apathy is inexcusable. It only serves to perpetuate a status quo that, in the end, harms us all. We are not calling for a doctrine of censorship and false moral outrage to defend political correctness. Instead, we call for a paradigm shift in the way society views women, for a re-evaluation of the gender roles we have come to take for granted and for the dismantling of the patriarchy.
It is time for us to peel the words from the pages of our progressive laws and forge from them blades to sever the ropes that bind us.
This manifesto was written to coincide with ‘Still We Rise’, the Amnesty International Wits campaign focusing on the creation of a feminist culture and challenging gender norms. An event will be held by Amnesty between 4 and 6 p.m this week Wednesday (12th August), focusing on these themes. It will take place in Central Block Lecture Theater 15 on Braamfontein East Campus.
Update: The Amnesty International event originally scheduled for the 12th of August has been postponed. It will be held on the 31st of August instead.