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Category Archives: Gender

Yindaba Kabani Nxa ndilahl’umlenze: That Time When I “Hung Out My Thighs For All To See”

Written by Doreen Gaura for iamTehn 

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So it was a regular Saturday morning (and by morning I mean well after midday) and I was chilling at home, you know? Vegeing out, minding my own business, dealing with my most recent existential crisis (I get a lot of those and quite frequently too) of whether or not getting out of bed and showering was something that featured in my immediate future when my phone went off. It was a whatsapp message. “Could it be Great Mother Universe stepping in to rescue me from the prospect of a dreadful day of planlessness brought on by that insidious devil called brokeness?” I wondered as I excitedly picked up my phone to open the message. I could barely contain my excitement I was almost certain I was going to need to open a bottle of wine right there and then and take a swig straight from the tap just to calm my nerves when lo and behold, right before my eyes, was a message from one of my uncles instructing me to change my whatsapp profile picture right before he proceeded to question my sanity. o_O!

I was so angry I almost did actually open that bottle and take that swig but because I was operating in rationing mode due to my most recent post holiday financial crisis and also, well, because I am not an alcoholic (of course) I opted to make a really strong cup of filter coffee instead. That and ignore the message. I have a general rule not to respond to anything whilst I am angry, especially if it’s coming from family, friends or jobage people a.k.a. colleagues. My weekend shot on by, in that hateful bullet-speed way weekends tend to do without any further incidence. Monday arrived, uninvited as usual, *blegh* and yet another message pertaining to the offending image found its way to my whatsapposphere but this time it was from another uncle, whose approach, to his credit, was a lot more tactful because he first acknowledged its “artistic” value (bless his heart) before telling me that he considers it inappropriate. I again chose to not respond instead waited another couple of days before I eventually did.

During this waiting period I experienced various emotions; of which, to be honest, most of them were really just a variation of anger; and also drafted and redrafted my response to them, all the while leaving the controversial image, right where it was, as my profile picture. After venting to friends, consulting the ancestors and battling with myself over what to do I eventually respectfully responded to both uncles inviting them to a mature and respectful dialogue on the issue of my (exposed) thighs and my identity as a post-colonial/ Afro feminist, Afrocentric Pan-Afrikanist and Afro Spiritualist woman.

Outside of the obvious personal/subjective elements that this whole situation just by its very nature presents, there are greater issues that speak to public politics as well as identity at play. This seemingly minor debate goes beyond my whatsapp profile picture, power struggles within my family and my uber sexy thighs (yes, I have decided that they are uber sexy) but speaks to various problematic issues that exist within our communities, especially in Zimbabwe. It is really because of those issues that I’ve got my knickers all bunched up in an uncomfortable knot and has left me feeling some type of way and I’ll quickly highlight two of them here.

  1. One of my uncles, rather predictably, pulled out the “our culture” card and I felt compelled to inform him that in recent years I have made the conscious decision not to put too much stock in the dictates of our quasi “Afrikan” culture as much of it is grossly contaminated by the influence of our colonisers and their religions. It has, in the main, become so bastardized that much of it, and how we engage with it, makes a mockery of our pre-colonial/”authentic” ancestral heritage. It is true that cultures evolve and some may argue that is what happened with our cultures on the continent as they have done most everywhere else in the world but what people do not take into consideration is the conditions under which our cultures “evolved” i.e. oppression, colonisation and slavery. When the occupiers of our lands came, they observed and judged our societies and the way we lived. They decided that our way of life was wrong, they interpreted it using their own understanding and in certain countries, like SA for example, they decided to codify our laws using this understanding and make them secondary to their own which they deemed superior.

It is worth noting that many of our societies had more “revealing” dress codes in those days and the sexualisation of the black body as we know it today (both female and male) is as a result of the adulteration of our cultures and it has reconfigured our moral compass to align itself with that of the colonial masters, ultimately dividing our communities by not only introducing foreign definitions of masculinity and femininity; creating binaries in societies that traditionally had a lot of grey areas but also by creating new hierarchical structures that are more oppressive and destructive e.g. patriarchy.

  1. My uncle also pointed out that according to our “Afrikan” culture (because we must remember ka that Afrika is a country with one culture, one chief and one donkey and plough) certain parts of the body are not meant for public consumption and true as that may be this is not true to the parts in question here and as I have already highlighted, back in the day, and in very few places today, boobs, thighs and buttocks were the order of the day in our communities’ fashion trends, from the oldest gogo to the youngest little whippersnapper in the village. The female body is sacred. This was true then and this is true today and our people knew that respect of this body was not only the responsibility of the soul in it but also the responsibility of all who gazed upon it and that is why it was not necessary to impose morality and ensure personal safety and bodily integrity by covering it up.

