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Sisonke Msimang’s Always Another Country

Sisonke Msimang’s Always Another Country

Book Review by Joy Watson Sisonke Msimang’s book “Always Another Country” is a memoir, a striking narrative of growing up in exile. The book is a poignant reflection on how we construct identity in different temporal and societal spaces. At a young age, Msimang’s father […]

Slave Woman Under Auction Hammer

Slave Woman Under Auction Hammer

Slave Woman Under Auction by

Joline Young

Advertisement in the Cape Town Gazette 4 July 1820:

A public sale will be held on Saturday morning, the 5th instant at 11 o’clock in front of the old Admiral’s House, of household furniture, …..  also at the same time and place will be sold a slave woman and her four children, she is 27 years of age and a good washerwoman.  J Snell, Auctioneer.

 Who are you, nameless, faceless woman?  I encountered you in an advertisement in the Cape Gazette.  The year was 1820 and you and your four children were advertised as goods for sale at an auction, along with livestock and household furniture.  No mention is given of your name, or the slave name that had been allocated to you, nor is there any mention of where you came from or how old your children were.

The only information that seemed pertinent to the auctioneer, J Snell, was that you were 27 years old and a good washerwoman.  But I wonder about you.  Did you know, on that day, that you and your children were going to be auctioned off? Or were you just called away from your work and taken to the spot in front of the Old Admiral’s House when your number was called?

Was it a quick 5 minute transaction? Was it over before you even realised what was happening?  And your children; were they sold to the same enslavers who bought you or were they sold separately?  If they were sold separately, did they cry to come with you or did they also simply not realise what was happening?  Would you have tried to protest, and if you did, were you whipped and forced away?   If your children were sold off separately, did you ever see each other again?  And if you did not, what were the nightmares that plagued you during the lonely night hours of the night?  Did you have more children after this, and if you did, did you form a comfortable psychological barrier from them, knowing that they too might be taken from you on any day, at any time?

I imagine that at night, you awoke from your sleep only to be haunted by their cries.  Maybe sometimes you woke up in the morning expecting them to be there and then reality would dawn and you would realise that you were in a different environment and they were gone.  If you felt outrage at what had happened, did you keep it to yourself, living as you were in a society where what was happening to you was quite acceptable.  Was it acceptable to YOU?  Did you hate the people who did this to you or was your sense of self so diminished that you accepted any abuse meted out to you?

And sometimes, when even your acceptance got the better of you and you felt that painful yearning that any mother feels when she is parted from her children, no matter whether those children were born of love or forced into your womb by your enslaver’s lust, how did you deaden the pain?  Did you steal some wine to drink to help numb the constant ache in our heart, to help you sleep, to help you forget?

And in the end, did you forget? Did you even forget who you yourself were?  And if you did, what did it matter to the people who enslaved you, as long as the washing was clean?  Even if you sometimes smelt a little bit of alcohol, would they not have just said “these people are all like that, that is why we have to treat them as children, because that is what they are, they have the minds of children. They don’t even have feelings for their own”.

I think about you a lot, nameless, faceless woman.  Standing there, outside the Old Admiral’s house where you were nothing, a mere chattel, a washerwoman, a body to serve and to be abused.  You were not allowed an opinion, you were not allowed to protest, you were not allowed to feel; so whatever you felt was to be hidden deep within the crevices of your tormented soul.  But you did feel, nameless, faceless woman.  I sense your feelings so strong within me now. Your tears cry out to be heard, from beneath these official words, and I catch them in my heart.

So now you know that we are connected, nameless, faceless woman.  So now that we have met each other in this transitory space, you can finally see who I am.  I am the bloodline that exists between the past and the present. I am the inheritor of your broken dreams and the offspring of your pain. But allow me to also be the caretaker of a new dawn where the chains of slavery and despair will be loosened from our minds as well as our bodies.

