Our home and our mother: The gendering of nature in climate change discourses

By Tinashe Mawere, Henri-Count Evans & Rosemary Musvipwa

Introduction: Re/thinking climate change

Gendered scripts, gendered identities and gendered hierarchies are evident in the everyday. Gender is not inborn, but is procreated; and gendered meanings are made practical and visible through performances of the mundane (Butler 1988; Beauvoir 2010). Climate change has become an everyday discourse from which we can observe and critique the performances of gender and the re/production of gendered categories and gendered meanings. Just like nations that are recurrently configured through the iconography of familial and domestic spaces (Mawere 2019, 2016; McClintock 1993; Yuval-Davies 1997), narratives of climate change, especially those founded on Western epistemologies, have conceptualised nature and the climate within particular (white, heterosexist) familial and gendered orderings. Climate change discourses, therefore, naturalise and normalise gendered roles of feminised bodies as mothers and care givers, whose duty is based around caring for and feeding children. Within the narratives of Zimbabwean nationalism (and other nationalisms), where food and re/production are central to nationhood (Mawere 2020) feminised bodies are configured as both sources of food and sources of life (reproduction and regeneration), hence the need for their surveillance and protection is naturalised and normalised. The climate change crisis, and strategies for its mitigation, are therefore deliberately shown through the bodies of women to sensitise the importance of surveying and protecting reproductive bodies (and all feminised bodies) and to highlight the centrality (a centrality which makes surveillance and control inevitable) of feminised bodies in recovering and regeneration.

The impacts of the climate crisis, such as extreme weather, affect the entire planet and the life within it. The crisis has deprived people, animals and other living organisms of food, good health and security. However, not all people have been affected equally since the crisis (just like the other current crises like the Covid 19 pandemic) has illuminated and amplified existing social classes and the power and privileges dis/associated with them. Black bodies, and mostly black women living in poor areas and disadvantaged in various ways, who (ironically) have the lowest complicity in creating the crisis, are profoundly affected. This has made them the gaze of capitalist, western and patriarchal epistemologies and mitigation processes that are focused on production and continuities. Climate crisis-induced conflicts are widespread and disadvantaged communities live under constant threats not only of droughts, floods and heatwaves, but also of ideological bankruptcy; and mis-fitting and decontextualised mitigation strategies. These problems are forms of deprivation of the freedom to survive. Unfortunately, this maintains the entire world ecosystem, which is built around the supremacy of white, capitalist heteropatriarchy. The climate crisis constitutes what Sen (1999) called ‘forms of unfreedoms,’ and adaptation action becomes an attempt to gain liberation from climate-induced deprivations. Inequality, as a form of unfreedom, is extended by the climate crisis. While it is imperative to deal with the climate crisis, it is equally vital to be careful enough not to perform and re/produce epistemological blunders that normalise and perpetuate forms of inequality and injustice, whether obvious or insidious. In line with this Pinheiro (2020) argues “A key facet of reworking and adapting our existences involves an alertness and critical sensitivity to the connections between climate change and identity vectors such as gender.” Our imaginations of nature, the climate, the climate crisis and interventions to the climate crisis should therefore be transformative.

Studies on climate change in Southern Africa have often focused on the mainstream news media and how the media have framed and re/presented the global climate crisis. This is consistent with arguments that place the media at the centre of social, economic, environmental and political discourses (Evans 2020). Considerable literature has also been written around the subject of climate change; specifically, on how and why disadvantaged populations are the ones greatly affected by climate changes (IPCC[1] 2007, 2014, 2019). A lot of literature is also available on climate change mitigation measures and adaptative measures suggested to the most vulnerable, and focusing primarily on ‘disadvantaged’ black women. For example, Babugura (2010) argued that climate change impacts were different for men and women and hence called for “gender differentiated responses”.

Although many gender scholars have critiqued the fact that ‘gender’ is often used as a synonym for ‘women’ or framed within a women-versus-men dichotomy (Djoudi et al. 2016; MacGregor 2010), the climate change policy documents that refer to gender are still based predominantly on this view. As MacGregor noted, “Rather than theorizing gender as a social and political relationship between people with masculine and feminine identities, most analyses of gender and climate change fall into the familiar trap that gender-means-women” (MacGregor 2010:124). The challenge is that if causes of inequality and vulnerability are not considered, suggested solutions will not only fail to address the problems related to climate change, but could also exacerbate underlying forms of injustices (Djoudi et al. 2016). In the same manner, if the language of climate change continues to be gendered, climate change vulnerability is likely to be seen through a gendered gaze, and solutions are likely to be both gendered and sexist, hence perpetuating existing patriarchal injustices. We believe that the gendering of climate change is heavily present in the normative language used to frame the issue, as well in how the climate change subject is aestheticised in Southern Africa.

Studies on climate change, gender and aesthetics, especially in the context of Southern Africa, are rare. Central to observe is that art has steadily risen to articulate environmental issues and artists have long been part of the environmental movement galvanised against fossil fuels and the multilateral inaction (Evans 2020).  However, it is crucial to re/think climate change discussions and focus on the language, power and gender dynamics prevalent in the narratives and aestheticisation of climate change. Such a re/thinking problematises the extent to which existing studies on climate change and climate change interventions manage to deal with questions of power and gender. It also questions how climate change concerns can adequately be dealt with outside the problems of gender and power. We argue that in order to address the issue of climate change, it is imperative to be sensitive to the gendered and sexual economies of climate change. Beyond being gender-sensitive, we believe that the language should also develop to become gender transformative. The transformative agenda entails moving “beyond individual self-improvement among women and toward transforming the power dynamics and structures that serve to reinforce gendered inequalities” (Hillebrand et al. 2015: 5). This shift is in the context that individualisation and notions of “empowerment” are often entangled with systems of racial injustice and oppression that seek to divide people (systems such as capitalism).  Such systems have underwritten a very parasitic/one-sided relationship between the Global North and Global South where the West uses paternalistic policy and strategy to maintain the status quo. We argue that the transformative agenda can be achieved by questioning the power dynamics and social structures that shape behaviours, attitudes, and norms. We further argue that language is part of those structures that build unequal power boundaries.

The Language of Climate Change and the Patriarchal Gaze

Language that feminises nature and naturalises women describes, reflects, and perpetuates unjustified patriarchal domination (Adams 1990). The official construction of climate change (especially as used in UNFCCC[2] and IPCC reports and used by major scholars of climate change), makes extensive use of the dominant patriarchal language of re/production and continuity, so as to make the subject of climate change ‘sensible’ and acceptable. This language is also extended or linked to agriculture and land use, as well as land pollution, where land is imagined as having reproductive capacity if well used, and if polluted, fails to produce, reproduce and sustain and regenerate life.

In many ways, this language of reproduction and regeneration buttresses and naturalises the prevailing gender relations and binary sexual categories in society. The use of terms such as “mother-nature” or “mother-earth” and acts of rebirthing as associated with allowing natural processes of giving life to reoccur on the damaged earth is significant to gendered identities and the complex of subordination in societies. When we consider general references to mother earth we perceive ‘her’ to be a woman, we personify ‘her’ and we take note of her ‘fragilities’ as we do human mothers. We also acknowledge all that ‘she’ does in nurturing us with her various qualities. This normalises motherhood within the parameters of fecundity, care, resource/provision, sacrifice, submission; but also situates her as vulnerable and therefore requiring surveillance and protection to enable regeneration. There is also a way in which such a language vindicates articulations that discard non-heterosexual relations as they do not fall within the ‘normative’ and ‘sensible’ discourse of reproduction and regeneration. In out-casting non-heteronormative sexualities, Robert Mugabe often referred to nature and the sensible. In his castigation of gays and lesbians in Zimbabwe, he used the example of animals where reproductive organs ‘clearly’ define sexual orientation and challenged gays and lesbians to make children if they are to be recognised and accepted[3]. The ‘corrective rape’ of lesbians has also occurred on the same terrain of the sensible and ‘natural’. Gender constructions of climate change impacts, for example, have been used to refer to ‘women victims’ and thus has worked in passivising and nominalising the agency of women in addressing the climate crisis and at the same time out-casting gender minorities.

In addition, the language of climate change, especially adaptation and sustainability discourses, has always been entrenched within the normative and patriarchal systems. The historical and cultural privileging and naturalisation of male power is implicated and acted out through notions of family (Mawere 2019, 2016; Nyambi 2012; Lewis 2002; McClintock 1993). In discourses of climate change, the earth is constructed/represented as ‘our mother’ and ‘our home’. Human beings are seen (through the processes of agriculture/consumption and industrialization/modernity) as having defiled nature and therefore risk experiencing low yields of deficient foods (consumption) and limited luxuries (modernity), making future livelihoods precarious (see Beck 1992; Foster et al. 2010, Guatarri 2000).

The need to address climate change is thus anchored in the need to preserve the reproductive and generative power of ‘our mother’ (through controlling and subordinating) so as to sustain life now and for future generations. In this way, the imagination of the climate and the language of saving the climate becomes synonymous to how nations are imagined and the language used during calls to save nations (Mawere 2019, 2016). Within the scientific domain, (IPCC, UNFCCC) reports and other scientific writings on climate change have also produced nature as feminine. The sustainability discourse itself has become a dominant intellectual force because of its appeal to common sense. Underneath the common-sense idea of allowing nature regenerative and reproductive capacity lies the embedded performance and re/production of patriarchal norms and languages.

Home and mother: Mediating the marginal and the symbolic

Reporting on the Climate Action Summit 2019 with the theme, ‘A Race We Can Win. A Race We Must Win’, Tarik Alam Solangi, a Research Fellow at EMRO[4], World Health Organisation, entitles the report, ‘Fight climate change: let mother earth breathe’ (Solangi 2019). In an earlier report by Sophie Yeo and Gitika Bhardwaj, entitled ‘Climate Change is Killing our Mother Earth’, there are various voices on the impacts of climate change (Yeo and Bhardwaj 2014). Earlier in the same year, in the report ‘Saving Mother Earth from Climate Change’, Adrianna Quintero, the Director of Partner Engagement at NRDC[5] says “As we approach Earth Day and our celebration of Madre Tierra (Mother Earth), most of us can’t help but be concerned about her health and the impacts that climate change is having on her and our own lives” (Quintero 2014).The above reporting on climate change is consistent with how nature has been personified and feminised.

Nature is re/constructed as our home to entail an aspect of maintenance and sustainability, as a source that sustains, reproduces us and cares for us; and a source of life. As a powerful maternal force that reproduces life, nature is perceived as in need of protection and defense. This reinforces the patriarchal ‘protection’ of women, who are maternal figures responsible for reproduction. Man has turned up to be the defender or protector of our home (nature) as well as our homes (families), hence discourses of climate change reflect a masculine project and are embedded in patriarchy. This continues the existing discourse of specific roles for each named gender (Mawere 2019; Eisenstein 2000; Peterson 2000; McClintock 1993). There have been calls for fewer emissions to allow for the next generation and regeneration of nations. These calls clearly present a metabolic relationship between nature and human beings, but the climate change discourse also presents a gendered imagining of the climate and gendered nature/human relations that hinge on the commonsensical heteronormative politics of reproduction and regeneration.

Both home and mother have conflicting identities, where they are both marginal and symbolic spaces. Ample literature has shown home and the mother as feminine. At the same time, literature has positioned the home and mother as the source of life where everyone and everything derives sustenance and where everyone turns to for reflection and regeneration. Subsequently, the home and mother have been located in the politics of reproduction and regeneration, which again feminises the space, but also calls for their protection in order to allow continuity and continuous benefits. The dominant narrative that;

women and nature are inherently linked is a tacit acceptance of their mutual exploitation. Even as we have spent decades subjugating the power of Earth, American children have been taught to address the environment as “Mother Nature.” The idea that the Earth is a parental figure because it sustains us is a comforting analogy. But what we do not learn as children…is the harm caused by gendered and sexist language that reinforce gender stereotypes and hierarchies (Milner-Barry 2015).

The re/construction of nature is a crucial aspect in understanding the gendering of climate change discourses. To invoke the protection of nature and take the subject of climate change seriously, the images of endangered nature and climate have been imagined using the images of vulnerable nations and women. Specifically, the effects of climate change have been associated with images of poor black women. From the policy documents on climate change, African women are re/presented as individualised agents that have to be empowered. Empowerment is narrowly defined as enabling women to become active participants in the ‘reproductive’ economy, or by assisting women in the roles they play in sustaining their households and communities. Empowerment strategies typically involve assisting women with microfinance, and/or with technological fixes that would make them more resilient and functional in the reproductive economy and consumer capitalism. Such ‘empowerment’ strategies are not only microcosms of broader power relations between men and women, and between the global North and South, but also work to naturalise and sustain them.

In the context of the above, most climate change narratives are normative and part of the patriarchal surveillance that naturalises and normalises gendered roles and at the same time, authorises patrols on women and all feminised bodies. Since the feminised climate and nature are portrayed as vulnerable, it is implied that all feminised bodies are vulnerable and should be watched and protected. This authorises the policing of women and other feminised bodies in societies. Narratives approximating women to nature naturalise their subordination, since nature itself is everywhere devalued and subordinated. Thus, the capitalist exploitation, transformation and even ‘protection’ of nature relates to patriarchal contexts where women’s labour and reproductive abilities are exploited for patriarchal benefits (Tiwari 2020; Merchant 1990; Ortner 1974). The devaluation of both nature and women, as well as the subsequent connection between nature and the invented qualities expected of women, was made commonsensical, leading to terms like “virgin earth,” “fertile land,” and “barren soil,” which are still dominant (Merchant 1990). In many ways, narratives on climate change enable the naturalisation and commonsensical positioning of femininity in the home and care, hence femininity is linked to reproduction and is assigned a specific space and specific duties.

Since climate change discourses position home as commonplace for femininities, it consequently naturalises home as a space for women and all feminised bodies. This is a way of trivialising women and subordinate masculinities and deterring them from participating in the public or in what are naturalised and normalised as male spaces (Mawere 2019; O’Neill, Savigny and Cann 2016). The boundaries that are drawn for women relate to their characterisation as inferior, emotional, uncontrollable, illogical, unreasonable, beautiful but destructive if not contained, hence their limitations to venture into the public space (Mawere 2019). This characterisation of women and feminised bodies is similar to the characterisation of nature, for example, during weather coverages (Milner-Barry 2015). The above calls for intersectional approaches that consider inter-alia, class, race and gender when dealing with climate change issues.