This kind of thinking that informed my family’s intervention plays out almost daily in public spaces where in our cities and villages, women are subjected to being harassed and stripped by mobs of mostly men, for donning clothes considered indecent and you have countries like Uganda that have even criminalised the wearing of mini skirts. The notion that certain parts of the female body being exposed automatically translates to an open invitation for anyone to help themselves to it, be it by physically taking it forcefully, or by hurling verbal abuse at a woman and her body and turning around and placing the responsibility and blame on the victim of their violation not only vindicates but also condones the alarmingly increasing levels of gender based violence in our societies. It also supports the notion that we (women) are minors and that our bodies do not belong to us but instead belong to the men in our communities giving them the go ahead to define and dictate how we should live in them and for the men to do with as they please. What is particularly troubling is that instead of men (and other women) standing with us to fight these heinous forms of oppression and violation which are the ones that actually go against our authentic culture, they endorse them.

The controversial image that is my profile picture when captured and posted as such was never meant to be sexualized and by extension controversial. The focus when captured was not on my thighs but on my feet and the water and it was in this spirit it was posted which begs the question “who is really responsible for any discomfort in this context? The subject of the image or the one engaging with it or both?”

We take pride as a nation in being conservative, despite the fact this conservativeness can be attributed to colonisation gone “right” more than it can be attributed to the preservation of our cultural identity and heritage. It is only in an attempt to justify oppression and exploitation that people pull out the “culture” card and champion and claim it as ours even though most of it really isn’t not to mention that most of us have turned our backs on our ancestors and their ways of knowing and doing and labelled them as evil and/or demonic. The result of this is an increasingly divided community with women being pitted against men and vice versa by false cultural ideals and ill informed western neo liberal (western feminism) ideals simply because as women we fight for our natural and authentic cultural rights to be respected, loved, seen as equals and to be safe in our homes and our communities. Not only will I continue to challenge this foolishness but mina ngizabe ngilokhu ngilahlumlenze wami ngoba thina njengabantu abamunyama, siphila ngengoma njalo ngiyaziqenya ngalokho (I shall continue to dance this way because as children of the soil we live by the drum and I pride myself in this). That is the way of my people.

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Confronting Cultural Imperialism in Human Rights Discourse

Written by Doreen Gaura for Africa on the Blog

Photograph taken by Beenish Ahmed for The Atlantic

Photograph taken by Beenish Ahmed for The Atlantic

A few days ago, a good friend of mine brought to my attention The Atlantic’s article Confronting a Sexual Rite of Passage in Malawi penned by Beenish Ahmed and the subsequent response to it by Kim Yi Dionne published on Africa is a Country and she asked for my thoughts; particularly with regards to Dionne’s response. In short, I am inclined to agree wholly with Dionne’s position but I’d like to take it further and extend this discussion to include the human rights sector and not just limit it to international media and it’s reporting on Afrika and the cultural practices therein.

I work in the human rights sector and actively work on children’s rights so it goes without saying that I appreciate what The Atlantic was attempting to achieve with this piece. Indeed, child protection is of paramount importance however, people must remember that children’s rights are an all encompassing issue and therefore must be approached with a holistic strategy and this is to say that in addition to ensuring their physical, psychological and emotional well being, we should also seek to ensure their social and spiritual/ cultural well being and that also means the right to have their cultures. This of course applies to all children but I particularly want to focus this discussion on the children of Afrika exclusively.

Often international reporters come to the continent and do more harm than the good they believe they are doing especially with such irresponsible reporting and activism. This is not the first time we have seen this. One side, often one that tends to paint whole communities with a very dark brush with very little to no attempt to fully understand the very cultures they are confronting, how they have evolved and to what extent that has been as a result of colonial influence, poverty, conflict, disease, migration, education, greater global politics, exposure (or lack thereof) and access is often the only one presented before the global audience which in turn results in reinforcing cultural imperialism directed towards Afrika as well as enabling the perpetuation and normalization of unchecked ignorant ideas around Afrika and her communities.

I have never been to Malawi and I confess that I know very little about the various cultural practices in the country. This little is mostly (and sadly) thanks to an extremely biased/one sided international media and international human rights organisation reports on human rights issues in the country but based on my experience on the never ending vilification of the Afrikan cultures I am more familiar with such as my own along with some of the responses from Malawians to this story, I know that initiation rites are not as entirely harmful as often portrayed by/ for the western observer neither is their portrayal very accurate.

Malawian on January 26, 2014 at 12:39 pm said:

Thanks so much, professor for your well-informed article. As a Malawian, I fumed as I read the original article due to its careless disregard to facts. A girl goes through initiation only after reaching puberty and has started menstruation, never before. 13-14 years or above is more like it. Therefore if a girl goes to initiation when she is ten or less, as claimed in the original article, she must have had very early menses indeed. Also the article makes it look like the Malawian’s life is all revolved around sex. During initiation people are taught more than sex, like how to behave in society, how to respect elders, general hygiene etc. In any case, sex education is important in life, and there is nothing wrong in learning about it from elders who have experienced it. It is certainly much better than learning it from porn, which is usually the case the so-called advanced societies, or fumbling around by trial and error, which can easily dent one’s self-esteem.

