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The politics of a woman’s body

- Ufrieda Ho

The backsliding of women’s rights happening right now should be the clarion call that gender rights are still everybody’s business.

Afghanistan seems a million miles away, so does Texas in the USA. But in early spring, events in those two places struck a chilling chord for women everywhere. It was a stark reminder of just how quickly the backsliding of rights happens in a world where women’s bodies remain fair game.

The return of the Taliban to rule comes with the terror of its track record against women. Its interpretation of Sharia law has included keeping girls from attending school, prohibiting women from being in public without a male guardian, banning nail polish and demanding the public floggings for women considered to have transgressed certain laws.

In Texas this September the state passed into law limits to abortion care after six weeks of pregnancy, when many women are not even aware that they may be pregnant. It extended this with a diabolical so-called ‘bounty clause’. It allows citizens to sue those who assist in any way in the provision of an abortion and rewards them by covering their legal costs and offering a $10 000 ‘incentive’.

These are just two examples that reflect how it has always been a situation of two steps forward and one step back when it comes to women’s bodies as the sites upon which others’ decisions are played out.

Lenore Manderson, a medical anthropologist and Distinguished Professor in the School of Public Health, highlights the contradictions that women face on an everyday basis.

Theory vs practice

“There’s tension that is played out on women's bodies and a consistent tension of women having to try to claim a right for an equal voice,” she says.

For example, SA has a liberal abortion policy compared to other African countries, yet it is not easy for women to access abortions, or even contraception. “In practice, many young, unmarried women don’t feel that they have the authority to ask for contraceptives at a public clinic, and feel judged when seeking an abortion,” Manderson says.

“Women don't have anything like a strong voice in any arena. And that includes in the corporate world, the political world, and educational institutions. The irony is that women in South Africa aren't invisible as they are in some societies, but they are nevertheless consistently pushed to the side.”

There is rhetoric, and paradoxes, that mean patriarchy impacts on women’s lives not just as systemic and structural fixtures in society. There are also hundreds of micro-aggressions directed at women, which are sometimes not immediately recognisable, and sometimes not even exacted by men, which keep women on the back foot.

For example, it is often female healthcare workers who choose ‘cruelty over caring’ for their women patients and clients. It could be shaming a teenager for having sex before marriage or judging a sex worker for asking for lubricants or berating a mother whose child’s illness has not been managed in a way regarded as appropriate. Such judgemental attitudes impact negatively on women’s healthcare choices, their access to information and their health-seeking behaviours.

Hopes and Dreams that Sound Like Yours: Stories of Queer Activism in Sub-Saharan Africa. © Taboom Media & GALA Queer Archive, 2021. Illustration by Lamb of Lamila

Hopes and Dreams that Sound Like Yours: Stories of Queer Activism in Sub-Saharan Africa. © Taboom Media & GALA Queer Archive, 2021. Illustration by Lamb of Lamila

Paying lip service

Added to this are the pressures that women experience of being poorly paid, working in often appalling conditions with few prospects of advancement or improvement, and juggling work with their own personal burdens. All of this is framed within a society that fails women by only paying lip service to being tough on gender-based violence; that does not rectify the skewered burden of household division of labour; or that allows the imbalance of child-rearing responsibilities still to be placed squarely on women’s shoulders.

“Women – and LGBTQIA+ people – are subject to a range of put-downs, inequalities and exclusions that need to be challenged in order to protect people’s rights,” says Manderson.

One powerful tool to challenge these inequalities lies with artists. As creatives, they smash boxes and use the abstract as deliberate power. 

Creative engagement

The Wits Art Museum (WAM) will dedicate its 10-year anniversary in 2022 to women artists’ solo exhibitions. The focus on women artists is a statement about using art to start conversations, to go to tension points and to touch raw nerves.

Julia Charlton, Senior Curator at the Museum, says: “There are artists who are very consciously using their identities, their bodies and their modes to engage specifically around issues [like the political and the personal of women’s bodies]. But there’s a kind of space in the exhibition platform between what the artists think they're doing and why and how they’re doing their art; and what the audience sees in the end. It creates a conversation and engagement that is open to interpretation.”

One reaction could be to understand the bodily risk to Zanele Muholi in making photographs of herself and queer and transgender people in her series Faces and Phases. Another could be engaging with Penny Siopis’s Pinky Pinky series to recognise the dread of being a teenage girl in a world that regulates women’s bodies; that uses and rapes women’s bodies and dismisses the trauma. It may be to appreciate bead work made by unknown female master bead workers, but to ask the critical questions about anonymity, agency and the lack of access for many women crafters and artists. 

Fiona Rankin-Smith, Special Projects Curator, who will curate the WAM’s exhibitions with Kutlwano Mokgojwa, the African Art Collections Curator, says that in tallying up the gender split for solo exhibitions over the years, it did come as something of a reckoning that male artists have dominated.

“It wasn’t unexpected because the reality is that we come from a very male-dominated space, historically,” she says. 

Self-care and self-love

For Dr Danai Mupotsa, a Senior Lecturer in African Literature with research interests that include feminist and queer theory, being deliberate is personal accountability, authority, presence, clarity of purpose and also healing. It is what is appropriate in a “hyper-capitalist, time-invasive world that has constructed secularism to be anti-black, anti-female, that limits people’s routes to seek justice and separates thinking from feeling,” she says.

These entrenched societal constructs allow for boundaries to be crossed more easily, to cause trauma, but also to escape consequence.

“Often, we experience a feminist consciousness when our boundaries come into contact with something that makes us feel a sense of harm, and this animates as consciousness of something wrong in the world. But because girls and women are taught to be polite, to comply, to not make a fuss, you learn the habit of becoming complicit in your boundaries constantly being crossed,” she says. 

Her call is to enlarge the role and prominence of self-care and self-love.

“Freedoms need to be less capitalist – they need to be less use-based and they need to be less violent.”

  • Ufrieda Ho is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.