There is something that does not sit well with me when it comes to such fads as Children’s Month, Mandela Day, Heritage Month, and the whole lot of them. But among them none vexes me more than the one of August; Women’s Month. Of all of them, it is one that cuts deep; it insults my mother, denigrates my sister and mocks my friend.
What is Women’s Month and what does it intend to achieve? The government’s theme for women’s month this year was, “56 years of women united against poverty, inequality and unemployment” according to their information website. It goes on to say:
“South Africa commemorates Women’s Month in August as a tribute to the thousands of women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest against the extension of Pass Laws to women. This historic march was a turning point in the role of women in the struggle for freedom and society at large. Since that eventful day, women from all walks of life became equal partners in the struggle for a non-racial and non-sexist South Africa.”
Really, 56 years? Is that really how long one can honestly say women have been involved in the struggle, as equal partners? What do they mean by equal? That to me reeks of our patriarchal arrogance as men but it’s not what I want to talk about, yet.
I want to talk about the general consensus. This consensus is that as a society, we are trying to facilitate the empowerment of women so they become equal participants in the economic, social and political spheres of life, recognising that women have been deliberately disadvantaged, historically or historically disadvantaged as the government would put it.
Such a noble intent, how could one possibly take issue with it? Well, because the premises are deeply flawed. The first presupposes an eternal patriarchal history by suggesting an historical subjugation of women without a beginning thus crafting the perception that women have always been repressed; that our society has always been patriarchal.
The second, a direct result of the first, gives the impression that the equal participation of women is a favour from men to women. After all, we have always been a patriarchal society and therefore the patriarchal chauvinist has to sacrifice part of his dominion for the benefit of the woman; asserting that our willingness to accommodate women now means we are being progressive and modern too.
There is a certain dishonesty inherent in these premises. What they succeed in doing is to position the oppression of women as a phenomenon that occurred naturally and by implication, necessarily. Therefore as humanity progresses further in to the industrial economy, and as we delve deeper into modern standards of civility, there is no longer need to continue their subjugation. We even have the guts to say, “It’s an economic imperative”.
This in itself perpetuates the oppression of women, but more insidiously. It successfully makes the oppression a function of time (or the times) and as such regardless of their status at any point we can always say, “It’s the times” and top it off with, “these women don’t know how good they got it”. So effective is this oppression that it has conditioned even women to accept that before 1956, they were nowhere to be found and places their frame of reference in terms of social significance, as a mere walk against passes. This, they say, is the beacon of their strength, their entry into history, as equal participants.
But is it, really? History accounts for a different story. History asserts the woman’s place in society as a source of power and social order. In their paper, “The Great Queens of Ethiopia”, Larry Williams and Charles S Finch provide the following summary:
“Matriarchy is probably the oldest form of social organisation and that it appears to have evolved first in Africa...”
I want to be bold then and say it is not probable but true that the mother is the foundation of social order. I put it on the table then that the oppression of women is as unnatural a human development as racism. Incidentally both have the same source. I also want to emphasise that one cannot possibly talk about the place of women in history without referring to the African woman for it is Africa that gave birth to the mother and it is Africa that gave birth to the mother as ruler, and everything in between.
Africa, through Makare (known as Pharaoh Hatshepsut) gave birth to the first queen ruler in history, presiding over Kemet (ancient Egypt); the world’s most advanced civilization and most powerful at the time. Not only did she engage in massive construction projects and lead trade expeditions to foreign lands unexplored by her predecessors, she was also a warrior queen that led in battle.
Her contribution was so vast that even after the destruction of much of her work; temples, statues and obelisks (some claim that her successor, Tuthmose III, was hell-bent on destroying her legacy and thus deny us her memory), she still comes to us in all her splendour. For us and those still to come, in her words she wrote:
“Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say. Those who shall see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done….No one rebels against me in all lands... My command stands firm like the mountains, and the sun’s disk shines and spreads rays over the titulary of my august person, and my falcon rises high above the kingly banners to all eternity.”
A distinction I would like to emphasise here is that by history I am referring to events as recorded by a people in writing so we can appreciate that she was not necessarily the first queen ruler but the first queen ruler in history.
So where does this place queen Makare in relation to the anti-pass march of 1956? It places her more than 3,400 years earlier at around 1479 BC. “So?” you might be tempted to ask.
