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My Body and Me: Personal Reflections on the Idea of “Violence” From a Queer[1] South African Woman

by GS Pinheiro

*Please note, this essay contains descriptions of sexual violence

In this short piece, I offer some personal thoughts and reflections around the notion of “violence”. The writing centres on my own associations with the word, and some personal instances of normative and bodily violences that I have experienced, with particular focus on my identification as a queer woman. Throughout the reflection, experiential knowledge is connected to broader ideas around gendered and sexual identities, as I contemplate some of the ways in which my personal narrative might speak to wider gender arrangements in South Africa and beyond.

Furthermore, whilst this piece is not strictly theoretical in nature, I have drawn from, and been inspired by, several feminist theories throughout the process of self-reflection, including that of intersectionality (e.g. Crenshaw, 1991) and feminist theories of the body (e.g. Cleary, 2016). Intersectionality theory offered a useful lens through which to think about my own experiences in relation to those of other queer, South African women. Within feminist circles, there is substantial debate around the notion of “experience” and, in particular, the tendency to represent all women’s experiences as homogenous is critiqued (e.g. Bachmann & Proust, 2020).

In order to problematise and address these issues, intersectionality theory takes into account different identity vectors (such as race, class, occupation, age, sexual orientation, etc.) and considers how they might relate to a person’s gender identity. Moreover, the theory recognises the situatedness of people’s identities within particular socio-political contexts, and embraces the fluidity and plurality of people’s (especially women’s) identities and realities. It thus provides a sophisticated and complex theoretical perspective on the notion of “experience”.

As I was reflecting and writing, therefore, intersectional principles encouraged a mindfulness around the idea that, whilst many queer women will be able to relate to the subject matter of my personal narration, people’s realities and identities are complex, nuanced, dynamic and unique. Especially as I am an academic who writes and works in South Africa, where people’s identities and circumstances vary widely, and where particular positions offer and/or constrain one’s access to space and other resources quite explicitly (particularly where race and class are taken into consideration), I felt it was important to acknowledge this at the outset.

The occasional reference to these, and other theories in the piece serves as a guiding framework through which to make sense of my personal reflections and self-narration. These personal modes of writing can be considered, in themselves, transformative and healing acts that have the potential to establish alternative meaning systems and voices in spaces that have traditionally been dominated by patriarchal perspectives (such as in academia, for example).

One of the core principles of feminist work is to establish spaces and opportunities for women’s experiences and voices to be prioritised, and there is thus an overt disruption of the traditional dichotomy between “academic” versus “personal” writing and research methodologies (e.g. Kiguwa, 2019). The process of self-reflection and narration that the writing of this piece entailed thus allowed me, in many ways, to hear my own voice, and my intention in sharing my experiences is not only to take up space, but to create spaces for other people to reflect on their own ideas and experiences around the theme.

I suppose it is unsurprising (but no less disconcerting) that, when asked to reflect about my personal thoughts and experiences around “violence”, some of the first ideas that come to mind are violences with which I have been confronted at normative and bodily levels. I am a queer woman, and (especially in South Africa, where I grew up and where I now live and work) physical violence – and sexual violence, in particular – features saliently in the realities of many people who identify (and/or who might be read) in this way (Clarke, Ellis, Peel, & Riggs, 2010).

When I speak of “normative” violence, I refer to gendered expectations and norms that are naturalised in many societies – evident particularly in patriarchal settings – and that have been a central feature in my experience as a queer woman.

When I mention “bodily” violence, I am referring to physical forms of violence that I have experienced, mainly in connection with the normative strands of violence that code for a society’s given gender order.

Throughout my twenty-six years in South Africa, I have found that the two strands are interwoven and connected in intimate and intricate ways. There is rigidity and embeddedness in the rules and regulations that govern our experiences of growing up and living in bodies that are gendered even before the moment of our births.