As highlighted above, most initiation rites are not as bad as they are often portrayed, at least not entirely. It is important to highlight that there are a lot of positive qualities in these rites of passage which we almost never hear about in international discussions around Afrikan cultural practices as well as that these rites are also sacred to those that practice them and that too should be respected even if it’s not understood.

It is disturbing to note that in various human rights spaces here in South Afrika where I am based for instance, there still exists a somewhat imperialistic vendetta against Afrikan cultures and this is often expressed through the ubiquitous phrase in these spaces “harmful cultural practices”. It is true that there are plenty of cultural practices on the continent that are harmful and should be abolished as a matter of urgency and others still that have either become irrelevant or redundant and should either evolve or face dissolution but there are plenty more that are not, in their truest form, harmful or polarised against the realisation of human rights for all but are instead being practiced harmfully or used as a weapon of oppression instead of the tool of building the community that it was always intended to do.

It goes without saying that practices like female genital mutilation, for instance, are in my opinion extremely harmful and serve no other purpose but to oppress whereas practices such as ukuthwala in their original form were never intended to oppress but, instead, to facilitate an honourable union between two young lovers who might have otherwise met with opposition, mostly from the girl’s family, to said union. Generally speaking, this practice is no longer relevant given the various pieces of legislation that exist in South Africa to protect children from forced marriage as well as those that enable adults to marry whom they wish but this of course does not take into account that to a lot of people community values and family honour are just as important to them as their individual rights are so such practices can be very relevant and very useful in aiding them to fully enjoy their rights without doing away with their cultural identity.

When one googles the definition of ukuthwala they will find a western/ modern definition and understanding of the practice and this is mainly; and rightly so; due to the abominable way in which it has been practiced in recent times, the result of which being activists calling for its abolition and culturists calling for its protection with no common ground and/or collaboration being reached by the opposing camps and ultimately little effectiveness of whatever protection initiatives are being conducted being realised. It should be noted that majority of the people who use ukutwala nowadays in the manner in which and the purposes of which they are using it are in fact in violation of their culture as it was intended and go against the fundamental values of their traditions which summarised boil down to the principle of ubuntu.

Much the same can be said of the also contentious issue in South Africa and Kenya which is traditional male circumcision of boys and young men that has resulted in the tragic deaths or grievous injuries of hundreds of boys and young men due to botched circumcisions. People in a lot of human rights spaces are baying for the elimination of this cultural practice without actually engaging with it – and most other cultures in fact – and working with those charged with protecting said cultures i.e. traditional leaders and communities to establish how best to protect the rights of people while at the same time preserving people’s cultures and their cultural identities.

The trouble is a lot of activists, and journalists alike do not realise that the cultural identity and autonomy thereof of the communities in which they work is very important in any real empowerment discourse therefore alienating and undermining cultures and traditional leaders does nothing to aid the fight for human rights. Such insensitive, ignorant and harmful reporting as seen in The Atlantic’s article and activism as seen in a lot of human rights spaces is in my opinion counter productive to the cause. Instead, it reinforces imperialist views that Afrikan cultures are inferior and barbaric as well as make community members more resistant to making the necessary amendments. As Afrikans, we have found over the last few centuries that our right to cultural identity is one we have fight for because in all honesty it is currently not truly a right but instead a privilege. A privilege that we do not have while others do.

My recommendation would be that we need to move away from alienating traditional leaders in our initiatives. We also need to stop being paternal in our engagements with them in our bid to eliminate the harmful and irrelevant aspects of cultural practices. We need to form equal partnerships therefore mutual respect for the other is paramount. Lastly, as Afrikans, we need to start telling our own stories and taking charge in the evolution of our cultures and be prepared to leave behind the things that go against the protection of our people and their human rights and the advancement of our communities in our bid to preserve our cultural identities. We need to uphold the fundamentals of our heritage which in these here parts in the South most part of Afrika we call ubuntu.

 

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Hair (Part 2)


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Lesley’s Commentary

I didn’t write the last post on my blog, although no one would question that it was mine based on the content.

My dear friend Doreen, an incredibly talented writer, gender activist and lovely person did. 

In addition to both being 28 year old females, Doreen and I have a lot in common in terms of interests, values and beliefs.

One thing that is different about us is that Doreen grew up in Zimbabwe in a ‘Black’ body and I in Canada in a ‘white’ one.

We decided to post our own personal experiences and struggles around hair on each other’s blogs, in each other’s names.

This idea came about during an impromptu dinner at Matipa’s house. Matipa and Doreen are best friends, work together and both hail from Zimbabwe. While eating Matipa’s beautifully prepared dinner, we (as usual) talked about all the off-limit topics: politics (the recent elections in Zim, the human trafficking bill that recently passed in South Africa) and ‘personal’ stuff/politics.

The ‘personal’ discussion focuses on hair.

