collage by Lex Trickett

Women’s World Wide Web – Reviewing SA’s Feminist Movement in 2015 

While it may be true that over the years certain features of the multilayered feminist project have been incorporated into laws and institutional structures, the emergent new wave expands on feminist ideals via new and varied avenues of protest against heteropatriarchal norms and values. In the South African context specifically, and across the globe more generally, collaborations between women; as well as their insights, information and imagery being distributed online, is evidence of a form of feminism that is increasingly innovative for its character of being part of everyday public life. As will be discuss in this essay, this new feminist project goes beyond institutional ideas of equality by engaging with the specific experiences and struggles attached to the female body and psyche through globally accessible online spaces.

Internationally, a formal emphasis on gender equality and women’s empowerment policies can be seen through happenings such as the African Union’s declaration on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, namely, the “African Women’s Decade 2010-2020” as well as popular actress Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame being appointed the United Nations’ new Goodwill Ambassador in 2014, focusing specifically on women with UN’s gender equality HeForShe campaign.

These are instances indicating that a macro level emphasis on gender equality is far from dormant. It is however important to note that there have been continuously evolving renderings of feminist movements (the plural needs to be emphasized as not all feminist groupings are able to speak to all experiences of womanhood) on more micro-levels, particularly sparked by technological changes in the platforms women use to articulate their presence in society. While women may not be burning bras, they are certainly igniting a new kind of fire amongst themselves – in some cases even getting rid of their bras as seen by the #FreeTheNipple campaign.

During an interview with poet and activist Lebohang ‘Nova’ Masango, she spoke to how what defines this upsurge of popularized feminism is its digital dimension. Social media has allowed for a proliferation of varied circulations of female realizations and representations. The internet has opened doors to new platforms on which women can articulate themselves, as well as allowing for a larger sense of community. As explained by Nova, “People are not afraid to self-identify as feminist anymore”. Of course, this popular embracing of women power is not only a result of internet connectivity but can also be attributed to celebrities like Beyoncé using her iconic status as a platform to advocate for a new brand of feminism, albeit mainstream. And perhaps this is what is new about feminism – it is no longer perceived to be a movement for marginalized female intellectuals, queer activists, or other such ostracized communities.

While Nova makes mention of the controversy around Beyoncé as a feminist figure given her irrefutable connection to both capitalism and consumerism (something that feminism as a political and social ideology is irrevocably at odds with), not to mention that for many men she is the ultimate sex symbol, the importance of her ascribing to the feminist label goes beyond semiotics. In sum, as an immensely talented, hugely successful business woman, she has made it clear to the world that feminists do not have to be frumpy. “You can be sexy…You can be married and have a career and whatever, you know,” says Nova.

Award-winning Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has also been an inspiration for the recognition that women can care about what they look like as well as be taken seriously in any chosen field. There is a strong emphasis on the need to encourage and celebrate women’s ability to play more than one role at a time. The article On smart women being ‘hot babes’ written by Simamkele Dlakavu sums this up aptly in which she states that a woman looking after herself “goes beyond the aesthetic, it is a political act…”. Another woman who is the epitome of women’s ability to be successful in multiple roles is South African novelist Lauren Beukes. She is an award-winning, internationally best-selling novelist who has written some of South Africa’s contemporary greats including Zoo City and her most recent book, Broken Monsters which won best adrenaline novel in American Library Association’s 2015 Reading List for adult fiction. She in addition to this writes comics, TV shows and films. Her documentary Glitterboys & Ganglands about contestants in South Africa’s biggest female impersonator pageant won Best GLBT Film at one of the largest black film festivals, the San Diego Black Film Festival in 2012. Her work is injecting a strong female presence in genres that are heavily dominated by men.

The intersectional nature of women moving purposefully is a clear foundation of this contemporary feminism, where groups are coming together to address issues related their own experiences of womanhood, as it intersects with other experiences.