Conclusion: Climate change, aesthetics, gender and agency in Southern Africa

It is important to critique the climate change issue on how its expression and aesthetisation draws on, and re/produces dominant discourses around gender. Re/production and regeneration are part of the heteronormative lexicon prevalent in the discourse of climate change. In dealing with the subject of climate change, it is important to question on issues of representation and who has power and agency? Whom does the language of climate change give agentive power to and who is disempowered and robbed of agency? We should be careful that how we discuss climate change and how we deal with the climate change crisis does not re/produce and transport toxic knowledges and practices about gender. Studies focussing on Africa in general and Southern Africa in particular, would add to scholarly work on climate change, aesthetics, gender and probably, the African and Southern African context would offer alternative epistemologies in dealing with the climate change issue. For this reason, forms of African expression such as graffiti, songs, drama and symbolism and imagery can be important archives on African-centred research on climate change.


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[1] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

[2] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

[3] Speaking in Shona and commenting on gay marriages at a Zanu-Pf rally, Robert Mugabe instrumentalised the Biblical Parable of the talents and used the example of bulls and cows to evoke sensible sexual orders, “Cde Robert Mugabe speech gay marriages (2)”

[4] Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean

[5] Natural Resources Defense Council

About the authors

Tinashe Mawere, Centre for Sexualities, AIDS & Gender (CSA&G), University of Pretoria, South Africa 

Tinashe Mawere is currently a researcher at the CSA&G. He joined the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies and the CSA&G as a Postdoctoral researcher in May 2017. His interests are on identity constructions, nationalisms, gender and sexualities and the workings of popular culture in political and social contexts. Previously, he was a Doctoral Fellow in the Programme on the Study of the Humanities in Africa (PSHA), at the Centre for Humanities Research (CHR), and a Doctoral student in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

Henri-Count Evans, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Eswatini, Eswatini

Henri-Count Evans holds a PhD in the Discipline of Media and Cultural Studies from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. His thesis is entitled: Re-articulating Media Re/presentations of Climate Change Discourse(s) in South Africa: Climate Change Politics in the Global South. He has done research work about media practice and reporting of climate change issues and sustainable development. Henri-Count Evans has co-edited the book “Knowledge for Justice: Critical Perspectives from Southern African-Nordic Research Partnerships. Cape Town, South Africa: African Minds.”, and has been section editor for the Handbook of Climate Change Resilience published by Springer under the prestigious Climate Change Management Series. He is a lecturer in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Eswatini/Swaziland. He is also the Training Development Consultant at Climate Tracker.

Rosemary Musvipwa, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Eswatini, Eswatini

Rosemary is a Journalism and Mass Communication lecturer at the University of Eswatini teaching television broadcasting, public relations and development communication. She has an interest in research about communication and sustainable development. She has a passion for empowering and mentoring youths with critical life skills, especially young girls and women with knowledge and information about their sexual and reproductive health rights (coupled with their vulnerabilities and responsibilities). She has been part of sex education and HIV life skills training projects which involved the use of theatre, drama, song and dance in high schools in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

CSA&G Statement on Gender and #ZimbabweanLivesMatter

On 24 July the UN’s human rights office, the OHCHR, expressed concern over reports of [Zimbabwean] “police using force to disperse and arrest nurses and health workers”, for breaching lockdown restrictions while trying to protest for better salaries and conditions of work.

It also noted a “pattern of intimidation” surrounding events in May when three female members of the main opposition party were allegedly arrested and detained for taking part in a protest during the Covid-19 lockdown. Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova, alleged that after State security officials abducted them from a police station, they were tortured and sexually assaulted. They were then subsequently charged with breaking the lockdown rules and faking their abduction.

If the allegations of abduction, torture and sexual assault are true, such actions are meant to frighten and silence women and present a continuation of a culture of fear and silence that existed before the new dispensation. This is counter to the country’s attempts to give voice to women and girls and to end violence against women. It therefore amounts to a negation of all the efforts for gender sensitivity, gender equality and gender justice being made by different progressive state actors and various organisations in and outside Zimbabwe.

In addition, investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and an opposition leader Jacob Ngarivhume, were detained and charged for calling for citizens to protest. The state authorities have claimed that the two were arrested for calling for citizens to disobey Covid-19 regulations as well as for citizens to overthrow a constitutionally elected government. However, arresting people for encouraging citizens to express themselves on corruption has raised concern. Also, in the case of Hopewell, arresting him soon after exposing corruption by top officials has been viewed as vindictive and linked to silencing citizens. As a result of these events, the hashtag #ZimbabweanLivesMatter has arisen, to signify regional and global concern for the lives, dignity and rights of all Zimbabwean citizens.

The Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender would like to express its concern about the above alleged and related developments in Zimbabwe, especially in the context of the hope that many had in the ‘second republic.’ In particular, the alleged use of sexual assault against any citizen detained by the state is very unfortunate and a cause for great concern. Not only is this a violation of international norms and conventions, it goes to the heart of gender oppression, regarding women’s bodies as objects which can be used to express power: male power and the power of the state.

Writing in the Journal of Global Security Studies, Volume 3, Issue 4, October 2018, Pages 417–430, Christopher J Einolf states that “Sexual torture and rape employ existing gender hierarchies to intensify dominance of the torturer over the victim and increase the pain, humiliation, and coercion of torture.”

When and where they occur, such sexual assaults have a number of dimensions. First, in some cases they are opportunistic criminal acts, undertaken by security personnel taking advantage of their positions of power. Secondly, some perpetrators used rape and sexual torture as methods of last resort, to force a confession. Third, interrogators use the threat of rape or rape of female relatives as a way to force male relatives to confess.

In all dimensions, such acts, where and when they occur, are an insult to human dignity and decency. While individuals might be targets of such acts, the acts also serve a symbolic purpose where they become examples of what happens to individuals and groups who might be seen as disobeying the state or state actors.

If the state has been abusive, or if state actors have abused their power, we believe the dignity and lives of Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova matter. The dignity and lives of Hopewell Chin’ono and Jacob Ngarivhume matter. The dignity and lives of nurses and health workers matter. The dignity and lives of all Zimbabweans matter and should be properly addressed by the authorities so as to build a better Zimbabwe. We believe that the above allegations and issues are very sensitive and that justice should be correctly served so that Zimbabwe is seen as a safe place for all.

In addition to this statement, staff of the CSA&G will be writing about their own personal experiences of violence – whether this be symbolic, normative, physical or by the state. These will be published in a short collection.

Gender equality and chores under Lockdown

By Monyana Thusi*

Trying to be a feminist and a champion for gender equality in an African Christian home is wearisome work, with no pay, especially if you are not male, and you don’t pay the bond, and you are just another child to the powers that be.

Feminism is a movement that advocates for women’s rights and the equality of the sexes. Gender equality refers to a state in which access to rights, privileges, benefits or opportunities and the distribution of duties, obligations or responsibilities are unaffected by or not based on gender – at all. Most days I want to go get Bab’Credo Mutwa and Dr Maimela, my African customary law lecturer, to come and explain to my family that African cultures are not inherently patriarchal, that in the olden days men did not sit around and wait for the women to bring them a tray of food, or did they? Am I being unfair for wanting to share chores equally at home between the adults that work and the children that don’t work but go to school (and take school very seriously for that matter), and between the males and the females of the house?

I thought the struggle for gender equality with the chores would be something to work on during this Lockdown. When the president (of the Republic of South Africa) announced the Lockdown I was very interested in how the chores would be redistributed here at home, and how it would all work out during this holiday with my family, since we were all going to be home all day, every day. I must admit I had dreams: I thought we’d all have an opportunity to contribute equally since no one is going to work and no one is doing any extraordinary work to pay the bills. I was expecting to see the men work a little more than usual at home chores. I thought they would take this time to learn how to cook: they don’t cook because they don’t know how to cook. I had dreams. I must say, there’s no real reason why we can’t share chores in this house but the reality is that we women are not only expected to cook but we place the burden of cooking and feeding other human beings on ourselves, simply because we are women, and the children wash the dishes simply because they are children.

I live with my sister, the husband and their three children. They are a relatively typical black African Christian family. They are relaxed with their values so I’m not really sure if patriarchy is sourced from the faith or culture since we’re not very strict adherents of either way of life. But you know patriarchy does not need solid statutes to assert itself. Patriarchy is a social system in which men hold positions of authority and dominant position over women and children. It doesn’t creep up on you, it walks right up to you and asks you for tea simply because you are a woman. It is the ideology behind the notion that the man is the head of the house.

Some days I want to sit everyone down and conduct a gender equality lesson and say “listen, besides the idea that this could be our culture and that it was passed down to you, what exactly about this system makes sense to you?” A minute later, on those same days, it occurs to me that I could be overreacting: it’s just dishes, cooking and cleaning, and the dishes aren’t even that many, there’s only six of us – calm down.

So this is how the patriarchy operates in our lives: the women cook, my sister, myself and her oldest daughter; we are responsible for making the pots happen. We could say that the men, being my sister’s husband and the 14-year-old son, don’t cook because they can’t cook.  In the case of the son, he can’t cook because he does not want to cook, he has never had to cook, no one expects him to cook and no one will make the effort to teach him how to cook. I’ve tried teaching him how to make pancakes and suggesting that he be responsible for making it easier to prepare meals. Well, no one heard me. The dishes are washed by the children, so it’s me, the 19-year-old daughter and the 14 year-old son (at least he washes the dishes). The cleaning is done by myself, my sister, the 19-year-old daughter and the 14-year-old son. Additionally, my sister only washes her clothes, her husband’s clothes and the 4 year-old child’s clothes.

Now, also interestingly, the arrangement and allocation of chores does not come from the head of the family, my sister’s husband, but from my sister. Under her system of governance the chore or the required labour always either falls to the females or to the children, unless it is washing the cars or fixing something that requires a mechanical skill (although under normal circumstances the husband will always go hire someone to do it).

This is what typically happens at the dinner table: my sister’s husband will want water or a spoon or some salt. He never gets up to go get anything himself. He always finishes eating first and even in those cases where he is done eating and wants something, my sister will get up while she is still eating to go get whatever he has requested or he will send the son instead. It has never made sense to me and every day I shake my head when I see it. But I have learned to respect my sister’s household and shut my big mouth, to respect her family, their values and the system that they have chosen to raise their children under. As long as they respect that I will not be making my sister’s husband tea, or fetching him water or participating in any of the unnecessary labour that falls on us, either because we are women or because we are children. The funny thing is, I don’t think my sister’s husband has ever said he does not want to cook or clean or get his own water.

I do not know why I thought things would work differently during this Lockdown period. I have come to accept that my sister and her husband come from a different world to mine, where it is undisputed that the man is the head of the house and his roles are non-negotiable and that this is not going to be easily changed or challenged. Theirs is a world where the man is the head of the house, the woman is the neck or heart (depending on who is speaking) and the children are, well, the children.

A “good wife” is expected to care for, cook for and look after her husband – no one needs to explain that. The husband is expected to provide or build the house, or whatever, just as long as it’s clear from whatever he does that he is the head of the house – sometimes doing nothing fits the job description. The irony of it all is that my sister’s husband is an activist for workers’ rights where he works.

I have asked my friends how their families were working out the chores. One said that his sisters do all the work and that he helps out whenever he feels like it. How nice would it be if I had the liberty to decide when I wanted to cook? I’m happy for my friends who say that in their homes they share chores almost equally, and I’m even happier for those who say there are no men in their current home circumstances – those ones are living my real life. Otherwise, I have resolved that I’m growing a beard at the end of this Lockdown.

PS: I hope I’m not going to be homeless after this!

*Pseudonym (author is a Just Leaders volunteer)

Food, symbolism and gendered identities in Zimbabwean Politics: Mama Grace’s ice cream and the 2017 Zanu-Pf leadership change

Introduction: Food, an inquiry

I seek to provoke deeper inquiries into the centrality of food, food substances, food and the spectacular, and ways of and the sub-texts of serving and consuming food, as well as the ways of imagining food in Zimbabwean politics. Globally, food has become an increasingly contested site for re/thinking about power, imagi/nations, re/distribution, access and agency. This work focuses on the symbolic, cultural and political significance of the ice cream served by Mama Grace Mugabe, (Zimbabwe’s former First Lady) during rallies. The acceptances and rejections of the ice cream, and Mama’s love, care, visibility and naturalized role in the nation graphically reflected the emergent factions within Zanu-Pf and also helped to widen them. To this extent, food, and specifically, the ice cream, acted as an agent of change leading to the ‘new dispensation’ led by Emmerson Mnangagwa. In addition, the ice cream or food serving in general, sprung as an agent of gendered identities as well as their re/production.

Food and the everyday

In Zimbabwe and elsewhere, food emanates as central to the socio, religious, economic and political aesthetics of groups. Food, consumption habits and culinary rituals are rooted in and exhibit social symbolisms and meanings related to kinships, friendships, political relations and class (Edwin 2008). In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, there are “various meanings that food, eating, and hunger acquire in the portrayal of Okonkwo” (Olufunwa 2000:1). The late Zimbabwean controversial writer, Dambudzo Marechera, in most of his works, especially The House of Hunger, focuses on the centrality of food in households and the emanating disorder and violence that results in the absence of food, or its unhealthy and unappetising state. Marechera shows the vulnerability and vulgarity of those who are weak, poor and feminized through food distribution and food disorders. As the narrator says “I couldn’t have stayed on in that House of Hunger where every morsel of sanity was snatched from you the way some kinds of bird snatch food from the very mouths of babes” (Marechera 1978:1). He goes on to show the politics of food even playing out in the imagery of violent gastral outlets and how that relates to the socio-economic, political and religious facets and a human di/satisfaction that goes beyond the physical. Among other works, Coming of the Dry Season (1972) and Waiting for the Rain (1981) by Charles Mungoshi imagine the importance of food through an imagination of droughts or dry seasons, poverty and deprivations. However, an analysis of the central themes in the above works reveal the concepts of hunger and food as going beyond just the physiological as hunger and deprivations relate to identity politics and issues of lack of freedoms and disempowerments. As Lewis (2016:6) argues, “Since eating is perceived to fill the place of some other desire, hunger is seen to result not only from food deprivation, but from other denied or withheld yearnings.”