So now I reach out to you, over centuries past, to you, nameless, faceless woman. You are my past and I, nameless; faceless woman, am your future.




We, the women

We, the women

We the women by Emilie Gambade   “It’s in the reach of my arms, The span of my hips, The stride of my step, The curl of my lips. I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.” Maya Angelou   I once wrote In one […]



Fragile by Bernedette Muthien in your eyes that shift with the anxieties of these times i see the deepest compassion imaginable for the perpetrators in all we are the survivor-victims we’re forced to be in your wide open gaze i see reflected my very own […]

Should we not be talking about rape cultures?

Should we not be talking about rape cultures?


By Rebecca Helman

The idea of “rape culture” has become increasingly prevalent in discussions about sexual violence in South Africa. Black feminist student activists, in particular, have made visible the ways in which university campuses are steeped in “rape culture”

The publication of a cartoon by satirist Johnathan Shapiro in April of this year, in which he once again depicts a woman being raped in order to comment on the state of politics, facilitated widespread outrage [https://www.iol.co.za/news/politics/latest-zapiro-rape-cartoon-creates-storm-on-social-media-8620542]. There was much talk about this cartoon as an example of rape culture. For example, Kathleen Dey (2017), director of RCCTT, remarked that the cartoon “is a strong example of how rape culture works in our society and how even the most self aware among us are often quite blind to it.” 

I have, until recently, regarded the uptake of the term “rape culture” as a positive step towards promoting gender equality (and non-violence) in South Africa. If we can see and talk about the ways in which our everyday practices are making violence possible, surely, we can disrupt these everyday practices and make violence less possible, even impossible?

However, a comment made by Nomboniso Gaza, the gender and anti-apartheid activist and researcher, at a recent conference on Violence Against Women, has compelled me to think about the limits of the term “rape culture” for explaining sexual violence in South Africa.  Gasa asked, “should we not be talking about rape cultures?” She pointed out that the notion of “rape culture” was developed within the context of the (white) Feminist Movement in the United States (US) in the 1970s. The origin of the term “rape culture” has been credited to Susan Brownmiller who argued that the US is a “rape-supportive culture.” Also speaking about the US, Buchwald, Fletcher and Roth [https://books.google.no/books?id=4JDaAAAAMAAJ&q=Buchwald,+Fletcher+and+Roth&dq=Buchwald,+Fletcher+and+Roth&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjixbKW1dbWAhUhLZoKHQ0fCwUQ6AEIJjAA] provide the following definition of “rape culture”:

the complex of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and support violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality is violent. In a rape culture women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.

This definition highlights the way in which the term emerged in relation to a very particular set of gendered relations – those of cisgender and heterosexual rape.

The notion “rape culture” has undoubtedly been significant in developing an understanding of rape as not merely an individual act of violence, but rather as a symptom of a broader socio-cultural system. However, given its rooting in particular social dynamics, should we not be asking more critical questions about the usefulness of “rape culture” beyond this context?

Questions such as:

How does the notion of “rape culture” (singular) invisibilise/ trivialise/ smooth over the different patterns of sexual violence in South Africa?

 Does the idea of “rape culture” allow us to think critically about the violence that is perpetrated against queer bodies, against men, against womxn who are positioned unevenly in our society?

 Does this term “rape culture” allow us to think carefully about the inequality/imbalance/variability in responses to sexual violence (for example how we fail to respond or even recognise certain instances/types of sexual violence)?


In order to more fully elucidate the complex and contradictory nature of sexual violence in our contemporary local (and global) contexts should we not, as Gasa remarked, “be talking about rape cultures?”

The simple answer to this last question is yes. But the question of how to develop the theoretical concept of “rape cultures” is far more complex. I hope to be able to do this as part of my Phd.

The idea of intersecting “rape cultures” has the potential to challenge how we are currently thinking about, talking about and responding to sexual violence; challenges which are necessary in order to more meaningfully and appropriately counter the tides of sexual violence that continue to wash over all of us.