We talked about the politics of ‘Black’ hair… how natural is oftentimes not considered as beautiful. How many women wear wigs and weaves, many which seemingly replicate ‘white’ hair (read long, straight, etc).

It is a complex, politically charged topic of which I know little about, save for what I’ve learnt watching Chris Rock’s ‘Good Hair’ documentary and conversations with friends.

They told me about a blog post The Hairy Nature of our Race Identity  that Doreen wrote on hair that caused a bit of controversy after Matipa tweeted it to a Zimbabwean hair blogger. One critique that Doreen received on her post was that she didn’t speak about ‘white’ hair.

They then turned to me and asked my mop-headed self about my hair experience. I told them this (https://colouredraysofgrey.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/hair-part-1/)

Tipa and Dor were surprised to hear the similarities that my experience had to theirs.

Despite having very different hair colours and textures, we realized we had something in common in that we have been conditioned into believing that our natural hair is somehow sub-par. We’ve all spent a lot of time and money trying to manipulate our hair to fit societally imposed ideals of beauty.

The intention of these posts is to point out the widespread societal constructions of what is beautiful with regards to hair (which is usually straight and long). The intention is not to undermine or delegitimize the experiences of ‘Black’ women with regards to hair. Indeed the racialization of hair is a complex and horrific phenomenon which I have not experienced living in the body of a ‘white’’-skinned middle class woman, with all the accompanying privileges.

While not intending to minimize or sideline focus from the political and social evils propagated against ‘Black’ hair (as they have been aptly highlighted by African American comedian and actor Chris Rock in his documentary Good Hair and Toyin Agbetu’s new documentary Beauty Is… and many others), we decided to post this as a general and united commentary of the painful and degrading politics of hair in which people around the world are taught that their hair isn’t beautiful if it doesn’t live up to a narrowly defined norm.

Doreen’s Commentary

As my dear friend Lesley has already highlighted above, the last post I put up on this blog was in fact written by her, a Canadian ‘white’ woman activist, scholar and writer/ blogger. We decided to do a blog swap after exchanging hair war stories and realizing that a lot of what each of us was saying could very well have come from any one of us as there were so many similarities in our stories regardless of our ethnic and racial differences. (see the post actually written by me here)

I particularly found it interesting because as a womanist/Afro-feminist I strongly believe in the recognition of intersectionality within any conversation regarding the empowerment of women. I also believe that it is important to acknowledge that the oppression of women is not all the same or always informed by the same politics or at the very least, in the same way, and that the different groups of women have different lived realities from that of what is the archetypal feminist i.e. the working class to middle class, heterosexual, able bodied, secular ‘white’ woman; however, during this conversation I was reminded that although our struggles can have their unique aspects, there are similar struggles that we fight as women, albeit informed and exacerbated by different politics, and that is the narrowly defined standards of beauty and acceptability even in these current times in which we live.

However, it is perhaps because we live in these times that the politics of hair have finally found a platform in public discourse where they can be picked apart and interrogated. In the last two decades or so we have seen people challenge the prescribed definitions of beauty with a particular focus being directed at body image and the fashion industry; more recently we saw the German plus size model, Mariesther Venegas  protest the Berlin fashion week’s continued marginalization of fuller figured women [models] by walking down the streets of Berlin naked for the Finally – Navabi campaign (which was strikingly similar to brown neo soul/ hip hop artist Erykah Badu’s personal protest against “group think” in the video to her song Window Seat where she also bared all). Also, in the recently concluded Paris fashion week, US designer Rick Owens [controversially] opted to model his creations using Afrikan American stomp dancers instead of the conventional leggy, uber skinny and mostly ‘white’ super models we are accustomed to.

Hair politics are not exclusive to female members of our society but also extend to the male members of our society where there too they have particular standards they have to subscribe to, especially ‘black’ men. A couple of years ago there was an uproar when Nivea produced an ad for their Look Like You Give a Damn campaign for their products for men that featured a ‘black’ male model holding the (decapitated) head of his former self, who’s sporting a beard, an afro, and a pissed-off expression and has the words “Re-civilize Yourself” scrawled across the image, with the smaller phrase “Look like you give a damn” on top, implying that Afrikan men, along with their hair, have to be packaged in a particular way in order to be considered to be civilized. The same expectation is extended to ‘black’ women as we are constantly discouraged from keeping our hair natural let alone finding empowerment and strength in it. However, as we have seen from this exercise between Lesley and myself, that this marginalization of the ‘other’ also extends to white women and perhaps men too, with a certain type of hair although comparatively, the degrees and negative impact of said marginalization differ from race to race, gender to gender and sex to sex etc.