Apart from being a means of life sustenance, food is also a system of communication, a body of images, a decorum of usages, situations and behaviour (Barthes 1975). In the African pre-colonial period, food was important to traditional events and meetings. In the Ibgo society in Nigeria and elsewhere, a kola nut is used by a host as a ritual for welcoming guests into his home. This is a powerful symbol of mutual respect, hospitality, friendship and community (Edwin 2008). This view is supported by Kammampoal and Laar (2019) who posit that the Ibgo consider the kola nut as very important in formal and informal gatherings and has enormous cultural capital in satisfying socio-religious functions. It is used as a token of friendship, benevolence, and honor, and is given to a visitor as a sign of hospitality, personality and civility, making it central to Igbo livelihood. The renowned writer and critique, Chinua Achebe makes the kola nut ritual central to his writings by evoking that, ‘He who brings kola brings life.’ Relatedly, Achebe notes; “A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it from his own compound” (Achebe 1994:166-7). Though the language is patriarchal and centred on a man’s world, these proverbs are very powerful in revealing that food, food rituals and gatherings have social, religious, economic and political meanings and relevance. In South Africa, research on food reveals there are gendered implications of access to food and gendered labour manipulations in food production and preparation (Lewis 2016). In Zimbabwe, the Shona proverb, Ukama igasva hwunosadziswa nokudya (relationships remain incomplete until you partake of a meal) reveals the importance of food during gatherings and how the serving of food is important to kinship, friendship, loyalty and harmony. Food is central in, among others, traditional ceremonies, family gatherings, funerals and weddings. This links to Freud (1938)’s and Madeira (1989)’s sentiments that eating and drinking with someone symbolically confirms social community and mutual obligations and that food performs social interaction, status and acts both positive and negative social relationships. In the same sense, I see Grace Mugabe’s serving of ice cream at rallies as a political and gender aesthetic.

Food and Zanu-Pf’s politics of the spectacular 

Historically, Zanu-Pf has used food to entice, especially the disadvantaged and impoverished people to vote for it rather than voting for opposition parties. Banking on its ability to provide food, Zanu-Pf situated itself as the mother-provider making sure that children in her nest do not starve, or do not have feelings of starvation and negligence. Those children seen as rebels or refusing to embrace Zanu-Pf are denied food provisions and considered worth dying in a way that evokes Mamdani (1996)’s notion of citizen and subject where state sovereignty use biopolitics to create some kind of ‘death worlds’ for those termed non-citizens. The politicization of food in the context of climate-change induced drought as seen through Zanu-Pf’s selective distribution of food along party lines can be used to exemplify this. Opposition supporters are denied access; they are deemed undeserving by virtue of their political identity – they deserve to die. Food politics is therefore part of the manipulation, electoral malpractices and bribery prevalent in Zimbabwean politics.

More interesting, however, is that food has also featured in Zanu-Pf internal politics, particularly its 2017 factional politics, especially in the context where Grace Mugabe (a member of the G40 Zanu-Pf faction), assumed the role of mother-provider in her contest for power and authority with the Lacoste faction headed by Emmerson Mnangagwa. The 2017 Zanu-Pf factional fights therefore, mirror the symbolism and cultural politics of food in Zimbabwean politics and Zanu-Pf politics in particular. Thus, food was instrumental as the basis for surveillance, for getting to know the loyal and disloyal. As Grace Mugabe served ice cream at rallies and other events, many expressed gratitude towards Mama’s generosity and made public spectacles of gratitude, satisfaction and loyalty to Mama’s love, care and visibility. However, emphasis on eating Mama’s provisions belittled many in the process who then became fed up with Mama and rebelled. This became a performance of refusal and rejection to toe the line, a reflection of oppositional voices and dissent and has therefore been a metaphor for change.

Apart from food being used for rallying people behind particular parties, groups and individuals, food has been used as a show of power, a demonstration of gendered and sexual identities. This complex has occurred in a context where the Zimbabwean ‘national family’ has been seen as “an imaginative construct of power relations” (Hunt 1992:196). It is sensible to argue that food has discursive underpinnings in patriarchy and issues of power and resource re/distribution. For some time, Grace Mugabe found agency and political manoeuvring within Zanu-Pf politics by re/producing and performing her gendered role of feeding and caring. However, considering Grace’s fall from grace, challenging simplistic ideas about agency forces us to question the entrapment in patriarchal networks of food sources, food re/production and food re/distribution that link with abilities to control food access and be active political agents.

It is therefore imperative to focus on the discursive underpinnings of food. The ice cream narrative reflects how a naturalized and normalized order of mother provisions, which itself is anchored on patriarchy, is used in the contest for power and authority in Zimbabwe. Food, and in this case, ice cream is packed with massive symbolic and cultural politics associated with Zanu-Pf’s politics of the spectacular and Zimbabwean nationhood. There is therefore a close relationship between food and speech (Olufunwa 2000), hence food and food ways constitute discourse and discursive subjects.

Ice cream and mother/ing the nation

Considering that nations are recurrently figured out through the iconography of familial and domestic spaces (Mawere 2019, 2016; McClintock 1993; Yuval-Davies 1997), Grace Mugabe was imagined as the mother of the Zimbabwean nation by virtue of being the First Lady. Motherhood in the Zimbabwean cultural context is associated with many positive attributes. The worthiness of a mother is framed within the mother’s ability to care for and feed her children. Grace’s distribution of food visualizes and memorializes motherhood and mother-child intimacy.

Grace owns a huge dairy farm in Mazowe, Mashonaland Central. At this farm, other dairy products such as yoghurt, and ice cream are produced. It is important to locate Grace Mugabe’s power and influence within Zanu-Pf and the nation in her innovative projects such as food production and processing at her farm. To some extent, Grace’s efforts speaks to food sovereignty as it relates to women appropriation of food, the value of women’s contributions and the recognition of their contribution to production (Sachs 2013). At the peak of Zanu-Pf’s factional battles, Grace Mugabe addressed many ‘meet the people rallies’ around the country and considering her role as the mother of the nation, the ‘meet the people rallies’ were avenues where the mother met her children and distinguished between the loyal and the disloyal. Zanu-Pf leadership was expected to attend these rallies and participate accordingly. Failure to attend was seen as a sign of insubordination and not supporting the mother’s efforts to assemble, watch over, nurture and take care of the children and one could be labelled a saboteur of the national project.

When Grace Mugabe fed people at rallies with ice cream, itself a by-product of milk, she attained the symbolic role of a mother feeding and caring for her children and a national mother feeding and caring for the Zimbabwean nation. Breast feeding is considered as a physical, psychological, economical and symbolic presence of a mother. Motherhood is associated with love, care, compassion and sustenance which allow individuals and nations to grow. To this extent, negative motherhood is associated with individual and national death. The ice cream given at rallies came from the Mugabes’ Gushungo Dairy farm, which however is more associated with Grace to underwrite, naturalize and normalize her gendered role as a mother caring for and feeding her children as well as a mother in touch with the soil and therefore with positive femininities. The meanings of land (the Gushungo farm) and the re/productive body of women (Grace) as the source of food and national sustenance is spectacularly demonstrated by Grace Mugabe’s distribution of ice cream from the Gushungo farm, giving women’s labour in general and Grace in particular, some agentive power. Through the distribution of the ice cream made at her farm, Grace shows her industrious, entrepreneurial and innovative skills and therefore, her ability to perform her naturalized role as a mother who takes care and feeds the nation.

One is forced to re/imagine the Gushungo farm as Grace Mugabe’s extended breasts from where the nation gains sustenance and livelihood, again buttressing the dominant gender categories in the re/constructions of nationhood but also subversively re/imagining the power of women in their marginalized identities. The ice cream both symbolically stands for breast milk and also as a symbol of modernity. Although this links well with Grace’s acquired identity as a modern woman associated with flamboyance, it also positions her as a powerful and innovative woman who moves beyond traditional food ways.

Anyone who fed on the ice cream was symbolically feeding on Grace Mugabe’s breasts, an act which reflected the recognition of her motherhood and her role as the mother of the nation. Since Grace Mugabe was associated with negative motherhood (Mawere 2019), this performance of her children’s loyalty, contentment and happiness helped to dispel negative images. In providing and feeding her children, Grace managed to “create sustaining relational bonds, generating a sense of security, wellbeing and contentment” (Lewis 2016:3) for herself and those whom she fed. Through the control of food distribution, which basically is a feminine and undermined role, Grace attained power and authority over Zanu-Pf and Zimbabwe, she because a central point of both life and death in Zimbabwean and Zanu-Pf politics. To some extent, this speaks to “how productive freedoms [and power] are embedded in socially neglected practices” (Lewis 2016:2-3) that are associated with the domestic space. Within the domestic space, Grace Mugabe acquired some agentive powers that made her central to both Zanu-Pf and Zimbabwean politics. Thus, by performing her socially expected role as a mother, Grace attained power and authority and managed to perform surveillance on the nation which for some time, enabled her to secure and protect her power and ambitions.

However, “Unhealthy eating habits can be seen as a form of ‘hunger’, an embodied ‘emptiness’ that results from eating food that is disconnected from relationships of responsiveness, care and intimacy (Lewis 2016). Following this argument, poisoned or contaminated food substances such as is alleged by the Lacoste faction on Grace Mugabe’s ice cream are characteristic of the hunger and the emptiness of Zimbabwean nationalism as they are indicative of self-centredness, extractive and impersonal tendencies rather than mutuality, unity and communal. Refusing Grace’s ice-cream was a performance of the rejection of a poisoned motherhood and a poisoned nationalism.

The Ice cream, Lacoste victimhood and poisoned nationhood

Positioning themselves as victims of ice cream poisoning, and a poisoned motherhood, Mnangagwa and the Zanu-Pf Lacoste faction did not see Grace’s poisoning as only physical on targeted bodies, but also as symbolic of national poisoning and destruction caused by a woman who had broken boundaries. The poisoned ice cream or food offered by the mother of the nation alludes to national food insecurity, which would negate national growth, especially within the narratives of Zimbabwean nationalism where food and re/production is central to nationhood. Thus, the absence of positive connections between the mother and the nation is mirrored through the poisoned ice cream. The poisoning or imagined poisoning of Mnangagwa’s body is characteristic of the poisoning of the national body by Grace Mugabe. Due to her alliances with the G40, who were considered undesirable elements, Grace Mugabe had become contaminated (Mawere 2019) and as a mother of the nation, her breast milk (and ice cream) was now poisoning and destroying the nation. What is more interesting is that ice cream poisoning situates Grace and women into the dominant discourses that characterize women as witches and witchcraft as a feminine characteristic (Mawere 2019; Gaidzanwa 1985).

As a response to the poisoning, immediate action (such as done to Mnangagwa to detox and save him) was supposed to be taken to detox and save the Zimbabwean nation, hence the coup d’état framed on Operation Restore Legacy which took the nation by surprise was swiftly carried out by the military junta. Even though Mnangagwa might not have been poisoned by Grace or poisoned through the ice cream, and even if his illness was just some drama, the poisonous ice cream became a metaphor for rejecting Grace’s love and care, and Grace as a mother of the nation. For the Lacoste faction, Grace’s breast was poisonous and produced poisonous milk which if the nation had continued to drink, it could have been fatally contaminated. This discourse is made reasonable through Grace Mugabe’s association with the G40, group which had been virtually homosexualized, dislocated from the Chimurenga ethic and ultimately regarded national pollutants (Mawere 2019, 2016). Thus, the same source and driver of Grace’s power, which is food distribution, was altered through a discourse of poison which sensitized that the seemingly source of life was the source of death, that the nation was drinking from a poisoned breast.

In addition to the allegations of Grace poisoning both Mugabe and Mnangagwa as fitting in with witchcraft troupes, there is also a ‘femme fatale’ idea (often depicted in film noir), that is associated with Grace. This idea positions women as tempting seductresses and their offerings as ‘toxic’ to men, as they offer a ‘dangerous sexuality’, causing powerful men to fall (Sathyamurthy 2016). The femme fatale relates to the Shona proverb, mukadzi munaku akasaroya anoba (if a beautiful woman is not a witch, she is a thief), which basically associates beauty and seduction with danger. This is interesting in relation to Grace allegedly seducing Mugabe and possibly ‘leading him astray’. Characterized as a loose, urban and flamboyant woman and nicknamed marujata or Gucci Grace, before and in her marriage to Mugabe, and postured as an adulteress (Mawere 2019), Grace Mugabe is associated with a poisonous sexuality that enables her to dominate and control men. Defying dominant feminine sexualities which are posited as private, pure and loyal provides reason for the ‘poisonous’ label given to Grace and provides justification for her rejection as mother of the nation. A revelation of female eroticism is out of touch with nation-craft as seen through various attempts to control the bodies of women and to keep women in specific spaces (Mawere 2019, 2016). It is in this sense that Operation Restore Legacy was also an operation to ‘cleanse’ womanhood and restore women to their ‘proper’ places. The refusal of Grace Mugabe’s offering or dish by the Lacoste faction can therefore be read as a refusal to be trapped by Grace’s ‘poisonous’ sexualities and an effort to decontaminate national motherhood, which is the source of national livelihood and survival.

Conclusion: The paradox

It is essential “to make food and the politics of food visible…as a way to tackle directly issues of patriarchy, capitalism, the ecological crisis, power and agency in our own spaces, and to truly decolonise food” (Andrews and Lewis 2017:7). Grace Mugabe fell into the trap of dominant discourses that provide binary spaces for men and women, and that locate the joys of motherhood in domestic spaces such as caring for and loving children. It is crucial to know that it is this effort to submit herself to the expectations of motherhood and the dictates of patriarchy that contributes to and trigger narratives that disqualify her motherhood. By trying to impress and perform the gendered role of providing as expected of motherhood, Grace’s efforts suffer a backlash as the same expectation which she had fulfilled and marked her as a mother and powerful woman became instrumental to her enemies. The same food, or ice cream which she provided to the children became a weapon in the hands of the Lacoste faction as narratives that Mnangagwa was given poisoned ice cream circulated. This meant that the nation’s motherhood was poisonous and therefore dangerous to the nation’s being. The same ice cream which Grace used to claim and perform motherhood and attain power became a metaphor for her failure as a mother, leading to the collapse of her power, that of her husband, Robert Mugabe, setting the pace for Mnangagwa’s new dispensation.