Rape Crisis Turns 40!

Rape Crisis Turns 40!

Rape-Crisis-Memoir   https://rapecrisis.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Rape-Crisis-Memoir.pdf   Rape Crisis celebrates its 40th anniversary! Happy birthday! This memoir, compiled by Helen Moffett, attests to the phenomenal work done by the organisation. In the aftermath of  #metoo, which has given us some insight into how endemic sexual violence and harassment is in our society, […]

The Story of Khora: The Power of Social Movements in Helping Refugees and Asylum Seekers

The Story of Khora: The Power of Social Movements in Helping Refugees and Asylum Seekers

When we come together, everything is possible by Nidzara Ahmetasevic Liska Bernet came to the Balkans from Switzerland in 2015 to help refugees to become part of a new volunteer movement. In this interview, she reflects on her early days on the Balkan route and […]

C-Sections and Women’s Rights, The Story of Ma Rongrong

C-Sections and Women’s Rights, The Story of Ma Rongrong

by Riska Koopman


Ma Rongrong – The Tale of a Thousand Women
Ma Rongrong, a 26-year-old Chinese woman, was admitted to the First Hospital of Yulin on 30 August 2017, already 41 weeks pregnant. She was expected to give birth shortly. The married woman was in extreme pain. According to medical records, the fetal head circumference was larger than normal, putting both mother and baby at risk. Natural birth was therefore compromised; the medical team suggested a caesarian, a procedure formerly very common in China and favoured in these circumstances.
In line with Chinese tradition, the family’s permission should be sought where invasive medical treatments are necessary. In light of this, Ma had signed an authorisation letter allowing her husband to make medical decisions on her behalf.
Seems pretty normal, right? In the case of being unable to make sound medical decisions, who better than your spouse to make such decisions both for your own wellbeing and that of your unborn child?

Mr Zhuangzhuang, Ma’s husband, and his family reportedly rejected the suggested method of birth, opting for a natural delivery. Her mother-in-law has been said to have encouraged her to push through, for this is what women do – birth children and persevere. For Ma Rongrong, things did not work out that way. She experienced extreme pain while giving birth, leaving the birthing room on two occasions to beg her husband to consent to the C-section. Both times he refused.

The next time he would see his wife would be when she was being picked up off the ground after a fatal fall from the hospital’s fifth floor. Ma had succumbed to her pain and possibly the frustration of the situation, taking both her own life and that of her unborn baby.
A serious game of blame-shifting ensued.

Mr Zhuangzhaung and his family argue that they immediately agreed to the C-section, however no paperwork has surfaced to support this. The hospital has been ruled negligent by an investigation and deemed unfit to deal with emergencies and the doctor has been suspended as well. Labelling this as an emergency is apt. In terms of Chinese law, a person reserves the sole right to make medical decisions. Furthermore, in the case of an emergency, the hospital (read medical team) can and should make the final decision in the best interests of the patient. China has no law stipulating in what conditions authorisation letters should be signed in medical practices.

Ma’s death around 20h00 on 31 August 2017 sparked a national debate on patients’ medical rights in relation to traditional family values. Many argued that the family rejected the proposed course of medical care due to the high costs associated with it. However, it should also be noted that the Central Party has been taking measures to control caesarean births in the past few years. This comes after a report published by the World Health Organisation in 2010 showing that in China, caesarian births accounted for 46% of all the births in 2007 and 2008 – much higher than the 15% that WHO suggests.

The topic was trending on China’s Twitter-like microblogging website, Weibo. One user commented: “A married woman is not some tool for producing babies.” Arguably though, historically, married women in China and across the world have indeed been a tool for producing babies. This continues to ring true today as oppressive reproductive policies continue. The one-child policy in China saw many women (and men) being sterilised and millions of forced abortions taking place, in favour of birthing boys. More recently, women have been called home to bear a second child as China faces a slowing and greying economic downturn.