Doing this exercise was not very easy. When Lesley and I set out to write our stories in our individual spaces before meeting up, exchanging them and posting, we realized that it was not going to be as easy as we thought it would be and questioned if it really was a good idea. Thing is, everything seems like a brilliant idea after a couple of glasses of wine and loads of rolling-on-the-floor laughter. We later confessed to each other when we finally got together again that we had both struggled with the initial pieces as we constantly battled to make the post as “racially aligned” as possible (i.e. convincing enough to readers that my piece was written by a ‘white’ woman and Lesley’s by a ‘black’ woman) in order to pull off the ruse. We were tempted to just forget about it, or at least I certainly was, until we realized that deliberately writing in such a way that alluded to a particular race was not only unnecessary but also contrary to the whole purpose of the exercise which was to find commonalities in the hair and identity politics of two women from different racial backgrounds despite perceived physical racial differences as well as informally investigate to what extent these commonalities, if at all, affect women of different races at an individual level.

The issue of hair (although it is a very personal thing) and how it positions an individual in the global economic, political and social hierarchical structure is proof that the personal is indeed political. People’s hair, although personal, is subject to the whims, attitudes and opinions of a society as a whole and not just the individual. It manifests itself as an identifier, a classifier and a political statement, whether we are conscious of it or not. Ultimately, whether we like it or not, our hair plays a huge role in deciding where society positions us politically, economically and socially.

*Note all racial references are put in quotations to denote that race is a social, rather than biological construct.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2013 in Gender, Politics, Reflections

 

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Hair Part 1

Throughout my life I have spent a substantial amount of time and money on HAIR.

As a younger person, my focus was mostly on grooming it, removing it, colouring it, straightening it and otherwise manipulating it on a quest to ‘look nice’.

Although I do still spend time on hair today, my focus has shifted in that I spend a bit less time manipulating it and more time reflecting on its social and political implications.

All other forms of hair aside (that would require innumerable more posts!), the variety that grows from our scalps is what I’m focusing on here – an intensely personal as well as politicized subject.

This is a multi-part blog post. This first section aims to share some of my personal experiences with my hair. The next one is co-authored with a friend and will be posted later this week to consider some societal and political implications of hair.

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When I was younger my hair was straighter that it is today. Along with puberty it became curlier and more difficult to manage. Growing up post-80s perm culture, most women wore their hair at least kind of straight or in a controlled curl.

As a teen I didn’t know how to wear my hair since it was different than that of my sister and Mom. I didn’t know how to deal with the tangled mop that I often encountered on top of my head.

I battled with blow dryers and straighteners and brushes and combs, all the while disliking it and thinking it looked haggard.

I recall coming back from swimming and spending hours trying to brush and comb it out and make it manageable.

Another thing that happened as I got older was that my hair darkened. Having lighter than normal hair had always been something that was commented on – something that made me feel special. Somehow, fairer seemed synonymous with attractiveness.  On top of trying to change the natural texture of my hair, I spent a lot of time and money changing the colour.

I recall dating someone in my late teens who told me that he thought my hair would be nice if I brushed it more. When I tried wearing it curly or letting it dry naturally, people called it ‘frizzy’ or messy.

The ‘natural’ stuff was clearly always sub-par, something to try to tame or change.  The time and money I put into my hair also seemed directly correlated to the positive attention I would get on it.

If only I could somehow ‘get it right’ or ‘tame it’ then I’d be a bit closer to being beautiful…

These days I don’t try as hard, although I do still try.

I will leave you with some things that I don’t usually say out loud:

  • Sometimes things get stuck in my hair. Days later I can find a bobby pin or some food up in there 😛
  • In my 28 years, I’m sure I’ve spent the equivalent of weeks if not months in front of the mirror, trying to coerce my hair into something different. My family and I have also spent a lot of money on it.
  • I’ve used countless chemical products, dyed, coerced, applied heat and coloured my hair. I’ve even burnt my forehead more than once on the quest for ‘better’ hair.

 

 
3 Comments

Posted by on November 13, 2013 in Gender, Politics, Reflections

 

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Ties that Bind: Could Tradition and Culture Bridge the Gap Between the Personal and Political?

Written by Doreen Gaura for Bokamoso Leadership Forum

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In spite of the progress that has been made thus far regarding public policy and legislation to ensure gender equality and bodily integrity in a lot of Southern [1] Afrikan countries there continues to be a barricade impeding the smooth flow of these policies from the public/ political space into people’s personal spaces and more specifically the home. It has become abundantly clear that it is not enough to just have laws written down on a piece of paper  that the majority of people do not know exists or do not understand or cannot identify with.

I recently attended a symposium organised by the Women’s Legal Centre, Heinrich Boll Stiftung and Bowman Gilfillan in Cape Town, South Africa, on customary law and women’s rights. The recurring theme of the conference was the need to find an effective way of marrying customary law/ traditional justice systems with state constitutions which are essentially designed to ensure equality and entrench the inalienable rights of all people. Yet, of course we know that in most cases as in some countries “all” does not include their queer citizens, within that state. The attempt to reconcile customary law with common law especially as it regards gender equality is nothing new as this has been the aim, at least in theory anyway, for decades and a question remains: is it working?

