Who has the right to fight for gender equality vs Who should fight for gender equality?

With the beginning of August came the beginning of women’s month in South Africa. As the month came closer one found oneself having more and more conversations, both personally and in work spaces, about the inequality that exists for women, particularly in our country. This year was also slightly different in that to initiate the start of the month there was the #totalshutdown march that aimed to highlight the challenges faced by women and gender non-conforming individuals and call an end to it. In relation to this there are two main elements that I have been thinking about,  the state of feminism in the country and across the globe, as well as the separation in both calling an end to and perpetuating the cycles of violence against minority groups.

I am a self-identified feminist (but by no means a theoretical expert on the topic) but in various ways have been told that I am not. I was told that what I actually am is an equalitarian and that I do not dress the part because of the fact that I wear feminine clothing, like the colour pink and shave my legs. This made me search further into the definition and understanding of feminism and if perhaps I was wrong and that perhaps it is not what I am. What it did highlight is how differently people understand the term and how many feminist schools of thought there are. Truly, as an introduction to this, the talk that resonated a lot with me in relation to how I make sense of it in my day to day life was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichies’ ted talk “We should all be feminists”. (https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_we_should_all_be_feminists/transcript?language=en)

But through all the discussions of what is feminism and how we define it, what is also particularly noticeable is the separation it creates. Because the very basic definition of it is, “The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” But somehow we determined that men cannot be feminists and that they are very often excluded from the conversations around gender inequality and gender based violence.

This starts then perpetuating a hierarchical structure as to who is allowed to be part of the conversations and whose opinions in it matter more. As a privileged female, the assumption is that I face less/different challenges related to gender equality than someone from a different social class or sexual orientation. And based on this my contributions are limited and perhaps seen in a specific light. So even though I am a feminist, I am not as much of a feminist as another. What I would like to relate this to is what Eckhart Tolle[1] writes about as the current state of insanity of humanity and the elements that contribute to the perpetuation of violence within the world today. There are various factors that he speaks about in relation to this, but one is the need for us to create power dynamics and make ourselves feel superior by making someone else feel inferior. Furthermore, that if I feel inferior I will attempt to find something to make myself superior to another in order to feed my ego and feel a sense of power.

So how do we consider this in relation to gender equality and those involved for the fight for it? We exclude normative men from the conversation and tell them that it is something they have no right to speak about because as women this allows us to regain some sense of power that inherently we don’t have based on the patriarchal structures of society. Then within the remainder of us that are allowed to discuss it, we perpetuate this pattern by claiming, that as a certain group contributing to the movement, our challenges and contributions are worth more than another’s. So that even within an overarching movement that is fighting for equal rights we create separation and exclusion to find ways of regaining our power. I do not say this in a blasé manner that is aimed at taking away or diminishing the different experiences that individuals have experienced, but as a means of highlighting the separatism that we perpetuate to the exclusion of many whose involvement may be imperative in shifting the discourses and behaviours related to gender equality. I do not believe that by solely empowering women or minority groups we will end gender inequality. For women to gain power men also need to relinquish some of their power. They also need to be a part of the change so that the power differentials disappear and we can be equal. Because the other side is that it is determined that the only way of gaining this power from men is to take it by force, which then ultimately contributes to a further perpetuation of violence.

For me this separation was also highlighted in relation to the people in my life and society that participated in the #totalshutdown. My friends that work in corporate South Africa did not know about it until I told them about it nor did their companies support their participation in the march or requested activities of the day. This is challenging in that there is the growing awareness and attention to the  high levels of gender inequality, sexual harassment and perpetuate patriarchy in the work place across numerous sectors. They need to be involved in the change that is needed.

So the question I raise is, how does everyone become part of the change that is required to create a gender equal society?

Written by Jacqui Chowles

[1] Eckhart Tolle A New Earth

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