The Feminist Stokvel is one such example, where eight accomplished black women came together in 2014 with the aim of creating a “safe and nurturing space” for black women’s voices to be paramount.

Danielle Bowler, Kavuli Nyali, Lebogang Mashile, Milisuthando Bongela, Nova Masango, Panashe Chigumadzi, Pontsho Pilane, and Wisaal Anderson are the founders of the Stokvel. They have focused on the politics and pain around natural hair. As one of the founders, Nova explains that this is because “we [black women] have so much pain, trauma and shame attached to our hair”. In September the collective hosted The Feminist Stokvel Hair Soiree: Dem Baby Hairs in which women raising black children were invited to discuss and get advice on how to nurture their children’s’ hair. This was in recognition of the fact that the hair of black women is problematized from a young age when girls are instructed by schools on what hairstyles are appropriate. Flowing from their own experiences, their aim was for black hair to be an entry point through which other issues experienced by black women may be discussed.

This is an example of the zooming in on specific female experiences, as well as an attempt to re-define dominant ideas related to physical appearances. The platforms created by the collective pays long-overdue attention to experiences and evaluations of black hair and uses this as the medium through which to affect solidarity, self-love and self-appreciation. This is an example of gendered and racialized realities intersecting and being given a voice through the efforts of women working together – reclaiming the black woman’s body and allowing her to cultivate positive views about herself through a community of women on the same path.  On their blog and Instagram page, the use of weekly hashtags such as #wwlw (Women We Love Wednesdays) and #FSFridays (Feminist Stokvel Fridays) are some of the ways in which they celebrate the achievements of their members as well as recognize the work of women more generally. These posts emphasize their attempt to expand definitions of beauty and to highlight women’s success at performing multiple roles. It also connects their work to the role that the internet and social media play in contributing to a feminist project.

While the use of the internet to extend feminist activism and to aid the possibilities for collaboration has been around since the ’90s, contemporary digi-feminism or cyber-feminism has progressively been taking on a more provocative nature. The ever-increasing use of social media and proliferation blogs and websites, and the production of digital art confronting and challenging power relations and gender imaginaries are all evidence of support for platforms used to critique hetero-patriarchal ideas and spaces.

A controversial and hugely popular campaign, #FreeTheNipple, protests the double standards women face regarding how their bodies are perceived and the censorship of their bodies. This campaign relies on women uploading images of exposed breasts. Celebrities and female MPs have participated in the campaign which aims to desexualize breasts. This campaign is turning traditional body politics on its head by arguing that all bodies should be protected and embraced. In doing so, the participants are advocating that holding onto notions related to heteronormativity are not only irrelevant but increasingly dangerous as they are used for the justification of physical and emotional violence, human rights abuses and exploitative beauty marketing campaigns.

In her video Afro Cyber Resistance, French-born and Johannesburg-based online artist and activist Tabita Rezaire questions the democracy of the internet by stating that it is a “colonized space”. She addresses the representation of marginalized identities within larger internet structures such as search engines, highlighting that “the internet is a space for sharing and disseminating information. And whoever controls this flow of information has power”. In response to this, she approaches the internet as it were a site of resistance, participating in the information that is uploaded online, and actively claiming internet space with contemporary and evocative digital imagery.

South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s latest book, Faces and Phases 2006-2014, contains portraits of queer black women is another instance of the fight to ensure that all bodies are permitted visibility in the public domain. The book was launched in December 2014, in conjunction with the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children campaign. It is comprised not only of gripping portraits of black women identifying as gay, lesbian, transgender or intersex, but also includes testimonies and poetry, allowing readers to see these women as more than just visuals, human, rich characters with even richer lives and histories. Same Mdluli in his article on Muholi’s book describes it as a heterogeneous collection of stories challenging what is perceived as ‘normal’ in terms of sexual orientation”. Jody Brand’s CHOMMA also offers a visual commentary on South Africa’s street life and gender-bending. She confronts the viewer with photographs that interrogate gender and sexuality stereotypes. Much like Rezaire is challenging the oppression of digitized spaces in her work, Muholi and Brand’s photography challenges ideas around heteronomativity, each one of them confronting ideas about spaces and faces in their own way.