My personal gendered beginnings happened around the time of my own birth, which initiated a process that Judith Butler (1990) terms “girling”. For me, the girling process was replete with violences and traumas – some rather big, and lots of smaller ones, too. The now-trendy ‘Gender Reveal Party’ (which imposes its own kind of violence to unborn people and is deeply reflective of naturalised gender rules in our world) had not yet been popularized in those days. At my birth my parents were delighted that I was a girl and I was promptly bundled into a pink blanket and taken home after a few days, where I would stay blissfully unaware of my “girlness” for the first few years of my life.

One of the first (and most vivid) memories that I have of seeing my body as gendered can be traced back to when I was about three-years-old. I had received a plastic kitchen set (complete with miniature utensils, stovetop and oven) as a Christmas gift from some of our extended family. On Christmas Day, I remember feeling a keen desire to play on the bikes that the boys had been gifted, but I also remember the sharp sting of disappointment that followed after my Aunt prevented this, saying: Girls mustn’t get their clothes dirty; come let’s go and make something in your new kitchen!

As I grew up I began to realise that not only where there “boy things” and “girl things”, but there were also “bad” men and “good” men. A bad man was the one who masturbated in a cinema whilst staring at me (fortunately I was with my mother who took me away swiftly), good men were found in my home. There I had largely been exposed to much softer kinds of masculinities where my father and uncles (perhaps as a result of their Portuguese upbringings) shared in domestic responsibilities and showed tenderness and love – not only towards the women and children in their lives – but towards one another, too. It was not uncommon for the men in our home to kiss one another on the cheeks in greeting, and my father painted pictures and played Barbies with us as much as he played rough-and-tumble in the garden. At that point, I had little clarity as to what and where “bad men” were, but I had internalised ideas that I was not always safe and men were not always trustworthy.

After several childhood years of dresses, hair bows, fake muffins, plastic stovetops, being afraid of my friends’ fathers at sleepovers, worrying when I used public bathrooms, and trying to keep my clothes in pristine condition, I started to develop breasts at the age of ten. I “developed early” (my mother put it down to my “Mediterranean roots”) and became even more confused when these bodily changes meant that people (girls and boys) began treating me differently. I had never been kissed before, and yet the boys in my Grade Four class would tell me that I was a slut (I had to ask my mother what the word meant) and rumours circulated that I had probably kissed three boys each weekend since the beginning of the school year. To younger girls and boys, I was dangerous, but to older men in societal circles, I was desirable: once, at the age of twelve and walking around a shopping mall, I felt the eyes of two men on my chest:

        • Jesus, look at those tits…
        • And that face!
        • Bro, she still reads Baa Baa Black Sheep…
        • Don’t lie, you’d still tap.

To this day, I have deeply conflicting feelings about my body. These experiences speak to the subtle, but cumulative, normative violence that I, and many other women, encounter in our everyday realities. The implicit and explicit transgressions of personal and bodily boundaries that are inflicted by misogynistic patterns, discourses and hierarchies have profound effects on the psyches and experiences of those who are targeted, and trauma is often held in the body long after the event(s) (Cleary, 2016).

When I was thirteen-years-old, my first period arrived and my mother, trying to relay the news to my father, said through the phone: Your daughter became a woman today. Even at that young age, I remember having questions, and confusing thoughts, about whether this was what made me a woman, and/or whether one’s capacity to menstruate delineated who could (and could not) be considered a “real” woman.

In later years, my hair would become a source of trauma, like the time a man came up behind me in the queue at a coffee shop, and ran his hands through my long hair without my consent: Now this is real woman’s hair, he whispered. Or the time a different man spat in my face and called me a lesbian (I had a short pixie haircut) when I refused his advances at a bar. Today, I’ve come closer to seeing my head and body hair as tools for self-expression, self-acceptance and resistance. However, there continue to be remnants of past trauma there, and I still experience moments of dysphoria with my follicular friends (Synnott, 1987).

As an Undergraduate student at university, I was exposed, for the first time, to critical Gender Studies, and to terms such as “gender-based violence”, “consent” and “hate crime”. When I took my first Gender Studies Honours Course in 2016, I felt as if it was the first time that I had the necessary tools, and a language, to put a face to the problems and uncomfortable feelings that I had been experiencing as a young woman. I also realised that, having often felt constrained and unsettled in my own body for so many years, and having encountered several issues around power (my own and that in relation to others – especially men), it was no surprise that I wanted to learn more about “gender” and even to make a career out of its study and exploration. Simultaneously, I was grappling more intensely with issues and questions around my gendered and sexual identities, and feeling as if I had, for many years, presented in ways that had conformed to standards and expectations that I had not set for myself, but that had been imposed. I mourned what I felt were lost years of free expression, autonomy and play.