Women, who were once described as holding up half of the sky by Mao, in reality continue to be systemically oppressed. The abolition of the one-child policy in October 2015 has also added to the push against once popular C-sections, fearing it would negatively impact on women’s ability to bear a second child. The abolition has been celebrated as a move towards women gaining control of their reproductive choices. This however is not true for all women. China maintains strong policies prohibiting single women, regardless of their sexual orientation, from parenthood. While married couples are actively encouraged to have another child, singletons continue to be condemned.

LBGQT marriages are illegal, thus women are viewed as single and denied birthing rights; children born outside these regulations are not issued houku’s – similar to a registration card in other countries – thus denying them access to basic social services (both private and public) such as education.  Furthermore, parents are fined exuberant amounts in such cases. Latanya Mapp-Frett, Executive Director: Planned Parenthood Global, rightly argued that until China promotes a fully rights-based, voluntarily family planning programme, it is supporting the continued oppression of Chinese families through coercive reproductive policies. As the state moves closer to Confucian values, it is proposing polygamy; suggesting that monogamy, much like democracy and feminist theory, are foreign concepts imported from the West.

Ma Rongrong’s story represents the struggle of many ‘modern’ Chinese women, pressurised by the state and its institutionalised patriarchy and misogyny into marriage, bearing children and abiding by archaic family structures – even if it kills them, which in this case it did. Donald Trump’s reinstating of the global gag order places women’s reproductive rights at risk. Globally, pregnancy is especially risky for poor and marginalised women; this has been exacerbated by one swift move of the Trump administration. Developing countries especially depend on funds from the US for women’s sexual health and reproductive rights. This gag order stops the flow of funds to any organisation which promotes abortions and other services of this nature.

It is clear that globally there is a step backward with regards to women’s rights, especially reproductive rights. There is a growing void in financial and moral support services in this realm where country law’s vagueness, lack of political will, national dialogue and sheer oppression result in the death of millions of women and their unborn babies.
A story of gender inequality. A story of oppression. A story of fragile masculinity. A story of engrained and destructive patriarchy. A microcosm of a global issue.




Ruth First Writing for Social Change

Ruth First Writing for Social Change

Ruth First consistently sought to use her writing as an agent for social change by Joy Watson   On the afternoon of 17 August 1982, Ruth First, a vociferous champion of social and political change, was in a particularly bouyant mood in her office at Eduardo […]

Launch Piece

Feminism, Aprons and Manicure Sets

Feminism, Aprons and Manicure Sets

Carmine Rustin tell us about the day that feminism morphed into pretty aprons and manicure sets

A few short years into our democracy, when I started as a researcher at the Parliament of South Africa, I supported the then Joint Monitoring Committee on the Improvement of Quality of Life and Status of Women. As a young, black feminist, it was an exciting time to be working as a gender researcher contributing to our constitutional democracy. My role was to support the legislative and oversight work of the Joint Committee. It was a role that was enriched by the fact that an amazing older black feminist woman led the Committee. Yes, old black South African feminists do exist and they have much to share with the young feminists of all colours.

As a gender researcher in this euphoric new democracy, I felt that in a small way, I was making a difference in the lives of many women. I was proud to be part of processes that reported on the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act. It was gratifying to be part of a body that looked at the impact of HIV and AIDS on women, when the political climate at the time didn’t allow for open and honest engagement on the issue. And then there were all the many other initiatives that were aimed at celebrating and honouring women, which I loved.

But sometimes we got the manner in which we celebrated women wrong. At least I think so, but I may be wrong.

I recall one such event. It was at an event in Parliament to celebrate Women’s Day with women members of staff. A full programme had been arranged with speakers, lunch and gifts. Noble indeed. But then the time for the handing out of the gifts arrived. To my horror, the gifts included an apron – with the picture of leaders of the 1956 women’s march printed on it, together with a manicure set. I was flabbergasted and mad as hell for obvious reasons or so I thought.