The answer is both yes and no. Yes, in the sense that a lot of countries in the region have either signed or signed and ratified various international and regional instruments that speak to the advancement of gender equality such as the Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women, Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the United Nations Millennium Declaration, the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons especially Women and Children and most — have gone as far as legislating the provisions in most of these conventions. However, it is a ‘no’ in the sense that implementation in most countries has left a lot to be desired as well as the fact that there hasn’t been substantial buy-in or internalisation of these principles and laws as they are presented and understood from the majority of the public.

Various factors play into the perceived resistance of these ideals along with obstructions to effective implementation but here I will focus one of the perceived main obstacles to entrenching human rights on the continent: cultural and traditional practices. I am of the view that the differences between common/constitutional law and customary law are that to most people, the former exists only in the confines of the public and political domain while the latter exists both in the public and the personal spaces so in other words, it is a matter of accessibility and ownership.When I speak of accessibility, I am referring to the accessibility of the language of these modern and progressive laws as well as accessibility to and of the structures, the advocates, officials and enforcers of these laws. Regarding ownership, as far as most people who these laws are supposed to serve and guide are concerned, these laws belong to the white people, the economic elite and politicians whereas customary laws and culture belong to “us” – the rest.

Having worked in the gender sector in South Africa for a few years, I have noticed that this disconnection between common law which represents the public space and customary law which essentially represents the personal spaces is not limited to the rural and/ or uneducated public. They also affect the role players and service providers, including some activists and legal professionals, as they too have personal realities influenced by the very same personal politics as their beneficiaries such as culture. Sylvia Chirawu, National Coordinator of Women and Law Southern Africa (WLSA) in her paper All that Glitters is Not Gold: Challenges Faced by Women in Implementation of Laws that Outlaw Harmful Cultural Practices in Zimbabwe highlights:

Anecdotal evidence shows that very few African women would marry under general law without lobola having been paid

Due to colonialism and its influence on indigenous traditional legal structures and the need by the colonised to assimilate, we see people living dual realities with many of us balancing our traditional customary identities with our modern, colonial and post-colonial and global identities. As a result we are CEDAW wielding, Simone de Beauvoir quoting warriors by day (in the public and political space) and culture preservationists by night (in the personal spaces) and we seem to be struggling as activists, professionals, service providers and experts ourselves to make the two aspects of our politics and our realities meet.In my opinion it has a lot to do with two facts and these are our need to preserve our autonomous cultural identities as empowered Afrikans as well as thewrong notion that our customs and their laws are inherently opposed to the realisation of human rights.

Our customs and laws are not inherently opposed to human sights

There is no such thing as a homogenous Afrikan culture/tradition but there are similarities and recurring themes across most, if not all, indigenous cultures and traditions and these include the preservation of the community and the protection of its individuals. Bearing that in mind, a many customary laws — even the ones that are being harmfully practiced today — were essentially designed to ensure this and not the opposite. The subsequent perversion of our cultures and laws can be attributed to the contamination by and influence of the cultures of the colonisers. Thus, a lot of things that we claim to be part of our culture or our tradition may not actually be ours to begin with and our communities were more inclusive and tolerant than we are led to believe.

We must remember that indigenous customs were not always essentially patriarchal or homophobic, for instance, and despite popular belief gender identity and gender relations in Afrika prior to colonisation were more egalitarian than has been alleged and certainly more egalitarian than European cultures were. If anything, it can be argued that colonialism introduced and facilitated the marginalisation of women and LGBTI people in our societies.Customary law is by its very nature an evolving system.  Instead of calling for the banishment of customary laws and cultural practices in a bid to ensure human rights and equality, we should facilitate this societal evolution ourselves.  Without interference from outsiders, we can create something context specific and workable that we can all call our own. This can start with understanding the authenticity and origins of a particular customary law or what necessitated it and what issues it intended to address and ultimately the relevance of the said law in the present society and/or whether modification or erasure is necessary and how this can be done. Justice Westhuizen, in the case of Shilubana and others vs. Nwamita and others, aptly pointed out:

The involvement was stagnant during the colonial and apartheid era but it should not continue and the free development by communities of their own laws to meet the needs of a rapidly changing society must be respected and facilitated.

Ultimately, I am of the opinion that there needs to be a realisation that regardless of one’s level of education, exposure or class there appears to be more of a connection, be it at internal or environmental and conscious or subconscious levels, between their personal and their cultural/ ethnic identity than there is between their political and the personal. I would like to posit that a connection between the political and the (evolved and evaluated) cultural be established and perhaps by doing so we may see the required and necessary integration of our political rights and bodily integrity into our homes and making those spaces safe for women and girls.

[1] In this post (and on this blog) Afrika is spelt with a ‘k’ in line with the author’s Afrikan activist affiliations. Most Afrocentrists use the letter ‘k’ instead of ‘c’ as way of acknowledging that ‘Africa’ is not the true name of the continent. When one speaks of Afrika, they’re bringing an Afrikan-centered view to the meaning.