In the June of my Honours year, an extension of that bodily mourning ensued after I was raped at a party by a man that I knew reasonably well. I found myself believing all kinds of myths that I had heard circulated about sexual violence, and questioning every aspect of my experience. Months later, I developed severe depression, and my anxiety and dissociative symptoms became more acute. Eventually, I sought the guidance of a professional therapist who helped me to come to terms with what had happened to me.

While my body still holds onto the pain (physical, emotional, psychological) that resulted from that experience, I am now able to challenge rape myths and to call others out when I see “rape culture” in action. I am also no longer in a position where I feel I need to remain silent about what happened to me, and have found significant healing in the telling of my story, especially to other women who share similar experiences.

Along with speaking out, one of the most helpful tools in my healing process has been to read, and read again, a book by Dr Pumla Dineo Gqola (2016), which is titled Rape: A South African Nightmare. In Chapter Seven, she writes:

Rethinking and debunking rape myths is an important part of the conversation of how to bring down the rape statistics and how to create a world without rape. Addressing them allows us to move closer to a world in which rape is taken seriously, where survivors can be supported and recover and where rape is dissuaded rather than excused.

However, it has been, and continues to be, at certain moments, immensely challenging to grapple with the pervasiveness of gender-based violence in the world, but in my home country, especially. At times, it has been difficult and painful to think that the possibility of feeling completely safe and comfortable in this body – and in the spaces through which it moves – may not be realised in my lifetime.

When I hear the word violence, I think instinctively of my own body, and I see alongside it the bodies of other women and gender non-conforming people in our country, many of whom share the same, reflexive associations of violence with their gendered identities and physical forms. In South Africa, and in the context of global gender configurations, many of these bodies continue to exist as sites of contestation and violence.

The most recent revival of masculinist politics – especially in capitalist powerhouses such as the United States of America – means that normative and bodily violences against women (and gender non-conforming people) are naturalised as acceptable parts of our lived realities. Sometimes, it feels as though ours are bodies that must police themselves in order to avoid violence; bodies that have remain hyper-vigilant; bodies that must always be ready to run, to fight, to resist; bodies that are shaped by norm and expectation; bodies that are told to make themselves smaller; bodies that are rarely seen as whole, but that are split into parts for objectification and consumption; bodies that are (de)valued according to their appearance; bodies that are taught to be alienated from pleasure and sex; bodies that are commodifiable and expendable; bodies whose rage and resistance are not tolerable.

However, I also don’t want to see or experience my body as associated (solely, inevitably or automatically) with violence. My body, and my identity, are complex, fluid, evolving, multi-faceted and multidimensional. In this body, I have experienced painful trauma, and violence has been inflicted against me because my body is gendered in certain ways. However, I have also experienced – and continue to experience – pleasure, joy, playfulness, vulnerability, strength, intimacy, curiosity, fascination, love and power with and in this body.

Part of my daily resistance against violence, then, is to recognise and accept the ambivalence and conflict that continues to (and likely will, always) characterise my relationship with my body, and to find even a small moment of lightness and presence with it.

When I think about violence, I try to train my attention, energy and focus towards its roots: towards problematic and oppressive histories, enduring structural inequalities and gendered patterns and hierarchies and how these might be challenged. All the while, my body continues to serve as a physical enactment and representation of my own history, and of the ways in which I explore my identity as I continue to embody this body in a gendered world.