This article was first published on Gender Justice, a CSA&G project.


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Locks Down and Quarantine Queens: Thoughts on Gender and Hair Fixation During a Global Pandemic

By Gabriela Pinheiro


Throughout the month of April 2020, a quick and random survey of various social media and online news platforms has revealed a curious trend. At this time, the rapid spreading of COVID-19 has resulted in a coronavirus pandemic, killing more than 100 000 people globally[1]. Most of the world’s citizens are now living in varying degrees of “lockdown” conditions, where there are stringent limitations to personal and social mobilities, and worldwide imperatives to #stay-at-home in order to #flatten-the-curve. Given these (somewhat-apocalyptic) circumstances, it has been interesting to observe that, alongside the aforementioned coronavirus-related hashtags, others are trending including: #quarantine-curls, #buzzcut-season, #home-haircut-fail, #don’t-try-this-at-home and #lockdown-before-and-after.

Explicit references to hair, and to hair-related anxieties specifically, have dominated online spaces and interactions during coronavirus quarantine. Especially considering the increasing number of daily virus-induced deaths, and the collective sense of uncertainty, fear and grief that people are experiencing, one questions the current fixation with hair. The significance of hair to human histories, identities, societies and relationships, however, means that its focalisation during times of crisis may reflect broader sociopolitical arrangements and patterns. In this paper, current hair fixations are explored in relation to wider connections between gender and other identity markers including race, class, age and geographical positioning; illustrating the centrality of human hair to everyday life. To facilitate the discussion, I offer brief analytic insights into a series of 15 Twitter posts (or ‘Tweets’) that feature language constructing relationships between hair and coronavirus conditions such as lockdown and/or quarantine[2].

A key feature of coronavirus lockdowns is the restriction of people’s movements, allowing the continued performance only of activities and services that have been deemed “essential”. In most countries, “essential” activities and services do not include routine visits to hair and beauty salons, and/or the consumption of some cosmetics products. However, in certain countries, like the United States of America (U.S.), higher-than-usual sales have recently been recorded for at-home hair dye because “in front of dimly-lit mirrors, people are shaving their heads or dyeing their hair” (Demopoulos, 2020). In New York City (one of the worst-affected cities in the world, where almost 20 000 people have died as a result of coronavirus infection[3]), some hair professionals have reported that their clients are expressing panic at not being able to have their regular hair treatments during the pandemic. According to journalists, some stylists are even resorting to making their clients’ colour formulas and delivering customised home-hair kits. These custom hair kits are reputed to cost as much as 75 U.S. Dollars (roughly 1400 South African Rand), and include step-by-step instructions with tutorials that are also being provided using virtual platforms such as FaceTime and YouTube (Landman, 2020). In this paper, I suggest that lockdown-induced fixations with hair are not random or coincidental, but reflective of broader hair politics that illustrate the social and psychological significance of hair in everyday life.

Hair Rules: The Social and Gendered Significance of Hair

For sociological and anthropological researchers (e.g. Alubafi, Ramphalile, & Rankoana, 2018; Lester, 2013; Synnott, 1987), the emotions and symbols that become attached to human hair (such as ‘panic’, for example) are indicative of the idea that hair, a seemingly-straightforward, biological attribute, is in fact laden with psychological, political and societal meaning. Hair is deeply-rooted (pun intended) in our personal and private sense of identity, but it is simultaneously a public, physical attribute that becomes imbued with connotations, stories, experiences and values. Hence, hair symbolism is complex and nuanced, and perhaps nowhere more explicitly than in gendered domains; where boundaries between personal and political spheres are contested and blurred: hair is private, but it is also exposed to public scrutiny. Moreover, whilst hair growth occurs all over the human body, particular hair ‘zones’ carry subtle ideological significance that appears to be based largely on Western heterosexual gendered stereotypes. The gendered politics of hair are organised and naturalised so that society’s expectations and scripts for male versus female hair are often opposite and contradictory (Synnott, 1987).

Culturally[4], heterosexual, binary definitions of masculinities and femininities suggest that men are generally less closely-identified with their hair, and perhaps more concerned with facial and chest hair as key markers of androgenic hormones and maleness. Typically, men are expected to keep their head hair short, uniform and ‘neat’. Norms prescribe that men should also have some facial hair, but they are generally not pressured to remove hair from other bodily zones[5]. Conversely, social expectations and standards are different for most women, who are generally socialised to identify more intimately with their head hair. Normatively, the worth that a woman encompasses seems to depend, to a considerable extent, on the length, texture and aesthetic quality of her head hair, but her value is also contingent on the absence of hair in other bodily zones such as the armpits, legs and pubis (Synnott, 1987). The immense social and gendered significance of hair is also supported by economic consumer patterns, where there is a considerable ‘grooming gap’ in the amount of time and money that women versus men spend on hair styling and products, and where the worth of the global haircare market is estimated at 90 billion U.S. Dollars (Isser, 2020). Feminist scholars and activists, including Audré Lorde and Germaine Greer, understand hair as a symbol of women’s gendered and sexual subjugation at the hands of patriarchal values. In relation to hair, Greer (1971) states:

I’m sick of the masquerade. I’m sick of pretending eternal youth. I’m sick of peering at the world through false eyelashes, so everything I see is mixed with a shadow of bought hairs; I’m sick of weighting my head with a dead mane, unable to move my neck freely, terrified of rain, of wind, of dancing too vigorously in case I sweat into my lacquered curls. I’m sick of the Powder Room […] The rationale of depilation is crude. In the popular imagination hairiness is like furriness, an index of bestiality, and as such an indication of aggressive sexuality. Men cultivate it, just as they are encouraged to develop competitive and aggressive instincts, women suppress it, just as they suppress all the aspects of their vigour and libido. If they do not feel sufficient revulsion for their body hair themselves, others will direct them to depilate themselves. In extreme cases, women shave or pluck the pubic areas, so as to seem even more sexless and infantile. (pp. 38–61)

Greer (1971) constructs the patriarchal pressure for women to groom their head, face and body hair as unreasonable and uncomfortable. In the above statement, she highlights the manifestation of patriarchal gender codes in human hair practices, drawing clear parallels between norms for women’s sexualities and the hair prescriptions that are imposed by a codified, heterosexual society. Moreover, her words suggest that the routine hair grooming that she performs is not done because of personal choice and enjoyment. Masquerade, pretending, false and bought reinforce the sense of falsity and unnaturalness that she experiences when she engages in patriarchally-motivated hair practices, because these routines are invested in the gratification of external, societal pressure, and have little to do with her agency and personal choice as a woman. Greer (1971) also states that human hair is considered bestial, and that the qualities espoused by archetypal ‘beasts’ (aggression, acting on primal instincts and urges, assertiveness, action, etc.) are traditionally reserved for males only. These examples highlight the tension between private and public performances of hair and aesthetics, where many women feel obligated to express and present their bodies to the outer world in particular ways.

During the coronavirus pandemic, people on lockdown are spending considerable amounts of time in the privacy of their homes, as compared to their daily routines before the COVID-19 crisis began. On social media, many people’s posts have implied that the coronavirus lockdown/quarantine situation has provided a time to ‘let themselves go’ in terms of physical appearance and routine grooming practices. In line with what Greer (1971) and other feminist scholars have argued previously, this may be an indication of the idea that people (and women, in particular) adhere to traditional hair and grooming practices only because they are pressured to do so socially. In Tweet 1 (below), the Twitter user shows how dominant imaginings of human hair tend to associate its growth with bestiality, inhumanity, savagery, brutality and depravity. The user compares the ‘new’ presence and increased growth of people’s body hair (under lockdown conditions during the pandemic) to the untamed and non-anthropoid archetype of the werewolf. Interestingly, the increase in body hair is accompanied by changes to the size of people’s bodies in lockdown, illustrating how the presence of body hair is generally perceived as a symptom that someone has ‘let themselves go’ (and may therefore be ‘judged’) in physical appearance:

Tweet 1: @Roxi Horror (2020, April 7): when the quarantine ends, people may look a little different than they looked before. Remember not to judge anyone for the size of their body, any new body hair, the sharpness of their fangs, their new tail or how they howl when the moon comes out.

Other posts and interactions, illustrating the tension between private and public performances of gendered hair practices, have circulated widely on social media during the coronavirus pandemic. Aestheticians (especially in the U.S.) have reported that many female clients are anxious over growing body hair because they have to stay at home and cannot maintain their routine visits to beauty salons. In a recent news article (Demopoulos, 2020), one beauty professional stated: “We actually don’t recommend waxing at home, it’s potentially dangerous and the results will probably be disappointing. Why not go natural? It’s one less thing to deal with”. Particular aspects of this statement also support the sentiments expressed by Greer (1971). The beautician highlights the fact that when one is confined to the home (private) space, then it is more acceptable to ‘go natural’. The implication, in this instance, is that it would be unsightly and unpalatable to the public if a woman was to leave the home (private) space with normal body hair still visible. In the second portion of the statement, there is also evidence to suggest that, like Greer (1971), many women feel that routine beauty practices are burdening: something to ‘deal with’. It becomes clear that many of the beauty conventions and standards that we take for granted as normal and necessary are in fact societally-constructed and replete with sexist discourses about the way that a woman’s body should appear. During the coronavirus lockdown situation, we have been presented with a chance to reflect on the reasons why we engage in these conformist practices in the first place.

In Tweets 2, 3, 4 and 5 (below), the Twitter users show how societal rules for hair seem to be internalised so that the manipulation and control of our hair becomes more emblematic of gendered codes, and not so much a representation of personal choice. A series of analytic insights is offered below each of the posts:

Tweet 2: @readwithcindy (2020, April 8): when this quarantine is over I will be curious to see which hangs lower to the ground, my armpit hair or my saggy boobs.

In Tweet 2, the female user alludes to the fact that, because she is confined to the home space (‘quarantine’), she has been allowing her armpit hair to grow as it would naturally. Interestingly, the choice to let her armpit hair grow out is accompanied by a rejection of other gendered expectations that women encounter: in this case, the convention of wearing a bra. The implication is that her breasts will droop in the absence of their normative underwire support, and that they will hang down in the same vein as her newly-grown armpit hair. These transgressions of gendered hair norms are possible only because of ‘quarantine’ conditions, where remaining in the privacy of the home means that social expectations for hair need not be respected or fulfilled.

Tweet 3: @The Magnificent Cork (2020, April 7): I feel so sorry for women at the moment. Without their hair and nails done they actually look ridiculous. Honestly like, its lousy #lockdown.

In Tweet 3, the male user demonstrates patriarchal hair (and general grooming) expectations in action. He states that women ‘look ridiculous’ during the coronavirus lockdown because they are confined to their home spaces and thus cannot engage in routine beauty practices such as getting their ‘hair and nails done’. The user communicates his disapproval of women’s ungroomed and natural bodily states and condemns them with the word ‘lousy’. This post illustrates the patriarchal values that tend to underpin Western gendered hair norms and beauty standards: in order for women not to be ‘lousy’, or pitied by men, they should remain pristine in their physical condition at all times.

Tweet 4: @Maria Nabil (2020, April 8): Another good hair day wasted in quarantine…*blessing your timeline*.

Tweet 5: @clairequinn1352 (2020, April 13): My hair looks so good today and it is a travesty we are in quarantine.

In Tweets 4 and 5, the female users suggest that a ‘good hair day’ is ‘wasted’ in coronavirus ‘quarantine’, mainly because of the ‘travesty’ of having to stay inside without being able to show the public that their hair is groomed according to social standards and expectations. These sentiments suggest that what we do with our hair is not so much about personal choice, but about ensuring that we make good appearances in public and social realms of everyday life. These ideas are (re)articulated aptly by Juliet A. Williams, a gender studies professor from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), who reiterates that the coronavirus pandemic has created an opportunity for people to think critically about their everyday conformity to gendered aesthetic expectations (Demopoulos, 2020):

For many people the crisis is the first time they’ve ever seriously considered [the question] ‘How would I choose to look if I didn’t have to worry about what other people think? You see a much wider spectrum of self-presentation. You see a rejection of gender stereotypes: long hair, short hair, grey hair. All of the things that we do to create the illusion that there is such a big difference in the way men and women look are being taken apart.

In Tweet 6 (below), the female user illustrates that coronavirus quarantine is a ‘no rules apply’ time for conventional gendered grooming and hair practices. She has to ‘hide’ the fact that she has chosen to go braless whilst engaging in the one-hour-long exercise/outside break that still applies in some countries on lockdown. The path is ‘well-populated’ and so she is forced to conceal the appearance and movement of her natural breasts in the absence of a bra. For her, coronavirus quarantine feels like a ‘no rules apply’ time. The rules to which she is referring are gendered, hence the references to her long hair and her decision to go braless (allowed only because it is quarantine). Tweet 6 thus reiterates the ideas expressed by Greer (1971) and Williams (2020), who suggest that the gendered codes for hair performance and expression are governed by patriarchal values, and that lockdown (a condition during which people do not venture out into the public eye) presents a unique historical moment for us to think critically about why we present our hair (and our bodies) in the ways that we do.

Tweet 6: @Fleurie (2020, April 8): using my hair to hide that I’m not wearing a bra was going well until I hit a strong headwind on a very well-populated walking path LOL why does quarantine feel like a general “no rules apply” time?

