There are at least two aspects to consider in understanding the reluctance of many black women to fully embrace women’s rights discourse and make violence against women a matter of political importance.
Firstly, this has to do with the historical context of the discourse and how black women joined it. Secondly, black women have different perceptions of current pressing needs and priorities in their struggles for basic survival and broader communal liberation.
This reluctance has not stood in the way of women being active in South Africa’s struggle against racial oppression. The country celebrates National Women’s Day on August 9. The day marks an historic march in 1956 of women from various racial, ethnic and class backgrounds. The march was a visible display of the power of women to publicly make their voices heard on matters they considered vital to their everyday lives.
This event and the more sustained role of women in South Africa’s liberation movements served as precursors to the participation of women in government after apartheid.
Although not necessarily universally approved, the participation of women in government is arguably taken to be par for the course. This is also aided by the implementation of quota systems and the country’s commitment to international human rights agreements. And yet this rhetoric of women empowerment has done little to radically halt the scourge of gender-based violence in the country.
Historical context of feminism
The modern concept of human rights that informs international human rights originated in the context of ethnocentric European endeavours at achieving consensus-based nation building. The ideal was conceived in 17th century European social contract theory.
In this context, rights were understood to be entitlements allocated to rational individual human agents - namely, white European males. This individualised European, male-centric concept of human rights is often contrasted with African customary emphasis on collective rights based on ascriptive criteria such as lineage, sex, nobility of birth and age.
The European concept of rights excluded two broad categories of people: white women and all non-Europeans subjected to European colonial domination, including slavery. Whereas white women were considered to be imperfect humans lacking rationality, the basic humanity of all non-Europeans was totally rejected.
It is currently accepted that there is a plurality of feminisms. But much of what we perceive as the broader feminist agenda and women’s rights is attributed to movements originating in Europe and North America. These were dominated by white women in the late 19th Century to the early 20th Century and then in the late 1960s up to the 1980s.
Such a feminist agenda is understood to be a direct response mainly to the exclusion of white women from this male-centric ambit of European-defined human rights. It went on to inspire the women’s movement in white communities within the colonies. The women’s rights focus on political equality is attributed to the earlier feminist wave. The latter wave is associated with a more complex challenge against patriarchy and its violent consequences.
Twin battles facing black women
Black and other women of colour on the African continent and in the diaspora were also politically active during these times and they have continued to be. But they faced the dilemma of being torn between confronting the challenges they faced as women and those they faced as members of black communities. They were living in dire conditions of deprivation and involved in struggles for group emancipation or liberation from colonial rule.
Of course, we cannot ignore that much of the African nationalist rhetoric drew selectively from, and expanded on, the same European canon of human rights. The earliest protests of black South African women were as much about women asserting their right to make a living in the urban areas as they were about fighting to protect the integrity of the black family. This added to strengthening their communities as a whole.
In the current democratic era, black women’s negotiations of human rights continue to be a delicate balancing act. This is between personal needs and broader family or community needs. This arises from the awareness that both black men and women continue to struggle with colonial legacies of socio-economic deprivation.
The struggle continues
Earlier this year, headlines heralded a national and global backlash against women’s rights. In South Africa the backlash is led by conservative males within government, religious authorities and so-called ‘traditional’ rulers, as well as the general public.
These groups have variously instigated, encouraged, aided or otherwise condoned violence against women. Such is their opposition to women achieving political equality and enjoying physical and economic autonomy.
The groups are also implicated in the conception of legislation that seeks to limit women’s freedom of expression and reproductive rights. They also seek to create ‘cultural’ enclaves of male privilege where women’s access to criminal or social justice would be reduced.
Evidence of this backlash is rarely visible to the public, where political correctness makes women bite their tongues. What the headlines don’t show is that the backlash may also come from women. Some recent prominent examples include:
The presence of women among President Jacob Zuma’s supporters at his rape trial despite the apparently sexist assumptions expressed by the defence team and presiding judge, and
The ANC Women’s League president’s declaration that South Africa was not ready for a female head of state.
There is collective sense of betrayal when a woman is perceived to bring a black male leader under negative public scrutiny. The stakes are even higher when this public scrutiny involves observers from outside the ‘community’. The figure of the ‘strong black male’ leader continues to be the vanguard of liberation.
Alliances between white and black feminists and black women generally continue to be volatile. This is for the simple reason that white women’s dominance in women’s human rights discourse persists, pitting black women against African cultures. These are characterised as intrinsically oppressive.
Both white and black women’s rights activists need to realise that, for black women, demands for equal dignity and fairness do not necessarily entail a desire to do away with male leadership in the home, community and country.
Moreover, we can expect a level of scepticism about campaigns aimed at eliminating gender-based violence if the women’s rights message trumps the community collaboration message. Studies and media coverage of such violence also need to go beyond focusing mainly on black males as the aggressors.