References

Bachmann, I., & Proust, V. (2020). Old concerns, renewed focus and novel problems: feminist communication theory and the Global South, Annals of the International Communication Association, 44(1), 67-80, DOI: 10.1080/23808985.2019.1647445

Butler, J. P. (1990). Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge

Clarke, V., Ellis, S. J., Peel, E., & Riggs, D. W. (2010). Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans & queer psychology: An introduction. London, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press

Cleary, K. (2016). Feminist theories of the body. In N.A. Naples., R.C. Hoogland., M. Wickramasinghe., W. Ching., & A. Wong (Eds.), The Wiley Blackwell encyclopaedia of gender and sexuality studies. Wiley-Blackwell

Crenshaw, K.W. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299

Gqola, P. D. (2016). Rape: A South African Nightmare. Jacanda Media.

Kiguwa, P. (2019). Feminist approaches: An exploration of women’s gendered experiences. In S. Laher, A. Fynn., & S. Kramer (Eds.), Transforming Research Methods in the Social Sciences: Case Studies from South Africa (pp.220-235). Wits University Press

Synnott, A. (1987). Shame and Glory: A Sociology of Hair. The British Journal of Sociology, 38(3), 381. https://doi.org/10.2307/590695.

Footnotes

[1] Queer does not only mean that an individual may inhabit a counter-normative identity, often around sexual orientation or gender identity, but it includes an identification with (citing Nadia Cho): resistance to structural rigidity; challenging the privilege of the “normal”; confronting all forms of oppression; understanding the intersectionality between race, nationality, gender, sexuality and class; searching for alternative ways of being and living; bringing unheard, minority experiences and stories to light; learning to appreciate and celebrate difference; and striving for constructive, fair and happy ways to coexist with each other. See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nadia-cho/being-queer-means_b_3510828.html

Am I eligible to be a refugee?

by Hulisani Khorombi 

The United Nations Refugee Agency defines a refugee as someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries[1].

Amnesty international further expands on this and says that there are many reasons why it might be too difficult or dangerous for people to stay in their own countries. For example, children, women and men flee from violence, war, hunger, extreme poverty, because of their sexual or gender orientation, or from the consequences of climate change or other natural disasters. Often people will face a combination of these difficult circumstances[2].

People fleeing persecution and conflict have been granted asylum in foreign lands for thousands of years and this is nothing new.

This is where my predicament starts.

The South African government has declared gender-based violence (GBV) a national crisis. According to a new government report, a woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa, and many are assaulted and raped before their death [3].

President Ramaphosa of South Africa has described GBV in the country as a second pandemic next to Covid-19.

“It is with the heaviest of hearts that I stand before the women and girls of South Africa this evening to talk about another pandemic that is raging in our country—the killing of women and children by the men of our country,[4]

To summarise this phenomenon we often use the term femicide, which describes the killing of a woman by an intimate partner and the death of a woman as a result of a practice that is harmful to women. Intimate partner is understood as a former or current spouse or partner, whether or not the perpetrator shares or has shared the same residence with the victim[5].

Just last year, President Ramaphosa, at an emergency sitting of Parliament said the figures for violence against women and children were similar to those of a country at war[6]. Further describing South Africa as one of “the most unsafe places in world to be a woman”.

Solutions still seem a long way off. In 2018, the National Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Summit, which aimed to highlight the plight of women and girls in the country, was hosted by the government, NGOs, and civil society groups in an effort to find a solution to femicide and GBV in South Africa. The President signed and launched Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Declaration in 2019: the intention is a multi-sectoral structure and national strategy to respond to violence toward women and girls. Activists say the declaration is a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done[7]. Yet almost every day we wake up to news that another woman has been raped or murdered.

The heightened reality that women of South Africa are continuously being traumatised was evident to me in two instances. The first being a holiday that I took last year to visit a friend in Tanzania. When she suggested that we go shopping at a local market in the evening my first reaction was a “no” because I would not, under normal circumstances, do that in South Africa. Only after her reassurance of safety did I brave myself for such an outing, which turned out to be harmless.

Second was my solo trip that I took recently for my birthday. I sent my live location to a trusted contact every 8 hours in order to ensure that if something happened the police would know where to possibly start looking for my remains.

Having have thought all of these things through and seeing no end in sight it seems that as a woman I am a refugee of violence in my own country. If a refugee is a person who is forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence, where do I go?