Connections between Gendered and Racial Identities in Global Hair Hierarchies

Gendered hair politics are further complicated by their intersections with geopolitical, racial and classed ideologies and positionings. Modern hair hierarchies are configured largely according to the systematic hegemony of conservative, white supremacist patriarchy (Alubafi et al., 2018). In the West, ideas from popular culture dictate that long, straight and shiny hair is irrefutably feminine, sexy and valuable. These hair standards are typified in the stereotypical performances of Caucasian femininity that abound in Western popular culture and media, which are replete with gendered hair mythologies including Rapunzel, Mary Magdalene and Lady Godiva. Gendered and racialised tropes that involve hair are also popular, including the all-too-familiar Dumb Blonde woman and the Tall, Dark and Handsome man. The Dumb Blonde trope is particularly visible in the collective consciousness of white, patriarchal Americans: innocent, passive, void of intellect, seductive, air-headed, youthful (but sexually experienced and experimental) and coquettish, the Dumb Blonde trope is epitomised in both fictional and non-fictional figures like Marylin Monroe, Grace Kelly, Elle Woods and Britney Spears (Horn, 1979, as cited in Synnott, 1987). In contemporary hair politics, the rise of tropes like the ‘Karen’ (Can I Speak to the Manager?) haircut also illustrate some of the ways in which white, middle-aged women who do not have long and ‘youthful’ air are constructed as slightly ‘butch’ and as ‘ball-busters’ (Rennex, 2019).

The connections between hair, gender and politics are becoming ever-clearer during the coronavirus pandemic. In the U.S., Ainsley Erhardt (a talk show host on U.S. President Donald Trump’s favourite conservative-leaning morning show, Fox and Friends) expressed concern about how women in America were going to get their hair and nails done in the context of social distancing and lockdowns: “All my friends are saying, you know, this is not a priority — people are dying and I realize that…but they can’t get their nails done,” she said. Shortly thereafter, social media users responded with critiques that her statement and the concerns she was expressing presented as a “perfect distillation of Trump Republicanism” and “rich white lady problems”. At the time of writing, the U.S. had more than 76 000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and a total of 849 recorded deaths, which begged the question: how legitimate are concerns about our physical appearance given our current circumstances and especially the knowledge that people are dying daily? (The News, 2020). Perhaps hair fixation by politicians and popular media figures illustrates the West’s tendency to focalise ‘rich white lady problems’ at the expense of devoting attention to issues of substance and urgency.

The same anti-feminist, conservative patriarchy is internalised by other anti-feminist women: Marabel Morgan (1975, p. 114, as cited in Synnott, 1987), for example, offered the following advice on how a woman should greet her husband on his return from work (the assumption being that she does not work outside of the house): “Greet him at the door with your hair shining, your beautifully made-up face radiant, your outfit sharp and snappy…. Take a few moments for that bubble-bath…. Remove all prickly hairs and be squeaky-clean from head to toe. Be touchable and kissable”.

Owing to their dominance of global hair hierarchies, and because they find their roots in decades of racist and oppressive histories, hegemonic ideas about hair are entangled intimately with the privileges afforded by Western white patriarchy (historically and contemporarily). Hence, it is possible to view hair as a corporeal artefact that (re)produces derogatory discourses about blackness, and about black women in particular. The politics of gender, hair and race have been shaped by the early (and enduring) racist influences of colonialism and slavery. As systematic forms of oppression and exploitation, colonialism and slavery catalysed the erasure of positive ideas about natural African hair, predominantly through the exportation of Africans to the West in the slave trade. In colonial America, white slave owners characterised African hair textures as “woolly” and favoured black women with straighter hair and lighter skin for ‘employment’ as personal house slaves; whilst those black women with kinkier hair and darker complexions were confined to work in the cotton fields (Nyamnjoh & Fuh, 2014, as cited in Alubafi et al., 2018). Chigumadzi (2016) found that black people living in Brazil and the Caribbean have shared hair stories, because in the American experience, a woman with ‘good hair’ is a woman with long, shiny and straight hair. In the neo-colonial period, where white patriarchy and cultural imperialism persist, many ideas about black people’s hair continue to be informed largely by two colonial misconceptions in particular: that natural black hair is dirty or unsanitary, and that natural black hair does not grow. To elaborate on the ways in which these gendered and colonial rules continue to play out in modern hair hierarchies, Mokoena (2016, as cited in Alubafi et al., 2018) notes that:

Many black women who wear weaves and relax their hair will explain their choice by either saying that their natural hair is unmanageable or that natural hair is dirty. This is one of the most enduring stereotypes about black hair. People will even cite the anecdotal evidence that Bob Marley’s dreads had 47 different types of lice when he died. These are urban legends of the worst kind because they perpetuate the stereotype that only black hair attracts lice, and other vermin, which is scientifically untrue.

In South Africa, with its history of colonial rule, apartheid machinery employed the same discursive strategies and racist tactics to divide people on the basis of particular aesthetic features and supposed ‘biological’ differences. In this context, hair was one of the most visible and public indicators of race, second only to skin colour. It is no secret that, in the name of ‘science’ (eugenics), the apartheid government institutionalised invalid and racist measures such as the ‘pencil hair test’ in order to classify South Africans as either ‘white’ or ‘non-white’ (black, mixed race or Indian) (Chigumadzi, 2016). Black women’s hair thus became (and remains presently) one of the most highly-contested aesthetic practices in the South African imagination (Alubafi et al., 2016; Chigumadzi, 2016). Racial slurs to describe African versus Caucasian hair textures were (and are still) propagated through polarising vocabularies such as kroes-hare (meaning ‘kinky’ hair) versus lekker-hare (meaning ‘nice’ hair). These vocabularies illustrate how “distinctions of aesthetic value – beautiful and ugly – have always been central to the way racism divides the world into binary oppositions in its application of human worth” (Mercer, 1987, p. 35). In the post-apartheid era, hair politics and his(hair)stories continue to exert a profound influence in shaping many black women’s perceptions of themselves and also their relationships with their bodies; especially in relation to an ostensibly superior (and ‘more beautiful’) white other (Alubafi et al., 2018).

The interconnections between hair and race are also evident in the biologising and totalising racist discourses that continue to (re)appear in everyday talk and interaction around black women’s hair. In a recent study by Alubafi et al (2018), black women living in Tshwane (Pretoria) noted that ‘good hair’ is still largely understood to mean ‘white hair’ (sleek, long and straight).  Moreover, many black women express feelings of frustration and humiliation when white people ask if it would be okay to touch their afros; that these requests from white people are inappropriate and serve only to reproduce racist ideas about which types of head hair are (ab)normal (Gassam, 2020). In these everyday interactions, a particular kind of relational and power dynamic (re)emerges, where whiteness has voyeuristic privilege, and blackness is exhibited purely to satiate white consumption, fascination, entertainment and pleasure.

One is reminded in this instance of historical figures such as Saartjie Baartman (see, e.g. Catanese, 2010). However, one also need not look very far in order to encounter contemporary illustrations of the same corporeal violences (central to which are questions relating to human hair). In the sphere of modern sport, for example, racist/sexist hair politics manifest in the ‘scientific’ (read: humiliating and discriminatory) measures that are sometimes used to evaluate women athletes; especially those who are not white. Dutee Chand is an Indian athlete who identifies as a woman, but she was recently suspected of having high levels of androgens (male hormones) and was thus subjected to a series of ‘sex verification tests’: one of which entailed the measuring of her pubic hair; the length of which was then recorded and graded according to a five-grade scale (Padawer, 2016). Similar procedures were conducted on the body of South African athlete, Caster Semenya, whose case demonstrates another example of intersectional identity discrimination (along gendered and racial axes) at the hands of conservative white patriarchy in the sporting arena (North, 2019).

Moreover, South Africa’s current education system also reveals how historical racism and sexism endure in contemporary hair politics: a case in point is exemplified by the August 2016 incident at Pretoria High School for Girls, where administration insisted that black female learners straighten their hair in order for it to adhere to the school’s code of conduct (which stipulated that girls’ hair should be ‘neat’ and ‘tidy’). These examples reflect how human hair remains fundamental to the maintenance of historical racist/misogynistic policies, and how the complex image of black hair is fraught with historic emblems of black people’s purported inferiority (Alubafi et al., 2018). Whilst many white women endure (re)articulations of sexist oppression in patriarchal matrices, it seems that “the racial implications of hair texture [and hair in general] take on added significance for black women, given the central role accorded to hair in racialized constructions of femininity and female beauty” (Caldwell, 2003, p. 18).

In Tweet 7 (below), the male Twitter user makes references to black women and the hair and grooming practices to which they must normally conform. The reference to race is made explicit through his use of the word ‘nigga’. This word is a variant of the word ‘nigger’, which has a particular history that finds its origins as a racist slur used by white people against black people in the mid-1800s. However, the term, and black people’s use of the term, have evolved to take on new meanings. One new way in which black people employ the term ‘nigga’ is colloquial, to refer to other black people in casual conversation and as a reclamation of the term as part of a positive and collective identity (see, e.g. Rahman, 2012). In Tweet 7, the black male user is referring to the ‘niggas’ (boyfriends or partners) of black women, whom he references through the word ‘ladies’ and the inclusion of a photo of a stylish black woman. In the Tweet, he suggests that quarantine is a time where black women are unable to adhere to conventional beauty standards, implying that as soon as the coronavirus pandemic is over, these women will hurry back to beauty salons to receive their usual beauty treatments. He also suggests that, in order to have sex with (or ‘give it up’ to) their ‘niggas’ (from whom they have been separated because of coronavirus lockdown), these women will need to first make sure that they adhere to gendered codes for grooming: they should be ‘fully waxed’, their nails should be done and their head hair should also be properly groomed:

Tweet 7: @B. (2020, April 8): Ladies first day out of quarantine on the way to their nigga house fully waxed, nails & hair done and ready to give it UP [photograph of stylish black woman].

Gender, Age and Hair in the Western Imagination: to Go Grey or to Die?

In Western aesthetics, there is also a clear interplay between hair, gender and the identity marker of age; where Western standards of beauty show an obsessive reverence towards youth and its preservation, and a complementary devaluing of age and elderliness. Synnott (1987) notes that grey hair is often one of the first physical and public signs of human mortality, and that grey hairs (and ageing) are often concealed through conventional dyeing practices. However, where grey hair and ageing are concerned, there is also a (gendered) double standard in most youth-focused, Western settings: for women, greying hair is generally perceived negatively, as a sign of aging: there is a loss of youthful characteristics (including women’s ‘crowning glory’) that make femininity intelligible and seductive to patriarchal masculinities.

For most Western men, however, greying hair is often regarded as ‘distinguished’; hence, the old adage: men age like fine wine, but women age like milk. The metaphorical ‘souring’ of women as they age, common in Western framings of beauty and gender, alludes to the double standards characterising gender codifications and aesthetic rules. The constraining effects of these rules featured prominently in a 1983 scandal, where the U.S. Food and Drug Administration admitted that hair dye may cause cancer, and many female consumers of Clairol’s hair dye said that they would rather die than ‘turn grey’ (Banner, 1983, as cited in Synnott, 1987). In Tweet 8 (below), it is evident that coronavirus conditions, such as ‘self-quarantine’ mean that people (and women, in particular) can get away with foregoing their usual beauty and hair colouring routines because they are not going to be seen by anybody. The female Twitter user places ‘without a bra or makeup’ next to ‘growing out your grey hair’ and this syntax shows that gender rules for hair have become somewhat relaxed whilst women are confined to their homes during a period of time when public appearances do not matter to the same degree as they would normally:

Tweet 8: @paget_brewster (2020, April 8): maybe during self-quarantine, you do a little touch up on interior house painting, without a bra or makeup, while growing out your grey hair…

Re/rou(o)ting His(hair)stories: Hair as Resistance

Human hair is very often the site of interwoven discriminatory politics, but it is also a battleground for people’s resistance to societal conventions: hence, it is far from neutral, but rather highly-ambivalent and contested. Historically, the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of 1950s-60s America were underpinned by aesthetic ideologies and practices that encouraged black people to reclaim their natural styles, and the afro was glorified with the slogan Black is Beautiful (Synnott, 1987). As a parallel to these bodily and hair-related modes of resistance, the influence of the Black Consciousness Movement in apartheid South Africa meant that black people started to reject the primacy of white beauty rules, drawing attention instead to political blackness, and to black power, through their hair choices: as a key part of their rebellion against racial and gendered configurations, many black South Africans wore afros and other natural styles in order to symbolise a return to themselves, and a collective reframing of negative ideas about black physicality and black bodies (Biko, 2004, as cited in Alubafi et al., 2018). Furthermore, some black women in the recent study by Alubafi et al (2018) expressed that their hair still serves as a contested, ambivalent and dynamic part of their daily aesthetic lives and routines, including the resistance of pre-1994 hair imagery: importantly, they emphasised that South African black women who straighten their hair, or wear wigs and extensions, are not simply imitating their white counterparts, but that the free adoption of different styles (some of which were previously thought to be owned and worn exclusively by white women) forms a core part of the liberation of black people and black hair.

In the present era of hair and gender, the continued and gradual dismantling of dominant hair hierarchies is evident. Through their hair adornment and style choices, many black women in South Africa are gradually disrupting racist and sexist his(hair)stories, as was especially publicised and highlighted in the protest by Pretoria High School for Girls learners following the 2016 incident at their school (Alubafi et al., 2018; Chigumadzi, 2016). It is also positive to see that people’s questioning of normative hair conventions is occurring in creative domains, through film and other media. In 2020, for example, Matthew Cherry’s Hair Love was awarded an Oscar upon being recognised as the best animated short film of the season. The film has been hailed as a celebration of representation, and of a young black girl’s journey of self (and hair) acceptance (McKenzie, 2020). These forms of resistance allude to the subtle, but powerful capacities for hair to tackle and neutralise aesthetic and socio-political hegemonies in the context of global race/gender arrangements.

Other forms of hair protest include those witnessed in social movements such as the Hippie and Punk movements (Synnott, 1987), and in the growing refusal by many women to remove their body hair and/or to keep their head hair long. Within LGBTQIA+[6] and drag scenes, performance artists such as Conchita Wurst (who wears a beard) have also made significant contributions to hair resistance (Tallie, 2014). The increasing prevalence of women’s unshaven armpits, and the growing popularity of women’s buzzcuts, show how feminine shame has started to become feminist (‘crowning’) glory (Lester, 2013). During coronavirus conditions, such as lockdown and quarantine, more and more people seem to be questioning the hair practices in which they engage on a daily basis. One might argue, then, that the global pandemic has offered an opportunity for critical thought and reflection around mainstream hair norms (in relation to gender, race and other identity markers) and that the ‘letting go’ of convention might alter and (re)shape the ways in which we think about aesthetics in the post-coronavirus era.

