We Should All Be Feminists. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s manifesto for feminism has become the modern movement’s go-to guide. We Should All Be Feminists is so important that it was introduced as a mandatory text for all Swedish 16-year-olds. Just before that, Australia introduced feminist theory as an elective subject. These are just some examples of countries integrating gender equality into institutions that play a big role in social development. This is especially true for the education system. So why aren’t we doing this in South Africa?
We all learn about gender as children through subtle social cues. These subliminal messages construct our understanding of how we’re meant to behave, dress and act as either ‘boys’ or ‘girls’. The codes are clear: pink and dresses are for girls; blue and jeans with actual pockets are for boys. These historical gender roles socialise girls as fragile, obedient and submissive, and boys as assertive, strong and extroverted.
How do we stop the cycle of patriarchy?
The normalisation of gender inequality all starts at childhood.
‘It can’t ever be too early to emphasise the idea that girls deserve the full scope of human rights and opportunity,’ says journalist and presenter at 702, Gugu Mhlungu. But as we know, it isn’t just up to young women to fight systemic gender discrimination. Men have a central role in perpetuating gender equality because – hello! – they benefit directly from it. Socially, politically and economically, the current system offers plenty of privileges to men.
‘Ultimately, men are responsible for ending patriarchy’
‘The patriarchy is for their benefit, so it is important that they understand how existing norms and standards do so at the expense of women and queer people, particularly people who are both female and queer – an example of this is the high incidence of violence against lesbians in the country,’ says Mhlungu.
‘Feminism would help men see and understand the ways in which society is unfair to anyone not deemed “man enough”. That same hyper-masculinity harms everyone, including men. Then hopefully they can begin the work of using what they know and what they have (such as a high-level position at work) to begin to challenge and change that.’
Why not raise boys as feminists?
‘The single greatest gift/privilege I have enjoyed was my grandmother being a feminist and raising my mother as a feminist,’ says Mhlungu. ‘Both my mother and gran’s choices have fundamentally changed the trajectory of my family. It’s not a myth that offering girls and young women every opportunity (no matter how small, and especially access to education) is radical.’
‘My grandmother’s insistence that my mother stay in school meant I could benefit from a mother with education. That has an immense impact on the outcomes of any child – male or female,’ continues Mhlungu.
‘Men need to understand feminism the most’
Women are often shouldered with the responsibility to be nurturers, providers and saviours of the world. It’s time men start adding to the conversation and stop sitting on the sidelines.
‘Young male children and men need to understand feminism the most,’ says Mhlungu. ‘Young men are raised on a toxic diet of “boys will be boys”. The rules for girls and exceptions for boys contributes to inequality. It feeds into every single part of society. That’s why it’s never too early to learn and understand the many ways societies privilege some over others. It’s also key to understand the ways in which this oppression intersects with race, class, gender and sexuality. In a country as violent as South Africa, we don’t teach the values of feminism early enough.’
How can parents do better?
Someone’s got to teach the kids, right? Who better than the people raising them. But it’s up to parents to educate themselves and make sure to stop the cycle of socialising children to accept gender inequality.
‘One of the things I wish all parents would unlearn is that violence is a necessary part of “growing up” and that children, by virtue of being children and vulnerable, deserve violence,’ says Mhlungu. ‘So much patriarchal violence begins and plays out in childhood – often first by parents. Parenting and socialising children is a feminist issue. Even in a parenting relationship there are two ways to do it. We can either raise children with a deep sense of justice or children who believe they have a right to beat and violate those smaller or less powerful than them.’
‘We need feminism as a way of raising children that considers children have rights’
Adds Mhlungu: ‘For me, that would be the first place to start: feminism as a way of raising children that considers children humans with rights to dignity, safety, privacy, respect and bodily autonomy. We can’t deal with society’s violence if we leave violence in parent-children relationships untouched. We must transform all of it.’
Read what more men can do to end gender-based violence.
Gugu Mhlungu is a contributor to Feminism Is, a proudly South African collection of stories edited by writer Jen Thorpe and featuring the narratives of feminists, womanists and the identities in between. Grab the fiercely femme anthology here.
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