Footnotes

[1] https://www.unrefugees.org/refugee-facts/what-is-a-refugee/

[2] https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/refugees-asylum-seekers-and-migrants/

[3] https://www.voanews.com/africa/south-africa-declares-femicide-national-crisis

[4] https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/30/coronavirus-lockdown-femicide-rises-south-africa/

[5] https://eige.europa.eu/thesaurus/terms/1128

[6] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-49739977

[7] https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/30/coronavirus-lockdown-femicide-rises-south-africa/

A critical engagement on gender and gender-based violence in community settings

You are cordially invited to the next seminar in the Gender, HIV and Sexualities Seminar Series that is hosted by the CSA&G: A critical engagement on gender and gender-based violence in community settings during COVID-19 and beyond by Mapule Moroke (community-based counselling psychologist and researcher)

Session A: Tuesday 28th July from 14.00-16.00
Session B: Thursday 30th July from 14.00-16.00

RSVP: with Gabriela Pinheiro at u05081832@up.ac.za to confirm your attendance and receive the meeting link(s)

Engagement on gender and GBV

 

#MenAreTrash vs. #NotAllMen

by Martin Mushomba

I am studying for a Masters in Medicinal Plant Sciences at the University of Pretoria. I joined the Just Leaders programme at the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender mainly because I wanted to learn more about social justice. I am part of the student research cohort. And, I wrote this opinion piece because it got me thinking about my role in the greater social justice project.

For a long time, Gender-based Violence (GBV) has been a serious problem in South Africa. The last two years have seen an increase in social justice activism against GBV moving from the streets to social media platforms. In 2018, the hashtag #MenAreTrash emerged as social justice activists spoke out against the ignorance and lack of awareness of endemic GBV in South African society.

The hashtag exploded on South African Twitter bringing a social issue which was often raised by activists and street protests to everyone’s lips – or fingertips in this case. The hashtag #MenAreTrash resurfaced once more in 2019 following the brutal rape and murder of UCT student Uyinenne Mrwetyana, along with other hashtags like #AmINext.

What has been common whenever #MenAreTrash was brought up regarding GBV was the knee-jerk response #NotAllMen. The latter hashtag represented those (often men) who objected to the branding of “all men” which they perceived as being grossly unfair. The #NotAllMen camp positioned themselves against #MenAreTrash by taking offense at being labelled as “trash”, while others pointed to equally horrendous actions carried out by women in an attempt to show that there’s enough blame to go around. Many women also took up the #NotAllMen tag by telling stories of men who have supported and carried them through their lives, and of how the men in their lives valued and cared for them. A number of women also expressed their disapproval of the #MenAreTrash as being demonising and offensive towards men, thus making men victims of online gender-based abuse.

Despite #MenAreTrash being a response to the violence against women and children (and society’s ignorance of it) the attempt to attain justice for the oppressed and vulnerable was suddenly being misconstrued as an attack against good and seemingly blameless men. Internationally, feminist movements both in public and online have been met with a stern disapproval from those on the opposing side of the political spectrum. An example of this clash is the rise of Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) who have previously risen up to challenge campaigns about women’s rights. MRAs strive to raise awareness that men are also victims of gender-based oppression. More radical MRAs argue that in a world that is accustomed to seeing only women & children as victims, men today have become the worst victims of gender-based forms of oppression.

An interesting documentary illustrated the clash between feminist anti-GBV and pro-men activism. In 2016, American feminist and film maker Cassie Jaye endeavoured to create a documentary film about Men’s Rights Activism. She called it The Red Pill. During her making of the documentary, she kept a video journal of her thoughts during the course of the interviews and filming. Her original intention behind making the documentary was to expose Men’s Rights Activism as a hateful bigoted movement and to dismiss the notion that men are real victims of gender-based oppression. During the course of making the documentary, Cassie is confronted by a problem she had vehemently refused to acknowledge. This had a significant impact on her worldview and by the end of the documentary, she came to admit that men can also be victims of numerous forms of gender-based violence.