The Psychosomatics of Hair: Loss, Locks and Life Transitions

Psychosomatically, the gendered nuances of hair are also visible, straddling both private and public spaces: In one study (Synnott, 1987, p. 383), the following was expressed by a woman who had lost all of her hair through radiation therapy for the treatment of cancer: “When you lose your hair, you feel like you have nothing to live for […] a girl just isn’t a girl without her hair”. Her sentiments and ‘feelings’ allude to the centrality of hair as a core part of her sense of self as a legitimate and worthy woman in society. Moreover, the level of pain that she experiences in relation to the loss of her hair is comparable to the grief and emptiness that is typically associated with death and mourning. According to some psychologists (see, e.g. Radin, 2019), the urge to cut one’s hair during periods of grief can be likened to shedding a layer of skin; a way to rid the Self physically of difficult emotions and experiences.

The gendered connections between grief and hair are observable across numerous cultures, where head hair among Punjabi women, for example, symbolises life and vitality and is thus left dishevelled and unwashed during the mourning of husbands (Herschman, 1974, as cited in Hirschman, n.d.). The female Twitter user who posted Tweet 9 (below) uses a simile device to show how coronavirus quarantine compares to the feelings associated with a breakup. The loss of normalcy and routine that happens during quarantine is likened to the loss of an intimate partner, and feelings including ‘sadness’ and longings for ‘revenge’ are expressed. Interestingly, the ‘revenge bod’ is polarised with the image of being ‘sad as shit and eating everything you can find, binge watching shit tv’, which shows how people’s personal and private aesthetic performances are different in private and public domains. The ‘revenge bod’ is usually created for the purpose of showing one’s ex what they are missing, and so again this communicates the idea that gendered bodily practices are largely maintained by external pressures that women feel. This is the case both during quarantine and during a breakup. The ‘chopping’ of this user’s hair is mentioned in relation to the feelings of loss, sadness and yearning for normalcy that characterise periods of grief and mourning:

Tweet 9: @Kristen Leanne (2020, April 6): Quarantine is like a breakup: one day you’re fucking sad as shit and eating everything you can find, binge watching shit tv. Next day you wanna work out and get that revenge bod…then you wanna chop your hair off and colour it [crying emoji].

Many women who have experienced other types of trauma also express desires to cut their hair or even to shave it off entirely. In popular culture, examples of this are represented in film and other media. In the 1988 film, The Accused, the protagonist decides to cut her hair into a very short style after she is gangraped and discovers that her rapists have not been found guilty (Radin, 2019). This is also evident in Tweet 10 (below), where the female Twitter user constructs cutting one’s hair during quarantine as something inevitable (‘when you cut your own hair’). The cutting of the hair is cathartic because the experience of being in quarantine is traumatic. This is likened to the gendered tropes that are common in films and other media:

Tweet 10: @CamGurrrl (2020, April 13): When you cut your own hair in quarantine pretend to be a female character who’s gone through a significant and/or traumatic event, and now has her spontaneous, tearful, cathartic haircutting scene scored by rousing music.

Another, highly-publicised and notorious example can be identified in the case of Britney Spears, who, in 2007, (in)famously shaved her own head whilst in the midst of personal trauma involving a war with the American media, a divorce, substance abuse and mental health difficulties. After years of alienation and torment as a puppet of American popular culture and media, Spears later explained that the notorious head-shave symbolised a reclamation of her personal identity and individuality, but also a physical way in which to handle the emotional pain that she was experiencing. Having been sexualised from a very young age Britney used the buzzcut moment as a mode of defiance and resistance against stigmas surrounding gender and mental health (Morrish, 2017):

She seemed to be trying, with befuddled brilliance, to tell the truth. She recoiled from celebrity culture by mortifying her own flesh. She stripped herself, publicly, of her sexuality. She presented herself as grotesque. Her mortification of the flesh at 25 is just the latest example of how bizarrely-troubling American society finds the female body.

Coronavirus lockdown/quarantine periods are also periods of transition and change, involving considerable stress and anxiety for many people. The psychological and affectual impact of this situation may be expressed through people’s decisions to change their hair or modify their physical appearance in other ways. For the remainder of the tweets (below), brief analytic comments are provided that illustrate this.

Tweet 11: @Krestamir (2020, April 6): new piercings and hair color after this quarantine [tongue emoji]

There is the implication of a transitory period for the user. She is going to have these bodily procedures performed after quarantine, showing that she will be coming out of a difficult time in her life. The tongue emoji is a performative way of communicating a particular message or emotion.

Tweet 12: @Jo (2020, Apr 8): The worst part about this quarantine is that I can’t dispel my manic energy in negative ways. No tattoos/piercings, no dyeing my hair, no impulse buying, no going to the Pub and ordering everyone shots of Jameson. What am I supposed to do? Hike? Read? Meditate? Fucksakes.

Dyeing one’s hair is constructed as a way to ‘dispel [her] manic energy’. This female user is manic because of the quarantine. Other maladaptive or destructive (‘negative’) activities or coping mechanisms are mentioned, symbolizing that cutting one’s hair is something that we often do when we are not coping. This suggests that quarantine and coronavirus pandemic are difficult to handle. There is also the polarization of healthy coping mechanisms with unhealthy ones…in society’s view, drinking, dyeing your hair, buying things impulsively and getting body modifications like piercings or tattoos are considered unhealthy. The healthy mechanisms involve hiking, reading and meditating. ‘Fucksakes’ expresses anger and exasperation.

Tweet 13: @kj (2020, April 6): btw I dyed my hair like…the 2nd day of quarantine I am not stable lmao.

Tweet 14: @emo_mom (2020, April 6): this quarantine put y’all in the same mental state you were in when you were 13, that’s why you’re listening to your “emo throwbacks” playlist and dyeing your hair

Tweet 15: @Tallulah (2020, April 4): quarantine made me do it. Instead of having a meltdown, I dyed my hair.

Evidently, hair is laden with psychology and affect: one makes changes (like cutting and/or dyeing) the hair during times of ‘instability’ (like coronavirus lockdown/quarantine conditions). In Tweet 13, the ‘lmao’ stands for ‘laughing my ass off’ and could signal the idea that the female user finds the quarantine situation absurd. In Tweet 14, the female user refers to the ‘emo’ trope, which is known to emphasise emotional expression and is usually typified by reverse mullet and jet-black or rainbow-hued hairstyles. The reference to this trope suggests that quarantine has initiated a ‘mental state’ that is highly emotional. Finally, in Tweet 15, these sentiments and ideas are reinforced: the female user cites ‘quarantine’ as the reason for a ‘meltdown’ (emotional instability) and goes on to mention changes that she has made to her hair instead.


In this paper, a series of tweets (posted during the month of April 2020, in the context of coronavirus lockdown/quarantine conditions during the global pandemic) was analysed thematically, and the analytic insights were connected to broader theory around hair politics to show that hair is significant to people in ways that are personal, emotional, psychological, social, spiritual, historical, political, economical and sexual. The ideological effects of hair are particularly evident during the global pandemic, which has presented us with an opportunity to reflect critically on the reasons, values and ideas that underpin our daily adherence to (mainly Western) aesthetic conventions. Expressed through social media platforms such as Twitter, quarantine-related hair fixations and anxieties reveal the affectual and political intricacies with which hair is imbued.


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Greer, G. (1971). The Female Eunuch. Paladin Books.

Hirschman, E. C. (n.d.). Hair as Attribute, Hair as Symbol, Hair as Self. 13.

Isser, M. (2020, January 5). The grooming gap: What “looking the part” costs women.

Landman, B. (2020, March 20). People are freaking out about having bad hair during coronavirus quarantine. NY Post.

Lester, N. A. (2013). The Why and the Where of Hair. The Lion and the Unicorn, 37(2), v–xvi.

McKenzie, J.P. (2020, February 10). Watch Matthew Cherry’s Oscar-winning short film Hair Love: it made history on Kickstarter. The Oprah Magazine.

Mercer, K. (1987). Black hairstyle politics. New Formations, 3, 33–54.

Morrish, L. (2017, February 17). What Britney’s head shave can teach us about mental health 10 years on. Konbini.

North, A. (2019, May 3). “I am a woman and I am fast”: What Caster Semenya’s story says about gender and race in sports. Vox.

Padawer, R. (2016, July 15). Indian Dutee Chand, set to run in the Olympics, has been humiliated by sex-testing. New York Times.

Plantive, C. (2020, April 8). To cut or not to cut? in U.S., quarantine slows everything but hair growth. South Cape Forum.

Radin, S. (2019, March 26). We asked a psychologist and hairdresser why haircuts are so emotional. Dazed Digital.

Rahman, J. (2012). The N Word: Its History and Use in the African American Community. Journal of English Linguistics – J ENGL LINGUIST, 40, 137–171.

Rennex, M. (2019, December 16). Junk Explained: Who And What Is A “Karen”? Junkee.

Synnott, A. (1987). Shame and Glory: A Sociology of Hair. The British Journal of Sociology, 38(3), 381.

Tallie, T.J. (2014, May 19). Hirsute Phoenix: Conchita Wurst, Beards, and the Politics of Sexuality. Notches.

Waldstein, A. (2016). Studying the Body in Rastafari Rituals: Spirituality, Embodiment and Ethnographic Knowledge. Journal for the Study of Religious Experience, 2(71).

About the author

Gabriela Pinheiro is a critical social and psychological researcher. Gabriela joined the CSA&G in 2020 where she manages the Gender Justice Project in collaboration with the Irish Embassy and is also involved with other ongoing work in the CSA&G. She completed her Master’s in Research Psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand and interned at the UNISA Institute for Social and Health Sciences. Her research background includes work in the South African Higher Education sector and community engagement. She has particular interest in the study of critical social psychologies, genders and sexualities, and student health/wellbeing.


[1] At the time of writing. For updated statistics and further information, visit:

[2] These Tweets were selected randomly. Using the Twitter application, the recent Tweets were filtered to show those from April 2020, before typing the following keywords into the search bar: coronavirus hair, quarantine hair and lockdown hair. This is just a small collection of Tweets related to coronavirus and hair, and an array of others can be viewed on Twitter:

[3] At the time of writing. For updated statistics and further information, visit:

[4] I refer in this instance to hegemonic Western standards and cultures of beauty. It is important to recognise the heterogeneity and plurality within and between different cultures when contemplating the politics of hair and beauty. In Rastafarian culture, for example, many men choose to wear their head hair long (and/or in dreadlock styles) because they believe that this is where their strength lies. This example alludes to the dynamic nature of hair politics across and within different cultural groupings (see, e.g. Waldstein, 2016). Gendered hair norms are also contested and resisted – this is discussed in later sections of this paper.

[5] There are exceptions to this uniformity, even within dominant Western beauty cultures. If we think about sport, for example, many male athletes choose to remove body hair because the practice is perceived to enhance physical performance. This alludes, again, to the plurality of hair expression by different people, even when they are see as falling within a particular group or culture.

[6] Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual and allies

Reflections on what I do at the CSA&G – Vuyisa Mamanzi

By Vuyisa Mamanzi

My background

Vuyisa MamanziI grew up in Gugulethu, a township located just outside Cape Town. I obtained my undergraduate and postgraduate education at the University of the Western Cape. I completed my honours degree in Anthropology and my research project looked at unemployment and its impact on being a ‘real man’: A study investigating coping strategies utilized by men living in Gugulethu. In 2015, I worked as a research assistant at the School of Public Health/Management Studies at the University of Cape Town, part-time. My work involved transcription, data analysis and conducting in-depth interviews on a project that focused on “Childbearing, family planning and the relationships among women living with HIV in Gugulethu”. I am completing my master’s degree, through UWC; and the research is an ethnographic study on power relations between black employers and black employees in the Nyanga mini-bus taxi industry.

I joined the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender (CSA&G) team in January 2018 as a project manager and researcher. My responsibilities included organising and overseeing the day to day logistics of the Just Leaders project. The project is a CSA&G volunteer and leadership development programme. It endeavours to build a movement of active citizen student leaders that promote social justice, critical consciousness and inclusive practices at the University of Pretoria. Our work on this project is greatly influenced by the ideology of the Brazilian educator and writer Paulo Freire, who states that “for liberation you need education that inspires you to think critically, education that frees the mind instead of numbing it”. One of the achievements that I am most proud of currently, is leading a team of three researchers in developing the Just Leaders curriculum for our 9-week entry-level course. The course looks at a range of topics such as structural violence, stigma, sexual and reproductive health and rights, social justice, access to quality education, activism and social movements, democracy and political citizenship, and leadership for change. The course is aimed at registered UP students and it has been well received. An amazing aspect of the Just Leaders programme is that it provides our student volunteers with skills and an opportunity to be drivers and agents for change. Upon invitation, we also conduct and facilitate race, sexualities and gender awareness talks/workshops on and off campus.

What I enjoy about our awareness raising and prevention work, is our pedagogical approach. Our work takes on a more intersectional approach to dynamics such as sexualities, race, class and gender which inform student experiences. The Just Leaders theory of change states:

“Through promoting social justice, critical consciousness and inclusive practices, we will co-create university environments that are responsive and transformed by just leaders.

Just Leaders

Whether facilitating dialogues, workshops or giving a presentation for lecturers and students, our focus is situating knowledge from the students’ lived experiences by developing communities of practice where learning is contextual and meaningful. We create conducive environments for learning by removing power hierarchies and employing teachers as learners and learners as teachers philosophy.  What we see happening when this philosophy is applied is that students question! We enter into conversations, where we begin to question our own privilege, power and positionality. We start confronting the uncomfortable truths about ourselves. An exploration of ‘contradiction’ takes place because we are all living in a space of contradiction. I am reminded of a lecturer, who, after one of our sessions shared that: students have the ability to intellectually grasp theories and articulate them well but struggle to practice what they learn in their daily interactions.