The fact that I protested and indicated that this was inappropriate resonated with some women only. For the majority of women, the gifts were great. There was a near-riot to get hold of the aprons and manicure sets.

The question that I was asked is why was this such a big deal? Why had I reacted in the manner that I did? I think that the intention of the organisers was good and the majority of women appreciated the gesture. But I thought that these gifts were casting women in stereotypical roles and reinforced a problematic message about what Women’s Day was about.

Many years later, a male colleague could still recall his first meeting with me, which was the moment where I expressed my indignation at being presented with what was perceived as inappropriate gifts for women. It was also the last time that I participated in a Women’s Day event at the office.

I was puzzled back then – and ten years later it still puzzles me – why women were so excited by these gifts. Perhaps it is because many women are uncritical about the way women are portrayed in society and how these gifts reproduced stereotypical portrayals of women. Perhaps some women are happy with their assigned roles in a patriarchal society. Perhaps the aprons were very nice and practical. And who cannot use a good manicure set?

It is more than a speculation that many of the women were more than happy with the Women’s Day gifts because indignation can be exhausting, some of us are wary of feminism, and many have not had feminist conscientisation. As for men, they are even more scared of feminism, and often anti-feminist. Feminism is a swear word for many women and most men in our society.

In light of the apparent lack of wide appeal of feminism, in the context of a free world led by the misogynist Donald J. Trump, and my country led by patriarch Jacob G Zuma, do we need feminists?

There’s no denying that since the advent of democracy in South Africa, the lives of women, especially for black women, have been so much different from their grandmothers’, mothers’ and aunts’. There have been many opportunities available to women – in education, the workplace and politics. No longer restricted in their aspirations to being married, mothers, nurses, or teachers – important as these positions and careers are for many women and society – women can be happily single, childfree, surgeons, or professors. They can be director-generals in government, chief executives and public representatives. Women can be found in every decision-making position in society. This difference in women’s lives was brought about through the collective struggles of women. It was through groundswell mobilizing that the equality clause, which protects everyone against discrimination based on gender, race, pregnancy and sexual orientation, amongst others, was included in the Constitution of South Africa. What a feat.

But whilst there have been many new opportunities brought about by women’s activism in the post-apartheid dispensation, new challenges have arisen. These challenges include balancing demanding and often competing roles as partners, caregivers and professionals. This can be exhausting.

Then again, it’s clear that some of the old challenges remain. Patriarchal culture and violence against women and girls are two of the main challenges. Even though in South Africa we have constitutional rights and opportunities to aspire to the highest office, our country remains culturally gender unequal, as well as violent. The rates of rape and murder are very high. A 1999 study found that the overall rate of female homicides in South Africa was 24 per 100 000, six times higher than the global rate of 4 per 100 000.[1] Is this not enough reason to continue to be a feminist?

Clearly, we need feminism more than ever before. Feminism is the recognition and the belief that we need to end sexism, the patriarchal oppression of women, we want gender equality and gender justice and to ensure that women and girls enjoy their freedoms unhindered. We need feminism because the struggle is far from over. An intersectional feminism is vital. This feminism should recognise our multiple and often contradictory sites of oppression. A feminism, which recognises our races, cultures, disabilities, classes, and sexualities, is essential. We need an inclusive, dynamic and nasty feminism.

As feminists, we draw strength from our collective stories and actions. Feminists, especially young feminists, need a space to share their everyday ordinary and not so ordinary stories; a space where we celebrate our collective and individual experiences, offer support and encouragement, play, grow and nurture action.

May this space grow into one where our voices and stories are heard and celebrated.

[1] Abrahams, Jewkes, Martin, Mathews, Vetten, Lombard, 2009. Mortality of Women From Intimate Partner Violence in South Africa: A National Epidemiological Study. Violence and Victims, Volume 24, Number 4, 2009.


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