Movement around issues of gender, race and power points to broader social, as well as economic initiatives where women are breaking barriers socially as well as making an impact on popular culture trends. The Other Girls is one such female collective that has Jo’burgers planning their social lives around The WKND Social. Inspired by New York’s brunch and laidback daytime party scene, Thithi Nteta, Nandi Dlepu, Vuyiswa Muthshekwane Nothando Moleketi and Tumi Mohale launched The WKND Social as an innovative way to get people to explore the different parts of the city through “Good Food. Good People. Good Music.” Held at different venues on a monthly basis, it is a refreshing and brave alternative to parties and events being primarily hosted and promoted by men.

Speaking about bravery, Cape Town based jewelry designer Katherine-Mary Mary Pichulik came out with a new jewelry series called Brave Women. Using portraits and videos of women wearing her accessories, she aims to highlight how these women “create, make and do in spite of their fears”. The most recent woman to be featured in her series is Talia Sanhewe, award-winning reporter, entrepreneur and founder of her own production company. Similarly, Vusiwe Mashinini, started her own production company when only but 23, called VM Productions, and with the aim of opening up a space for women in the male-dominated media production industry, Mashinini employs women with a variety of skills relevant for her company.

Female musicians, and rappers particularly, are also making their presence felt within the always developing hip hop scene. Ntsiki Mazwai, Yugen Blakrok, Miss Celaneous, Dope Saint Jude and Gigi Lamayne are some of South Africa’s female rappers who have been adding new flavour to the male-dominated rap scene. Mazwai stood up for herself and fellow female rappers in her open letter titled “Dear Brothers in SA Hip Hop” stating that male hip hop artists need to see women as their equals, not simply “as your back up vocalists or twerkers”. She also emphasized the importance of recognizing the contribution that female rappers have made to the growth and diversity of South African Hip Hop. Aside from their contributions to growth, these artists are also growing in leaps and bounds – and accordingly being recognized for it. Gigi Lamayne was the winner of the Best Female category at the 2013 South African Hip Hop Awards and Yugen Blakrok was nominated for Best Freshman, Best Female Emcee and Best Lyricist at the 2014 SA Hip Hop Awards.

Miss Celaneous and Dope Saint Jude, both from Cape Town, are women who are using their creative work to make commentary on perceptions of women, gender, sexuality, class and the Coloured community. Miss Celaneous is a promoter of women’s freedom and often-overlooked dimensions of Coloured culture and this is expressed through her use of slang and provocative lyrics. Dope Saint Jude has been described as a “socially conscious advocate for feminism…and gender neutrality in Cape Town” by Okay Africa, with her lyrics and videos complicating distinctions between gender, race and class identities and thereby bringing to the fore issues related to power and inequalities. With a mixture of Cape Coloured slang and ‘Gayle’ (slang used in queer Coloured subcultures) tracks such as “Keep In Touch” are saturated with both metaphors, blatant references and high-powered social commentary on the tensions she sees in society. In doing so, she promotes the multifaceted nature of her own personality, and consequently refracts as a role model for many.

As mentioned earlier, feminist movements are always evolving in response to contemporary experiences and realities. This essay has highlighted some of the preliminary trends, people, as well as online and practical dimensions of an ever-strengthening wave of women moving powerfully in South Africa within the current context of global attention to women’s empowerment.  It’s not just about getting female faces out there. It is a process which involves the re-evaluating and reconstructing conceptions and perceptions of womanhood, the female body and women’s role in society through online spaces, women for women collectives and the bending of stereotypes; as well as looking at how these ideas intersect with other social categories. And it’s about love, in every sense of the word.

[Written by Christa Dee & Sindi-Leigh McBride]

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