Feminism is: A broad church (including atheists)

In a country in which white women are generally more privileged than black men, intersectionality is the most important aspect of feminism today.

So much so that ‘white feminism’, or that which only defines feminism in terms of the fight against oppression based solely on gender, rather than the layers – or intersections – of oppression faced by black and gay women, as well as trans persons, has become an insult. This is also pertinent to the black experience in the USA, which is why Nicole Arbour’s remake of Childish Gambino’s This is America video is problematic, to put it mildly, and has justifiably been roundly condemned.

Before reading the 31 essays contained in the anthology edited by Jen Thorpe called Feminism Is, I would not have seen this clearly. I might have been confused as to why feminist sites were dissing Arbour’s This is America: Women’s Edit. for anything other than being a blatant co-option of Donald Glover’s art.

In this sense, Feminism Is, is educational, which is essentially a default of its stated purpose, which was to investigate what feminism, particularly in the South African context, actually is. (Yes, the title is self evident).

In the introduction, Thorpe states the idea for the anthology was conceived at an Open Book Festival event in 2016 titled ‘Talking Feminism’. Yet it is in no way a textbook on feminism. The book presumes the reader is at least familiar with the movement, supportive of it, and probably identifies as a feminist and is interested in engaging with the ideas of others actively involved in the movement. Yet, one doesn’t have to be in the choir, you could just be in the congregation. At the back. Or even just leaning in at the door, as I was. The education comes from listening to the hymns, which range from the almost apologetic (Rebecca Davis), through reflective (Anja Venter) to critical (Owethu Makhatini) and unapologetically angry (Larissa Klazinga).

Which proves the point of Thorpe’s introduction: “The panel (at Open Book) … reminded me that feminism doesn’t mean the same thing to all people. That feminism is sometimes a contested space. That the label doesn’t meet everyone’s expectations, but is a welcome home for others.”

As such, there are almost as many different views on feminism as there are authors. There are opposing views, but there are also many commonalities.

Dela Gwala writes about her spiritual quest and the potentially self-destructive rage that accompanies the fight against the endemic, brutal violence meted out to women in South Africa (particularly black lesbians) that manifests as rape and murder on a daily basis. Gwala’s search for a means to combat violence with compassion stands right next to Klazinga’s description of 21st Century front line feminism as a “blood sport”, along with a call to arms.

There’s climate change as a feminist issue because it will disproportionately affect the poor, particularly women, an essay in which Louise Ferreira also interrogates her own attitude to veganism. Within the same covers Aaisha Dadi Patel muses on the “liberal feminists” perception that Islam and feminism are incompatible.

Yet intersectionality, and the importance thereof, is a thread running through the entire anthology, with Flavia Dzodan’s quote: ‘My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit’ mentioned a number of times.

The supportive nature of sisterhood is also praised in numerous essays, as is the notion that many women of the previous generation were practically engaged in the struggle for equality despite having no theoretical framework. Many of the writers display their strength and commitment through their vulnerability; their willingness to publicly expose their personal experience of rape, or living with HIV.

Given the diversity of views, Feminism Is makes an important contribution to dissecting and understanding feminism today, the gains it has made and the mammoth (at times seemingly Sisyphean) task of combating the increasingly global patriarchal military-industrial economic system that is arguably digging itself in for a determined stand against progressive forces.

It goes some way to drawing in the uncommitted or unsure to a movement which often doesn’t exactly hold the door open – especially to men – but is not meant to be a ‘feminism for dummies’, nor is it.

(Sidenote: I’ve witnessed well-intentioned young men who themselves are victims of patriarchal value systems being rejected with hostility by feminists when expressing a desire to better understand the daily struggles women face. Rather than ‘go educate themselves’ as they were ordered to do, they left bewildered, rejected, and less inclined to empathise with women’s oppression. This unfortunate and self-sabotaging tendency, echoed by many fallists when encountering someone curious about the ongoing impact of colonialism, was mentioned once in the book.)

Although not exclusive, this is essentially a book by feminists for feminists and will as a result have many readers nodding their heads in agreement for the most part, and probably also shaking them in dissent on occasion. Those with no interest in feminism are unlikely to pick it up.

Interestingly, and as an example of the importance of intersectionality, the initial call was for women contributors only, but this was challenged by B Camminga, who is a trans person and doesn’t identify themself within the male/female binary, as well as by a similarly gender non-binary friend who also received an invitation to contribute. To Thorpe’s credit, the challenge to this binary, and the resultant discussion, makes up Camminga’s contribution, which goes a long way to creating greater recognition for trans people and the intersectional struggles they face, even within the feminist movement itself. It also explains why the subtitle is South Africans speak their truth, and not South African women speak their truth.

Running the risk of being accused of mansplaining, it would be interesting to read what a few men have to say about what feminism is, but in the same breath, there are probably so few men actively involved in the struggle for women’s rights, that including even one man among 31 voices would be disproportionate. It would be good to see that change.

In the meantime, while it may not be the most engaging read, it is not tedious at worst and interesting for the most part. It is also a good way to get educated.

Feminism Is: South Africans speak their truth, is published by Kwela Books. It will be included in event discussions at the Open Book Festival from 5 – 9 September in Cape Town. Check openbookfestival.co.za for the programme.

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