It is seldom that I read something that physically winds me. John Metta’s piece on Huffington Post entitled “I-Racist” did just that. If you haven’t read it I suggest you take a few deep breaths and do so. It is deeply challenging.
I don’t want to ruin the read for you but at the heart of Metta’s piece is a simple hypothesis: the world order is still fundamentally white and not much about this fact is changing.
But I don’t want to go down the race road in this piece; you can read I-Racist for that. I want to make a connection between what Metta is saying and Women’s Month/Day; the world order is still fundamentally male and we – men that is – are not doing enough to change this. In fact it can be argued that we are contributing to it.
Over the years I have become increasingly concerned that August’s focus on women is beginning to do more harm than good. In a very insidious way we have begun to trivialise the issue of the inequality and abuse of women on a very fundamental level and – in so doing – we have watered down the very message that this month is aiming to communicate.
August was meant to remind us that the emancipation of South African women is an ongoing project that is nowhere near completion. Instead we have slowly but surely turned it into something that looks like a cross between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day: “Have you told your girls how much you love them?” I was asked on Women’s Day. I believe that this creeping distortion of what this month is all about is damaging the cause of the true emancipation of women.
Contributing to this distortion is the growing commercialisation of Women’s Month; it is being used to market and sell products from beds to stationery. The current strapline of a Bic pen campaign is particularly troubling: “Look like a girl, Act like a lady, Think like a man, Work like a boss. #HappyWomen’sDay.” This campaign – and indeed many others –belittles the devastating issues facing millions of women on a daily basis in this country.
Back to the connection with I-Racist: We live in a society in which men benefit from the oppression of women. Fundamentally we don’t believe that there is a problem with women’s equality in South Africa, just like we don’t fundamentally believe that there is a problem with racism. White people believe that black people should just “get over themselves” and “stop playing the race card”. Men fundamentally believe the same about women; “what do you mean you don’t have the same opportunities as men?” we ask incredulously.
And if this sounds harsh then I invite you to ask yourself a few questions: how many female directors are there on your board? How many female leaders are there in your church/place of worship? How many male secretaries are there in your company? If the answer to all these questions is 50:50 then you have joined the fight against the abuse of women in South Africa. If not – then you are contributing to it.
As President Obama said about tackling racism, it is not simply “avoiding the use of the word nigger”. By the same token, we abuse women in myriad ways and not just in how we talk about them or have sex with them – although those are massive issues in this country. We abuse them by accepting salaries that are higher than our female counterparts (on average 30% higher); we abuse them by investing in JSE-listed companies in spite of the fact that only 16% of executive directors in these companies are women; we abuse them by attending places of worship that continue to privilege men for positions of leadership and we abuse them by using Women’s Day to market products.
The reality is that we are women abusers not necessarily because we lift a hand against women (although many do that too) but because we fail to lift our voices against a system that fundamentally, intrinsically privileges men.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.