Many on the anti-feminist side or the #NotAllMen camp may count The Red Pill as a big win in this cultural war, having a “die-hard feminist” admit men are also victims of gender-based oppression. However, it’s important to remember that The Red Pill was never made to dismiss GBV against women, neither did the film-maker ever change her stance on the need to fight against GBV against women. If it was a matter of camps, then she never really changed camps. If she had been in the #MenAreTrash camp before (which she probably was) then I don’t think the making of The Red Pill turned her to the #NotAllMen camp either. Rather, I think it got her to realise that along with all the suffering women face daily, men also experience suffering and this needs to be acknowledged.

Sadly, the battle for the recognition of gender-based oppression in the online space is seemingly becoming a new battle of the sexes. MRAs are becoming an emotional reactionary response to movements like #MenAreTrash for boldly calling society to change and focus on women’s oppression. While there is a great need to highlight men’s issues, MRAs tends to be mired with unpleasant individuals, bigots, misogynists, chauvinists and people who are more against women’s empowerment than being against the abuse of men. This often serves to extinguish the chance for constructive dialogue between the camps.

I personally believe that it is possible to promote awareness on GBV against women while simultaneously recognising the need for MRAs. In doing so, it should be noted that #MenAreTrash forms part of an important movement for bringing awareness to a very serious problem in society, the vulnerability of women and children to abuse as well as their lack of having a voice in patriarchal systems. Women are still more vulnerable to many forms of abuse in South African as they still remain economically & socially disenfranchised. The hashtags used when reacting to gender-based oppression should not be used to attack individuals, they should be used to initiate dialogue on these pressing issues.

Just as #MenAreTrash should be used to open an important dialogue on GBV, a hashtag like #NotAllMen could be used to highlight that while men can also be victims of GBV, there are differences between the types of violence (emotional, institutional, psychological), especially when power dynamics are at play. It’s useful to note that the #NotAllMen response to GBV could spark conversations on how hard it is for many women to challenge patriarchal oppression. Whenever a woman or child in many communities, families or organisations attempts to report sexual or physical abuse by a man, the first response is often to defend the man, especially when the man is in a position of social, political or economic authority. #NotAllMen is the kind of excuse given when an important man in a family or community is allegedly accused of rape. One could also use this hashtag to raise the problems of many women who’ve falsely accused innocent men for abuse.

The conversations spawning from these hashtags can shine invaluable light on why GBV is made harder by societal patriarchal biases that are often in place. Having brought millions of people online to discussing these contentious issues, these hashtags offer us an opportunity to start a conversation on GBV. The ultimate purpose of activism is to bring about public awareness which can then turn into actions discussions and finally result in a positive change. So rather than seeing this as a new frontier of war, it should be seen as a great opportunity to educate and facilitate dialogue between millions of people in matters of women’s empowerment, GBV and gender-based abuse against both men and women.

In my opinion: Decolonise Men and Masculinity Studies to end Gender-Based Violence

By Sakhumzi Mfecane

As gender scholars in South Africa specialising in Men and Masculinities research, we seem to have reached an impasse in theorising the high rates of gender-based violence and killings of women by men in our country. Existing theories are increasingly rendered obsolete by the complex – and I should add, brutal – nature of these crimes; yet we still defer to them when analysing these social problems in the media and academic platforms. This requires us to critically reflect on how we produce knowledge about men and masculinities and how we can make our scholarship more relevant and responsive to current needs of our communities.

In most global academic settings –including South Africa – there have been growing calls and efforts to decolonise knowledge by foregrounding knowledge systems and epistemologies from the Global South, as a way of fighting the current dominance of Global North scholarship in the academy (Mbembe 2016; Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2018). In some parts of Latin America, for example, some decolonial scholars have forged partnerships with grassroots organisations and ordinary people to co-create new forms of knowledge and teaching methods informed by philosophies and histories of the indigenous populations (e.g. Mignolo & Walsh, 2018). The impetus for these partnerships is that knowledge production is not restricted to academic contexts, but also exists in daily practices of the ordinary people. So, researchers must be familiar with the realities of ordinary people to ensure that they (co) produce knowledges and theories that are relevant and reflective of their belief systems and lived experiences.