 

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From Womb to Tomb. For Better or Worse

1.

 

Those eyes

So brown,

No!

Almost hazel

Yes, hazel

So beautiful

That boyish smile

That brings into union those which are the windows to one’s soul

To form a doorway

To one’s sacred god self

How can any woman resist

Let alone me

A naïve little girl

The first son to my adoring parents

How am I to resist your smooth charm?

When in my virtuous purity

I so desperately need to express my femininity

The femininity in me that I am too afraid to know

The sensuality I am too afraid to explore

Because although I am a girl

I may as well be my parents’ first son

I can do no wrong

I have never thought myself pretty or attractive

Even though everyone else thinks so

Perhaps it is my caramel skin

Or my dark, curly, soft hair

Or the brown freckles on my nose and cheeks?

Is it my wide toothy smile

Or perhaps my hourglass figure?

Is it my long slender fingers?

Or maybe it’s my pointy nose?

Perhaps it’s a combination of all those things.

I can’t know because whatever it is, I don’t see it myself

He stares at me

Makes as if to reach for my luxurious afro

But I guess he changes his mind because he drops his hand to his side

Before he reaches it

He smiles at me and shakes his head

There’s that disarming smile again

I am trembling

And my face is burning

Can he somehow see through my skirt?

Can he see the wetness between my thighs?

Is it dripping down my legs?

My face gets even redder and hotter

What does he think of me?

I fidget and ask him if he wants a pamphlet

He takes one

Slowly and lightly strokes my fingers as he does so

She steps up next to me & introduces herself

I wish was as confident as she is

She’s a real woman my sister

Has an easy way with men

But of course she does

She’s a real woman

Her smile

Her laugh

Her gestures

So inviting

So seductive

So un-me and yet…

All me

On the inside

She tells him I am single

Tells him I like him

I want to die

But then he tells her he likes me too

He wants to get to know me

My heart skips a beat

Before it breaks out into song

***

2.

 

He is charming

Hypnotizing

He is beautiful

Older

Much older

And worldly

He is irresistible

& yet…

Here I am

Resisting

His kisses are no longer sweet

His touch no longer tender

His voice no longer gentle

My moans have turned into screams

My glee into terror

My beautiful moment into a horror show

My wetness into desert

Wait!

I start to feel the wetness again

But this time it’s blood

“Are you sure you said no?” she asks

“But what else did you think he wanted? He is not a boy but a man” she says

“Don’t worry, you don’t fall pregnant from your first time” she adds

First time?

Is one’s first time meant to be stolen?

Ripped out from one’s tight grip?

Is it meant to hurt, defile and destroy?

Am I overreacting?

Is she right? Am I a prude?

Yes, she’s right.

After all sex is what real women do

I am a woman now

Soon to be a mother

And yet… still a girl

***

3.

 

Your eyes

Your beautiful and open smile

I get it

It makes sense

Who can resist you?

But… at the same time

Who could ever hurt you?

I never thought you strong

It took your leaving for me to see your strength

To know you

To know myself

To know true love

The love you searched for since my conception

The love you never found

The search for which you have continued

Even long after you’ve been gone

Every day you had to fight

Fight for love

His love

Mine

Fight with the limitless love you had for us both

His heart was made of stone

Not meant to feel

But to hurt

Hurt you

Hurt me

Hurt everyone

It continued to hurt you

While his smile continued to charm

Give you false hope

Not for yourself

But for me

His touch never again got tender

His words never softer

His kisses never sweeter

He continued to rape and pillage

Even long after he had defeated your body

You were a child

& he a man

A man you loved

For so long but oh so wrong

No matter how much he hurt you

No matter how much he hurt your children

You still loved him

Because that is all you knew to do

Love

Your strength was also your weakness

Your sacrifice your betrayal

You had done what couldn’t be undone all those years ago

& yet you fought to the death

To make that wrong right

The wrong done to you not by you

You were stronger than you thought

You are stronger still, than you realize

You are a warrior

Your love continues to be your greatest weapon

It is powerful

It is eternal

It continues to achieve the things you set out to do before you left

It took you leaving for me to see it

To feel it

It shields me

It nourishes me

It guides me

And all I can hope for is to love the way you love

Not fearlessly

But courageously

Not foolishly but relentlessly

Not selfishly but sacrificially

Because although I did not know, neither did I understand, all the wars you had to fight back then

I know and understand them now

Although I did not know just how much hatred and evil you had to take in back then

I now know how much love you gave back out

Anger, violence, fear, betrayal and evil surround my creation

But love, kindness, selflessness, forgiveness, strength and perseverance my germination & growth

It is those things that I will hold on to

The things I will nurture and grow

The things I will fight to keep alive within me

Because although the things he brought into my existence are a part of me

I will not let them survive or find a home within me

It is the things that you brought into my existence that are the legacy that you left me