Consider that after the Romans had conquered Kemet. Augustus Caesar threatened to invade Kush (ancient Ethiopia). Kentake Amanirena, queen mother of Kush, ordered an attack against the Roman army and later the Roman army counterattacked. The confrontations would eventually result in a stand-off in which the Romans were forced to retreat back to Kemet and declare peace. She was just one in a list of powerful women in Africa.
So where does history place Kentake (i.e. Queen Mother) Amanirena in relation to anti-pass march of 1956? History places her exploits around 24 BC; about 2,000 earlier. Can we really refer to women as historically disadvantaged, more so without even mention of the status they used to enjoy in society? Can we honestly do that and be sincere in our “noble intent”?
The clerics on their side have denied women positions of power and influence in the church, so today’s society (at least some parts of it), in its noble intent, denounces their exclusion calling for their inclusion because they have been historically denied such positions. But what of Saint Perpetua, the leader of and one of the first martyrs to die in the name of Christianity at the hands of the Romans? An African woman only 22 years of age; executed shortly after giving birth for refusing to renounce her Christianity while her father wept and begged her to do so in order to save her life.
So where is Perpetua in relation to the march? Well, she was executed on the 17th of July 180 AD. Her martyrdom came more than 1,700 years before the march and today women must be content with pittance when it comes to roles of leadership and influence in the church even in Africa, the birth place of religion.
The academics on the other side are telling us that their noble intent is to attract women to the sciences because historically, they have been denied participation in these fields and in their noble quest, they make no mention of a time when women enjoyed the same education as men, and so because there is no precedence, theirs must be man’s favour to these emotional creatures that have never known education, “we want to help women change history, help you participate in intellectual endeavour”.
But what of Hypatia, the Philosophy Chair at the University of Alexandria? She lectured on mathematics, philosophy, physics and astronomy. Ironically, she was murdered by a band of Roman Christians as she failed to convert to Christianity.
Where does history place her? She died in 415 AD more than 1,500 years before the march. She was neither the first nor the last though as a thousand years before her time, evidence shows that the Temple of Sais in the city of Zau had a medical school for women at which the lecturers were women (the divine mothers).
Since antiquity, ordinary African women have enjoyed the same rights as men; as property owners, students and teachers, leaders of religious institution and many more roles. They did not fight to be given rights, they didn’t have to. They fought against foreign invaders, they fought against injustice, they fought against rebellions, fought to defend their sovereignty and to restore peace.
Their rights were not guaranteed by men; they were respected and deeply entrenched in the cultural fabric of society. So that when we talk about queen Nzingha of Ndongo’s 30 year war we are not talking about war for women’s rights but war, lead by a woman, to defend Angola’s sovereignty against the invading Portuguese colonialists, just yesterday in the early 1600s.
When we talk about Yaa Asentawa, queen mother of Ejisu’s war and her subsequent death in exile in 1921 and Mbuya (Grand Mother) Nehanda of Zimbabwe who among other leaders in 1896 declared war against the British invaders and was later executed, these leaders did not die fighting for women’s rights they were fighting against colonialism. The rights of women were culturally entrenched.
From time immemorial women were worshiped as Goddesses, they were venerated and revered. Now we have successfully reduced goddesses to mere mortals and worst still, we’ve erased her greatness from her own memory and in its stead planted images of her as our domestic servant and an object of our sexual desire. From receivers of our prayers and invocations, we’ve dismantled her divinity and with the pieces moulded her into a depository of our bullshit and lies.
We’ve stripped women of property, so we can make her our servant. We pay her less for the same work, so we can assert her inferiority. In feeling diminished in her presence, we’ve hung her as our punch bag to swing punches and kicks, we’ve dug in her holes to hurl demeaning insults, all in attempts to resolve our insecurities. When we feel intimidated we resort to resentful labels to boost our self-esteem.
And then during August, we scream women’s rights as if we mean it, as if it means anything or that we’re serious about making a difference; when it’s all just a big farce, a competition about who can shout it the loudest, who’s pretence is more glamorous. It’s a vanity show of who best incorporates the theme in his or her speech. All the while, women remain as vanities.
Understand then that when I say farce, it’s not because of a failure to understand what the fuss is about but rather that I understand the fuss to be a farce and realise that the fight is not for women to gain rights but to reclaim them.
This is the Journal of a Broken Spirit #JOABS, I'm sick of this!