In the sub-field of Men and Masculinities in South Africa, knowledge decolonisation is lacking and we are mostly dependent on theories and concepts developed by scholars living in Europe and North America to analyse problematic social conduct of men, like the use of violence against women (Ratele 2017; Mfecane 2018a). Many analysts for example, have been saying that gender-based violence and killings of women and children by men are caused by “toxic masculinities” and “hegemonic masculinities”. These concepts originated from the Global North and cannot be directly translated to most South African indigenous languages. Also, the concepts have been subjects of intense scholarly debates in the North as some scholars feel that they are vague and muddled and can be detrimental to the feminist fight against patriarchy if we apply them uncritically in research and policy interventions (e.g. Schwalbe 2014). Raenwyn Connell (2014; 2016) as a well-known gender theorist has also questioned the usefulness of the western gender concepts in non-western settings and urged Global South scholars to work toward developing theories and concepts informed by local conditions and histories.

Yet in South Africa most scholars and analysts seem to apply these concepts with vigour and also invoke them in media and public platforms to explain our social ills. During a recent televised funeral, for example, a prominent South African academic said the underlying cause of gender-based violence and femicide is “toxic masculinities”. She could not explain the meaning of this concept to a predominantly Xhosa-speaking group of mourners and non- English-speaking audience following the funeral proceeds on various media channels.

This speaks of the urgent need to decolonise our research by centering it on African ontologies and epistemologies, to make sure that it reflect the realities and lived experiences of the majority of African populations. Gender analysts must refrain from simply imposing ready-made concepts from the Global North when analysing our complex social problems and instead seek to develop grounded explanatory frameworks. I suggest that gender-based violence in South Africa is caused by deeper societal issues than the contested notion of “toxic masculinities” which has gained public popularity in recent times. We need to find local expressions for these social ills (e.g Mfecane 2018b). We can then develop policy interventions and gender transformation programmes that are aligned with local understandings of masculinities and gender-based violence, and also partner with indigenous populations to educate those working in black African communities – researchers, policy-makers, students, media, and activists – about African cultures and epistemologies to ensure that they have common understanding of the issues and dynamics at play. This will result in accurate reporting and analysis of our social issues and furthermore give ordinary people a voice in the academy, media, and policy development platforms.

To achieve these ideals we need to train young black researchers to become co-producers of African-centred knowledge on boys and men. Currently most black youth are employed by research organisations as research assistants, translators, data gatherers and data capturers. This limits their abilities to make significant contributions to knowledge creation and dissemination (e.g. data analysis and authoring research reports and journal articles). We need African-centred scholarship on men and masculinities, produced by local researchers, as way of contributing to the fight against gender-based violence and decolonisation of knowledge in South Africa.

This opinion piece was first published on the CSA&G’s Gender Justice website.

References

Connell, R. 2016. Masculinities in global perspective: Hegemony, contestation and changing structures of power. Theory and Society, 45(4), 303–318.

Connell, R.W. 2014. “Margin becoming centre: for a world-centred rethinking of masculinity.” Norma: International Journal for Masculinity Studies 9 (4): 217–231.

Ratele, K. 2017. Liberating Masculinities. Cape Town, HSRC Press.

Mbembe, A. J. 2016. Decolonizing the university: New directions. Arts & Humanities in Higher Education, 15(1): 29–45.

Mignolo, W.; & Walsh, C. 2018. On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. Durham & London, Duke University Press.

Mfecane, S. 2018. Towards African-centred theories of masculinity. Social Dynamics: A Journal of African Studies, pp1-15. DOI: 10.1080/02533952.2018.1481683.

Mfecane, S. 2018b. Unknowing Men: Africanising gender justice programmes for men in South Africa. Pretoria: CSA & G Press, Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender, University of Pretoria.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S. (2018). Revisiting Trajectories of Epistemological Decolonisation in Africa. Codersria Bulletin, No 1: 11-17

Schwalbe, M. 2014. Manhood Acts: Gender and the Practices of Domination. London, Paradigm Publishers.

Sakhumzi Mfecane

Associate Professor, Anthropology Department, University of the Western Cape