The legacy I want to hold on to

And when all is said and done

And we have reached the end of this journey

I will come before you

And offer this legacy back up to you

In thanks and in love

Not as the child you left

But as the woman you hoped I would grow into

© Doreen Victoria Gaura/ Colouredraysofgrey, 2013

 

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When Real Men Cry

A Comedian Silences a Room for 9 minutes

I randomly came across this video while trolling facebook out of sheer boredom so no, I wasn’t searching for it neither was I looking out for it when I stumbled upon it and IT found me. I say it found me because I woke up this morning in a helluva funk and I was being a little extra hard on myself than I usually am about my commitment, or lack thereof, to my writing. I was interrogating myself about why I haven’t written anything just this morning and my response to that was “because I don’t have anything I want to say” which in itself was a lie because there are a lot of things I want to say to a lot of people but I will not allow myself to do so right now. Then I saw this video clip and I was moved by this man. Moved by a man I had never heard of until today and will never ever meet in my life to say something. Also, writing a blog post on this, right now, at this very moment helps me to justify (to myself) why I am crying in the office, albeit no tears are being shed but I am practically sobbing nonetheless. *Crying on the inside when you don’t have the luxury to be in a (concealed, bolted and secure) private space is a skill I mustered and perfected many, many years ago*

In a way I guess I am also a victim and subsequent perpetrator of the same nonsensical filth that is regimentally administered to men, and in particular, Afrikan men, from a young age and that is crying is a sign of weakness so I kind of get it. Our Afrikan brothers are told it’s not OK for a man to cry and our Afrikan sisters are taught the same thing: “it’s not OK for a man to cry”. Today though, people are going back to the basics and the message is changing and it is “real men do cry” but after generations of both brown women and brown men being oppressed by the system of patriarchy as well as that of colonial and racial oppression it is that much harder for us (Afrikans) to unlearn the falsehoods that were taught to us for so long and relearn the truth: “real men do cry”.

U.S Rapper, Lupe Fiasco, broke down during an interview on MTV's RapFix Live as he recalled some of his late Chicago friends & spoke of the street violence in the "hood'

U.S Rapper, Lupe Fiasco, broke down during an interview on MTV’s RapFix Live as he recalled some of his late Chicago friends & spoke of the street violence in the “hood’

However, just because it is harder it doesn’t mean it is impossible because it’s not. It is happening. We are relearning our (real) old truths and it is starting to show little by little in little spaces, nooks and crannies in our communities. Our men our unlearning the lies and becoming real men and Anthony Griffith is one such real man. It is time we also start doing the same as Afrikan women. We are more accepting of non – Afrikan men crying and perhaps even yearn for these “sensitive guys” but most of us will neither accept nor love Afrikan men who do cry. In the fight for gender equality on the continent, the Afrikan man is positioned as an enemy, a perpetrator of oppressive systems towards women and yet we don’t stop as women to evaluate ourselves and see how much we are also perpetuating the oppression of the Afrikan man, not by the systems of capitalism or (neo)colonialism mind you, but by the same patriarchy that oppresses us.

I am not a man so I will never know what it is like to be a man and I wont pretend to know, but I am a woman who can understand how hard it must be to always have to be “strong” and this is because I am also an accidental victim of the same lie. I also partook of the “crying is a sign of weakness” toxic venom that was administered to us as a people and so I know how excruciating it is to pretend your feelings don’t exist or pretend to be handling a loss well when inside your whole world is crumbling. When inside you feel like someone is knocking the wind out of you, repeatedly, every 30secs. Inside, you wish you had a knife in your hand so you could cut out your heart just to ease the growing physical pain swelling up inside your chest. Inside, you are wailing so loud you feel as though your eardrums are going burst. Inside, you can’t feel your legs or your arms and it feels as though someone has just emptied a whole box of pins into eyes and they’re pressing their hand over your eyelids. I know, at the very least, what that feels like and whether we admit it or not, everyone, male or female, feels – well except psychopaths (male or female), it gets a little grey there. Losing someone or something you love with your whole being is not something that is easier on men than it is on women so why should experiencing that grief be made easier for women than it is for men?

As an Afrikan woman I have experienced different kinds of feminism as part of my journey into womanhood. I have been on many paths of my journey and have wound up in different places of feminism. I have moved from a place where I despised all men, detoured through a place where I despised just Afrikan men and over the last year or so, I now happily find myself in a place where I love (real) men, regardless of what race they are. Real men like Anthony Griffith and many others who, amongst other things, can be real in spite of the fact that everything he has been taught, everything he knows, everything he has ever known tells him that is not how a man should be behave, least of all a “black” man. If men can allow themselves to be real to themselves and debunk such seemingly “minor” falsehoods like “real men don’t cry”, I believe it will go a long way in helping them to re-embrace other realities about themselves such as their true love, respect, admiration, adoration and veneration of the woman.

© Doreen Victoria Gaura/ Colouredraysofgrey, 2012

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2012 in Afritude, Culture, Gender, Reflections

 

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