Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
10 August 2012

“Hooligans” not the only ones who are responsible for women’s oppression

Yesterday South Africa celebrated Women’s Day. On page three of my local newspaper, I read about the various events held yesterday to celebrate this day. There I read that President Jacob Zuma, in a speech at the Union Buildings, enjoined the nation to unite against “hooligans who attack and sexually assault women”. This was a “sickness in our society that must be nipped in the bud”.

Zuma pointed to the enactment of the Domestic Violence Act as an indication that our government is serious about dealing with violence against women and he urged women to “use this law to protect themselves”. I also read that in Cape Town Khoi heroine Krotoa van Meerhof had a city square named after her in celebration of Women’s Day. No mention of the Traditional Courts Bill.

From these reports one would not get any sense of why it is that most (if not all) women in South Africa are still discriminated against – directly or indirectly – in both the public sphere and the private sphere, why women are still often treated as second class citizens in their own country, why so many women do not feel safe from physical abuse and rape, why the promise in section 12(1)(c) of the Constitution that everyone has the right to freedom and security of the person, which includes the right to be free from all forms of violence from either public or private sources, rings hollow for many women.

If President Zuma is to be believed, “hooligans” are to blame for this state of affairs. All that is needed is for women to report abuse to the police and all will be well: the police will apprehend the “hooligans” (yeah right) and our criminal justice system will then deal with them. If our President really believes this, he really should get around more and should stop spending so much time in his bunker at Nkandla. And the rest of the problems we will solve by renaming a square after a famous woman.

But blaming “hooligans” is not only wrongheaded it is also deeply self-serving. The rest of us (including the President) who contribute to the perpetuation and entrenchment of patriarchal values and attitudes (through our actions or our silence) but nevertheless continue to enjoy the benefits that patriarchy invariably bestow on all men, remain conveniently blameless if “hooligans” are the root cause of women’s oppression.

If we blame “hooligans” for the sexual assault of women, we do not have to address the root causes of this epidemic of rape, namely the fact that deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes still allow many men to view women as no more than possessions whose bodies can (or ought to be) owned by men, either by force or by virtue of men’s dominant status in our culture and because of the economic and social power that men wield.

In this version of what troubles our country, we do not actually have to take steps to change the way our society is structured along gendered lines. We do not have to change the basic assumptions about gender roles on which our society is built and which help to entrench male domination. And we do not have to change the seemingly neutral norms, standards and rules according to which society functions, rules and norms and standards which reflect patriarchal assumptions about men and women and hence help to perpetuate a gender hierarchy in our society that ensures that men largely stay in charge and are unfairly allowed to flourish at the expense of women.

Yes, some of us men know that we have to be seen to respect women’s rights, but we often do so through excessively sentimental, but entirely symbolic and empty, gestures which will not address the power imbalances in our society. We celebrate Women’s Day by buying chocolates for the women in our lives or by announcing that we will erect another statue to commemorate women (as President Zuma did yesterday). We do anything not to have to actually dismantle the existing gender hierarchy and to restructure society in such a way that we will have to give up some of the power and the privilege that accrue to us merely because we are men.

This allows many of us to continue to expect – and sometimes to demand – that women take on the (mostly unremunerated) burden of child rearing and domestic chores. It allows us to continue to structure our economy in such a way that so called traditional “women’s work” is paid for (if it is remunerated at all) at a far lower rate than so called traditional “men’s work” (what an utterly silly distinction this is).

We believe that we do not have to change our workplace environment and rules to ensure that it makes reasonable accommodation for those who act as primary care givers of children because the primary care givers of children in our society remain overwhelmingly female. This means we can blame women themselves for not measuring up to the gendered norms and rules governing promotions and ultimately success at work, while we can continue pretending that these norms and rules are neutral when they actually reflect and perpetuate the world view and the workplace dominance of men in general and patriarchs specifically.

This analysis closely tracks the analysis on racial transformation as it focuses on the structural inequalities in our society and the ways in which seemingly neutral rules continue to benefit a class of people who remains economically and socially dominant.

Many South Africans who understand racial oppression (and continues to experience the negative effects of racism and attitudes of white supremacy) embrace the need for racial redress or even agitate quite actively for a restructuring of the South African economy along more egalitarian lines. But, somehow, many of these men resist the analysis when it applies to gender. As their male dominance and power are being attacked they scorn the need for a re-think on gender roles and for fundamental steps to be taken to dismantle patriarchy. I guess it is far easier to blame a few hooligans than to own up to one’s own complicity in the continued oppression of women.

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