We also often hear these issues from students:

  • There’s a lack of understanding about our backgrounds and history.
  • In class, there is a fear of saying the ‘wrong’ thing to each other.
  • I grew up as a black person in the suburbs and thought racism was over.
  • “I’m ghetto and a cheese girl” (blackness as a layered and multifaceted phenomenon, it also includes questions of class)
  • “I’m white and I don’t feel I have privilege, I don’t quite get it, as I’m from a poor family”
  • “Black peers positioned as angry and attacking”
  • “Being around white people, I have had to sacrifice/compromise”
  • “Was bizarre to see racism at UP when I came (as white person) from a multi-racial school”

What these utterances shed light on, is the reality that we do not always get practice right. There are pitfalls, habits and places where we go to, when we are in fear; directing us, silencing us, or making us loud. Work that challenges taken for granted knowledge that has been naturalised over time through socialisation is challenging. Often time, some people are comfortable with the status quo. Our work greatly involves getting people to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, and this is not always easy. For example, work around race, class, gender, sexualities is difficult. Often, when you have any form of privilege you want to hold on to it and fear of losing that privilege often makes people defensive and not open to challenging beliefs that may be harmful to others.

One of the most challenging subjects that I have had to discuss and deal with is sexual and gender-based violence. As a woman and particularly working at an institution of higher learning, it has become evident that those who are mostly at risk of gendered and sexual violence, are young women and specifically students.

In South Africa gender-based violence (GBV) has overwhelmed the country and the Post-School Education and Training System (PSET). Amidst protest action in 2016 on our campuses, institutions stressed the need for the PSET to actively address GBV on campuses (DHET, 2019). As a result, policy and programming became a vital course of action. The University of Pretoria (UP) recently reviewed and developed its Anti-Discrimination Policy, an all-encompassing policy that tackles issues around all forms of discrimination.

In alignment with above mentioned, my work at the CSA&G, also involves being part of a team that facilitates anti-sexual harassment training workshops for both students and staff members, to familiarise the campus community with the anti- sexual harassment policy, as well as to raise awareness and prevention around sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). This includes working closely with the Transformation Office, tasked with driving anti-discrimination work at UP, and the #SpeakOut Office. The latter is staffed by trained and mentored student volunteers who have been capacitated to listen, support, provide relevant information as requested, and refer accordingly. Peer support allows for an informal space to unpack an experience, where one will be listened to and supported, enabling a student to make an informed decision. Rape and sexual assault may require urgent and immediate intervention and volunteers are trained to refer all students to the relevant support services at UP.

Studies have shown that a large proportion of abuse and violence that students experience is perpetrated outside the institution’s premises, often time by intimate partners, family members, friends, neighbours, acquaintances and those unknown to the complainant (Vetten, 2014). Bearing this in mind, even though cases of this nature fall beyond the jurisdiction of institutions, this does not stop us from providing information, guidance, assistance and support to students who have experienced SGBV. Given the nature our work, providing student friendly services (including HIV testing and counselling), and our visibility and the rapport we have established with students; more often than not students prefer to access our offices for information, assistance and support with regards to SGBV that may have occurred on or off campus. This proximity to students has enabled me to have first-hand knowledge of the lived experiences of students and their struggles in accessing justice through the criminal justice system.

The South African government is increasingly passing legislation to combat GBV as seen in the establishment of the police’s Family Violence Child Protection and Sexual Offences service (FCS), the Thuthuzela Care Centres based in health facilities, and the reintroduction of sexual offences courts. In spite of these progressive policies, we continue to experience a drastic increase of SGBV. These causes include socio-cultural drivers, a weak response by the criminal justice system and lack of proper implementation of these policies. This has fuelled distrust and disappointment in the criminal justice system; therefore, discouraging reporting and further silencing survivors of SGBV. This was evident while supporting students who had fallen victim to SGBV and chose to seek justice through the criminal justice system. Two separate incidents were reported at different police stations but the outcome was the same. Our criminal justice system failed these students and justice was denied. Both students expressed feelings of disappointment, frustration and discouragement.

I observed:

  1. The failure of the investigation officer to follow up and contact the complainant after statements were taken.
  2. Re-traumatisation as a result of having to give a second statement because a new detective was now assigned to the case.
  3. The incorrect recording of the initial statement and inappropriate behaviour by a warrant officer who was tasked with taking down a statement.

I understand and share some of frustration experienced by the students. I witnessed the inappropriate conduct of a warrant officer when I accompanied someone when she gave a statement about her GBV experience. The warrant officer who was taking down the statement alluded to the complainant’s attractiveness as a possible reason for her experience; and used inappropriate sexual language to describe the actions of the accused. Hearing I was an isiXhosa speaker, the warrant officer also spoke to me in isiXhosa, effectively excluding the complainant from our conversation. Not only was this disrespectful to her, I saw it as an attempt to set up an intimacy between us. This played out in two ways: the warrant officer effectively asked me out on a date and, in a subsequent text message, suggested that, between us, the complainant’s story seemed improbable.

The above narrative is not an isolated incident but an experience shared by many survivors who have tried to seek justice through the South African criminal justice system. Ross (1993) correctly identified that even though police investigators receive instructions to be ‘sympathetic’, they still hold onto myths surrounding rape, such as, women are prone to lay false complaints of rape. This is evident in the manner in which police handle women who lodge complaints. Often time, women are treated with suspicion and find themselves having to prove that they have been raped.

Myths and stereotypes about rape and rape victims worsen the plight of victims of sexual offences. They trivialise the harm of sexual victimisation and blame victims for its occurrence. The consequences of these ideas may be unsympathetic, disbelieving and inappropriate responses to victims by society in general.  Our work at the CSA&G pays particular attention to the social context of violence and the ways in which this violence manifests within patterns of gender, sexism and individual institutions. In addressing GBV we look at the complex interplay of different genders, sexualities and forms of masculinities. And we focus on dismantling harmful behaviours and promoting understanding of social justice and GBV that is transformative for the world we live in (Crewe, 2017).

Another project that I had the pleasure of working on is the Gender Justice project, which focuses on strengthening gender equality and social justice. Here we provide a platform for our partners in the region (Zimbabwe and South Africa); to critically and collectively reflect on the challenges in their practice and engage with new forms of evidence and trends. The aim is to develop new avenues and means through which our partners are able to work toward the attainment of more open and inclusive societies. Often time in the work we do, people with disabilities (PWD’s) and children are silenced and invisible. This became evident when some of our partners reflected on their challenges in working with PWD’s. Some of the identified challenges included difficulty in communicating with people who had speech impairments, and information that was not accessible to people who are visually impaired. It was also highlighted that PWD’s face social exclusion and they are also invisible at the family level. In our continued efforts to strengthen practice and maximise impact in working towards achieving social justice, once again it became evident that children were the most vulnerable. In relation to the SGBV cases presented during discussion by the different partners, all the survivors/victims were children. Hamida Ismail-Mauto, who works for SRHR Africa Trust (SAT) Zimbabwe, highlighted that gender inequalities at population level contribute towards extreme vulnerability of women and young girls with disabilities as they suffer rape and sexual disempowerment, mostly by family and community members who are supposed to protect them.

What has become evident in my line of work is that many of us walk and live in spaces of risk, but others disproportionally bear most of the burden of risk. We are also reminded that we all collude with patriarchy. So, in working towards dismantling any system; we need to have the will to be compassionate towards people as they are going through transformations. Often time people are challenged by something that rocks them to the core. I personally, like bell hooks, am mindful of how I confront power. Especially when one does not realise what they are participating in, is an exploitation, an oppression or hurting someone. Bell hooks exhorts us to confront and be confronted in ways that are not re-wounding or re-traumatising. Again, social justice allows communities and citizens to revitalise social belief in the alternatives to social oppression and marginalisation (Crewe,, 2017).

Finally, Francis Nyamjoh while delivering the Archie Mafeje Memorial Lecture, urged us to accept that one’s independence will always be thwarted by one’s dependency on others; reminding us to see debt and indebtedness as a normal way of being human, through relationships with others. 


Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender. 2017. Policy Brief Social Justice and gender Inequity. Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender, University of Pretoria

Crewe, M., Burns, C, Kruger, C. & Maritz, J. 2017. Gender-based Justice: Reflections on social justice and social change. Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender, University of Pretoria

DHET, 2019. Policy Framework to address Gender Based Violence in the Post-School Education and Training System.

Freire, P.1974. Education for critical consciousness. New York: Seabury.

Ross, K. 1993. Women, rape and violence in South Africa. Community Law Centre, University of the Western Cape.

Vetten, L. 2014. Policy brief 72 Rape and other forms of sexual violence in South Africa. Institute for Security Studies.

The privilege of thinking outside the box

by Tshenolo Thulare

Final year BCom student at the University of Pretoria. Joined the Just Leaders volunteer programme at the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender in 2019. I am part of the Befrienders (lay counsellors) and the student research cohort. I wrote this opinion piece after being motivated by the ‘education for liberation’ topic we covered at a research methodology retreat. The experience encouraged me to be self-aware of my surroundings and I hope the opinion piece will encourage someone to practice self-awareness and be liberated.

I grew up in a black female household where I was taught to behave in a certain way.

I had a 5pm curfew because it was believed that nothing dangerous could happen to me before then. I couldn’t wear shorts: somehow that would protect me from perpetrators. However I was allowed to start wearing shorts only when I moved to Hatfield, because it was believed that perpetrators did not exist in Hatfield.

I will never know how a boy child would be raised because I am the only child. However I could tell by comments such as “boys will be boys” that a boy child would get away with a lot of things that I wouldn’t get away with, such as cat calling another girl or violating them in some way. It seemed that if I got violated, it would be my fault because I didn’t do as I was told.

There are different advantages and disadvantages to the way I was raised, advantages such as learning not to disrespect the next person because I knew I should not violate them, for example cat calling them. The disadvantage is that I was taught that it is my responsibility to make sure that the perpetrator does not violate me, by making sure that I am dressed in long, covering clothes and by coming back home before 5 pm.

These principles seemed acceptable because even my friends lived by them. When I came to university I was exposed to people of different upbringings and views about life. As soon as we started engaging on different topics, such as rape culture, that’s when I started understanding the flaws in the ideas I was raised to believe in, such as not holding perpetrators accountable for their actions.

Not holding perpetrators responsible for their actions oppresses both the perpetrator and the person that is violated. The perpetrator will not learn their lesson and will continue to violate people; while the person that is violated will believe that it is their fault and that they have to follow certain steps that will prevent them from being violated again. By challenging myself, and continuing to have the conversations that require me to think about the next person other than myself, I am able to do self-introspection.

We often go to higher learning institutions with the intention of getting a career that will offer us financial benefits such as a large salary package, and we use that to measure success. The financial benefits might be obtained in ways that may be a disadvantage to someone else, such as paying someone less than what they deserve. The person that is paid less than they deserve may not be aware of that and it is up to us to speak to employers; or if we are the employers to make sure that they are paid fairly.

The higher learning institutions may have policies that are against other groups in societies such as the Afrikaans policies that non-Afrikaans speaking students will not benefit from, however a platform that provides critical thinking is provided and it is up to us to use the critical thinking to benefit people other than ourselves.

A closed-minded society is a disadvantage to minorities who might be oppressing without realising it. It is up to us to have thought provoking conversations that will make other people think outside of the box. With the knowledge I have, that other people may not have, I have to inform others and assist in transformation in relationships and in the spaces that I occupy. It may be hard, executing change, however with time and the conversations we have every day, we are able to correct ourselves before saying anything, and can act differently

Positionality, Reflexivity and Power

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.

I had decided to write on my navigation on gender issues and my position amidst gender inequality, navigating this issue as what I’d label myself, a typical man trying to be part of the solution. I admit that I have been quite reluctant to put my thoughts on this issue in writing. I tried to think of a different issue I could have written about, but I couldn’t find anything compelling enough. So here it is, my reflections on Positionality, Reflexivity and Power following the recent CSA&G’s Just Leaders research cohort outing.

Many of the discussions at the outing were focused on complex issues such as race, politics and religion. I quickly noted a universal zest and passion to share and be heard when it came to gender issues. This was one issue I was reluctant to discuss in a crowd mostly composed of women. I felt that my power and position could cause a certain turbulence in the stream of egalitarian and feminist views flowing from the women in the group. Though the other men would frequently engage, I would often just listen.

Eventually, I realised that I couldn’t have been a neutral agent, hard as I tried to be. I was already a part of the mix. Being naturally pugnacious on pressing societal issues, I did at times challenge some of the views involved. I found that I often sided with the women against the men, phrasing my remarks as banter or a friendly jest. For example, one of the men in the group stated that he valued his prospective position in a marriage as being a provider, while simultaneously expressing his admiration of hard-working professional women. I challenged him on that, asking whether he would be comfortable with having a wife who earned far more than he did. I felt that was the best way to navigate that space so as to create an appropriate environment for the women who felt that men would perceive them negatively if they proved to be better providers.

When we had formal discussions on rape culture and the responsibility of men in confronting other men about rape, I listened to the women explain their hardships and fears living in a society that regularly objectifies them. While some of the men in the conversation were bold enough to stand up and offer their protection to women, I noted how this position of power was challenged and contested by the women. I had my views on the matter, but restrained myself from raising them.  The women felt that the Patriarchal view of them, as “damsels in distress” or “weaker vessels” in need of male protection, was appalling. Being well aware of the environment we were in, where the women were challenging the Patriarchy woven into society, I begun to think of how they had benefitted (or allowed themselves to benefit) from the Patriarchy during that weekend.

I withheld a lot of these thoughts during the discussion, knowing my proclivity to always challenge and point out contradictions might spill out if I didn’t contain myself. I felt I had walked a very neutral line during the course of weekend. I felt I was in good standing with all the women in our cohort, but beyond that I knew that they held my views in good regard. I had registered positive responses from them when I spoke out against injustice, when I articulated my views on political and religious ideas. I’m convinced that I wasn’t so much trying to impress them. Rather I believed that I was trying to reassure them that I was informed, concerned and committed to the same egalitarian vision they held. I also registered the frustration they felt when raising the issue of rape culture in our discussion. I committed myself to not being an obstacle in them expressing the discrimination they felt. I recognised this discrimination and recognised how my position, as a man already having previously established myself in other discussions, could frustrate the points they raised.

Once the group discussion was done, I returned to the thoughts I had suppressed during the engagement.

The women were eager not to be seen as “damsels in distress” regarding rape culture, however the night before, two of them had called on us (the men) to save them from having to sleep in the company of a frog that had wandered into their room. The moment they came to us, we (the men) all volunteered to save them and two of us were dispatched to the scene, successfully de-frogging their chamber.

The rest of us (also men) remained to extinguish the bonfire that had kept us all warm. It was no issue for me contending with the smoke, as I had kept the fire going through the night with a skilful positioning of the logs, as I had the previous night. On our way to the campsite, our vans had gotten stuck in the sand. While the men came out to try free vehicles, most of the women stayed inside. When we got to the campsite, a group of us men unloaded everyone’s’ bags and on the way out reloaded them.

I considered the outing to have been a success. I met great people, engaged in great conversations and I felt that I’d navigated my position of power and privilege relatively well. However, I kept thinking about my silence regarding the “damsel in distress” issue during the discussion on rape culture. I couldn’t help but think back to how the women had benefited from me helping them. Wasn’t this them benefitting from Patriarchy? Did the appreciation I felt when helping them, or even holding myself back from criticizing their apparent contradiction, imbue me with a sense of ‘manly pride’? I certainly enjoyed it, doing things, providing help, providing views and opinions that reassured them… was I effectively navigating the space constructively or was I merely just reinforcing the Patriarchal system; that all this happened because I allowed it? Because I imposed it? Because I preferred it?

That was the issue I struggled to pen down as it presents an internal contradiction in itself. How can I strive towards social justice and equality for women if I still participate in essentially exerting myself as I see fit? How do I address Patriarchy without first addressing the manner in which I still act and manoeuvre to make women comfortable? Is it a true comfort that I am providing or a comfort within a Patriarchal system as far as I am comfortable with keeping things? Did I really challenge the status quo, or did I merely reinforce it?

Forget about doing Gender Properly and be an Ally

by Vuyisa Mamanzi

We all carry misinformation and stereotypes about people. We acquire this misinformation at a young age in bits and pieces from TV, from listening to people talk, from watching the expressions on our parent’s faces, and from society at large. We also witness people being treated badly because of their sexual orientation or because they are not “doing gender properly”. “Is heterosexuality ‘compulsory’ in the sense that resistance to heterosexual identity, behaviour, and cultural image rare, costly and perhaps often virtually unthinkable” (Heath et. al, 2013).

What does it mean to do gender properly?

I grew up playing with my cousins who were boys. We were not allowed to play outside the yard, so their friends would come over to play with us. I was quite a physical and active child growing up, and I enjoyed playing the games they played, I climbed trees, played soccer, played marbles, played top, and I even got involved in a number of fights with some of the boys. Of course, this meant that at times I would get some knee bruises from falling. I would always get a hiding from my mother for these bruises and was always reprimanded for behaving like a boy. My cousins also didn’t like it when I fought with their friends. You see, as a girl child, I was expected to act, behave and play in a way that represented ‘my gender’. I was policed into doing gender ‘properly’. Reflecting back, I realise that I did not fit neatly into this ‘gender box’. Having spent most of my childhood playing with boys, I observed how they would cat call young girls whom they liked. I remember on our way to the shop one day I tried cat calling a boy too. The look on that boy! Well, my cousins were also not impressed with me at all. So I guess, yet again. I was not doing gender ‘properly’.

My experience growing up then speaks to Judith Butler’s idea that “heterosexuality, like gender identity, must be constantly achieved and reproduced in daily life by habitually enacting social practices associated with cultural gendered ideals associated with heterosexuality” (Fischer, 2013: 504). Butler and other scholars recognised that the idea of heterosexual identity was both performative and socially achieved (Fischer, 2013). Here we see that heterosexuality is not natural, or innate, but rather institutionalised through socialisation.

What does heterosexuality mean?

Heterosexuality is broadly understood or defined as an erotic attraction to the ‘opposite’ sex, meaning that men and women are viewed as complementary beings. This also speaks to the power relations embedded in heterosexuality as both an institution and a discourse: how the qualities associated with men and masculinity are more highly valued and rewarded than those associated with women and femininity. For example, men who have multiple sexual partners are often seen as ‘players’ and praised for their prowess. However, women who choose to have multiple sexual partners are not afforded the same status, instead they are frowned upon and often labelled as ‘loose’ or ‘immoral’.

Let us take a look at how the late Mam’Winnie and our ex-president Zuma were treated differently by society in “doing their gender and heterosexuality”. Julius Malema and Kopano Ratele have both recently commented on the sexual lives of these individuals, in one way or the other on social media. But what stood out for me was when Julius Malema said “They say Winnie slept with young men when Madiba was in prison and all that, they are saying all sorts of things about her. Okay, let’s say we accept that nonsense. And because she slept with young people she must be isolated, she’s immoral. How many of these men slept with young people, slept with the children of their own friends.” Let’s say we too accept that ‘nonsense’ as Julius Malema puts it. One can choose to see that from Mam’Winnie’s story, there are variations in heterosexual experiences that heterosexuality is a site of “pleasure as well as oppression”, or that heterosexual women were and are not necessarily the “cultural dupes” of compulsory heteronormativity, but could and can resist how heteronormativity regulates their social-sexual lives.

Additionally, heteronormativity creates hierarchies between heterosexuals themselves, where married monogamous heterosexuals represent the cultural ideal, while other ways of doing heterosexuality, being unmarried, promiscuous, or seeking sexual relations for commercial gain, fall outside the “charmed circle”; a group of people who are seen as or viewed as having special power or influenced, as suggested by Gayle Rubin.  Scholars therefore agree that it is better to speak about “heterosexualities” to capture the diversity of heterosexual lives.

So one can argue that maybe umamWinnie, or I for that matter, or even some of you, all hold anti-heteronormative identities, that we are conscious and critical about heterosexual identities. That people like us can be understood as being “straight queers” (Heath et. al, 2013).

So, it is in our own interest to be an ally to people from diverse and oppressed groups. Ultimately, our own struggles are tied to everyone else’s. When you give support to others, you are developing allies for your groups and causes. As we all learn how to be more committed and caring to each other, we will build a strong foundation for change in our communities. The stronger the trust and commitment people have, as individuals and between groups, the more effective they will be in uniting around important issues (Axner, 1999).

James Banks, a multicultural educator, says that living in a diverse society requires that we “know, care, and act”. In other words, we need to learn about people and understand their issues, care about people with our hearts, and take the action necessary to make sure that people are treated well and that justice is done. That is, basically, what an ally does.

And like Luvvie Ajayi, a Nigerian author, speaker, and professional trouble maker, I too refuse to be quiet, because being quiet is comfortable; keeping things the way they have been is comfortable and all comfort has done is to maintain the status quo. So we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable by speaking these hard truths. And one of these hard truths is that, being an ally “is not an identity. It’s a practice. It’s an active thing that must be done over and over again. In the largest and smallest ways, everyday” (Giannaki, 2016).

In addition, constant and thorough reflection on our privilege and positionality is vital. We should also keep in mind that there is no unified heterosexual culture, sex-worker culture or gay culture (Plummer, 2018).  Therefore, in realising our own ways of oppression, we will possibly become able to fight collectively against everyone’s oppression. We would understand that, for the times we need help, we would not need to look around so hard, if we made sure that we were somebody else’s ally.

Finally, Baldwin reminds us that it is not a question of whether you are black or white, gay or straight. Instead it’s a question of what do you stand for, who are you and how can you know that and operate from that position of power?



Axner, M. 1999. Interview with Arthur Himmelman.

Butler, J. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Fischer, NL. 2013. Seeing “Straight”, Contemporary Critical Heterosexuality Studies and Sociology: An Introduction, The Sociological Quarterly, 54:4, 501-510

Giannaki, AF. 2016. The Role of “Privileged Allies in the struggle for Social Justice.

Heath, Melanie (coordinator), with Travis Beaver, Nancy Fischer, Bruce Nordstrom-Loeb, and Brandy Simula. 2013. “Crossing Boundaries, Workshopping Sexualities.” Working Paper on Critical Heterosexualities.

Plummer, K. 2018. Sexualities: Twenty years on. SAGE, 21 (8), 1204-1210


A queer lockdown

by Pierre Brouard

A lockdown is a very queer thing, but to be queer in a lockdown can be even trickier.

Queer people who want to come out may not because if they face hostility they cannot escape, and those who are out may suddenly find they face a new kind of scrutiny, unleavened by opportunities to leave the home even temporarily and find solace in friendship and community.

A young trans man of my acquaintance reached out to me recently to say that as he was forced to be with his family during lockdown he was faced with an extreme and intense version of their transphobia, manifesting in deliberate mis-gendering from his family, accompanied by promises (threats?) of prayer interventions to “de-trans” him.

As Mamba online noted “amid the pandemic, millions around the world are under some form of lockdown or isolation, leaving vulnerable people at the mercy of those they live with.” Citing a UK organisation, the Albert Kennedy Trust (AKT), they say that “If you’re a young person and you’re thinking of coming out, press pause on that until you get support.” Of course this may be possible for some, but if you are gender diverse in some way, it is often more difficult to “press pause” on how you look.

AKT also noted that for many LGBTQIA (queer) youth, homelessness is already their reality. While there are few statistics on queer-specific homelessness in South Africa, international studies have shown that queer youth are more likely to end up on the streets. And South Africa only has one shelter for queer people in crisis, the Pride Shelter in Cape Town: what might other queer people across the land do?

It is important, I believe, to see this issue against the backdrop of a broader gender violence epidemic. There is already evidence of gender-based violence (GBV) becoming worse during a lockdown: victims and perpetrators in domestic violence contexts may be forced to stay together, in pressure-cooker spaces, and opportunities to find support will be limited by the requirements to stay at home.

The South African picture seems mixed: so far domestic violence organisations report fewer calls, although they believe victims may be too scared to reach out; rape statistics seem down, and Thuthuzela Care Centres are less busy according to the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. A number of these organisations noted that the beginning of the lockdown was a time of great anxiety for those living in unsafe relationships and homes as they would have had to make quick decisions about where to sit out the lockdown, based on variables they could not always control.

So far, so bad.

Pivoting away from queerness as problem, I’d like to turn to the idea of queerness as opportunity. When you’ve lived your life on the margins, or been sexual in ways which are under the radar, away from the gaze of prudes, life in a time of Covid-19 can simply be a new challenge.

One thing is clear: hooking up during lockdown is not only illegal it is almost impossible to achieve, and even people who are in relationships but do not live together are faced with a complete hiatus in the intimate sphere (beyond phone/cam sex, becoming re/acquainted with one’s sex toy collection and developing a shortcut to Pornhub).

For some, who have lived through the fears of HIV, STIs and even risks associated with hook up culture, a prohibition on sex may seem like another hurdle to be negotiated, not resigned to. Jay, 28, from Spain, in a Huffpost story, had this to say:

“I already feel like I put myself at risk so much already with some of these encounters that Covid almost doesn’t feel that risky in that particular context.” Pressed to explain, he clarifies: “Crazy people, STIs, all the risks that come with walking into a stranger’s house and making yourself vulnerable. Most of the time in secret, so if something were to happen no one would know where you are.”

Obviously I’m not suggesting that queer people (or anyone missing sex, casual or not) break the requirements of a lockdown, but I’m arguing that queer people have “form” when it comes to making peace with danger, and have a rich history of counter-narratives and counter cultures to draw on.

Here are some ways in which this could play out.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if hook up culture and its apps, Grindr and Scruff come to mind, were just a tad kinder, making it possible for people to share ideas and feelings, not just nudes? This is not an attempt to sanitise queer sub-cultures, many of which have fought very hard to break the shackles of heteronormativity and moralism, but there is a case to be made that some aspects of hook up life are dehumanising, splitting the affective from the physical. A sex quarantine, which this is in effect for many people, is a chance to ask some tough questions about what makes us really feel better about ourselves.

Queer people can re-ignite debates about what constitutes family. This has crept up on us over the last decade or two, but the traditional heterosexual family (whether it’s nuclear or extended it usually involves men and women living in spaces with children they have created heterosexually) is under the microscope in ways hitherto unimaginable. And the queers have come to the party; surrogacy, co-parenting in different homes, single and polyamorous parenting arrangements, have all entered the lexicon. In addition, a group of queer people living together in a tight or loose, but unromantic, set up do often consider themselves to be family. And even those who don’t live together might see their queer kin as just that, people to draw on in good times and bad, sometimes before their biological brothers and sisters.

In the context of this lockdown, I know that I have un/consciously reached out to my queer family, especially those who are living alone, to see how they are doing. Some have lost or abandoned (or been abandoned by) their genetic family, or we have a shared experience of marginality: in these times “your people” have special needs, perhaps, and there is an intensity to video and audio calls which I cannot deny.

Such kinship is an example of social capital – “direct and indirect resources that are a by-product of social networks” – in operation. Heckman speaks of queer kinship forms as exemplars of bonding, bridging, and linking social capital.

According to Hawkins and Maurer “Bonding social capital refers to relationships amongst members of a network who are similar in some form. Bridging social capital refers to relationships amongst people who are dissimilar in a demonstrable fashion, such as age, socio-economic status, race/ethnicity and education. Linking social capital is the extent to which individuals build relationships with institutions and individuals who have relative power over them (e.g. to provide access to services, jobs or resources).”

Because queer people often live at the intersection of multiple identities and communities, argues Heckman, they have a unique position within social networks and thus a particular relationship to bonding, bridging, and linking social capital.

Deploying queer capital

Deploying queer capital in the lockdown is, of course, easier said than done.

But I would argue that bonding, bridging and linking are in the queer “wheel house”: now more than ever we need to be there for each other. But the Covid-19 experience is also a time of vigilance. Queer people must seize this moment to ask the bigger questions: can restrictions on civil liberties be used post-Covid by those who resent queer rights; will sentimentality about “family” we are seeing push back the gains of queer family forms; will ideas about “sexual safety” and “morality” be invoked to sideline sexualities and genders outside of Rubin’s charmed circle? We haven’t locked down the implications of Covid-19, perhaps only time will tell.

(If you need phone or Skype support or counselling on coming out, contact OUT in Pretoria on 012 430 3272 / 066 190 5812 or call the Triangle Project Helpline on 021 712 6699 in Cape Town.)