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The Mutilation of the Female Tongue By Berenice Paulse

The Mutilation of the Female Tongue By Berenice Paulse
Berenice Paulse
Many thousands of women were burnt as witches when they did not conform with prevailing social norms.



History is replete with examples of how women’s voices were historically silenced within the confines of patriarchy and societal convention about the spaces they were allowed to occupy (both physically and intellectually). The crudest of instruments of silencing included the use of a scold’s bridle and dunking stool used during the Middle Ages.

The scolds bridle was essentially an iron muzzle enclosed in an iron mask worn by women as punishment for infringements of the tongue (i.e. statements considered slanderous, gossiping and speaking out of turn, etc.). In some instances, an iron spike was attached to the bridle-bit so that any movement of the tongue would result in physical injury – thus literally discouraging speaking (as well as eating and drinking). To intensify the suffering and humiliation, the offending woman would be put on a leash or chain and paraded in public (in most instances by the spouse). The public was further encouraged to participate in the muzzled woman’s degradation through insults or spitting. The dunking stool consisted of a chair attached to a free moving arm, next to a river. It was essentially designed as an instrument to punish women accused of witchcraft or, transactional sex as well as “nags”. The women would be strapped into the chair and dunked into a freezing river – punishment could last between minutes to hours, depending on the nature of the infringement.

A ‘scold’ is a derogatory term, referring to a woman who nags ‘too much’, is chronically short-tempered and irritable. The use of similar words in the English language include a ‘nag’ or a ‘shrew’ fishwife, (the latter is the object of white male writers’ obsession to either escape or bring the woman to heel – see, for example, Washington Irving’s “Rip van Winkle” and William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”).


Following the Medieval period, unrelenting attempts to control and discipline the female body (and voice) manifested through brutal witch-hunts that characterised the Early Modern period. Between the 15th and 18th century, tens of thousands of women perished in the raging infernos of moral indignation and righteous ignorance that swept across Europe. The targets were almost exclusively women. Sporadic incidents of violence perpetrated against (mostly) women on suspicion of witchcraft are still reported in Sub-Saharan African countries, including South Africa.

Women vulnerable to suspicions of witchcraft were typically those practicing herbal remedies, those supporting other women through indigenous knowledge, and those not under the ‘protection’ of a man either through familial or matrimonial ties.   History’s treatment of women who threatened or disrupted the prevailing social order through speech and behaviour, relegated them to societal pariah status; hazardous to the wellbeing of the broader community.


Fast-forward three hundred years to a time when 193 global leaders embraced a social compact to end poverty and other laudable development goals by 2030, designated as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Gender equality and women’s empowerment is regarded as a precondition for achieving the SDGs; hence its elevation to a stand-alone goal (SDG 5). Amongst others, SDG 5 is committed to women’s full and effective participation at all levels, which include leadership in political, economic and public life. However, progress to date has been rather sluggish. By 2017, the United Nations (UN) found that less than a third of women are represented in senior or middle management positions, and less than a quarter (23.4 percent) in national legislatures.

The structural forces that continue to resist women’s advancement are often compounded by the threat of psychological, physical and sexual violence. In 2016, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) released a report titled: Sexism, harassment and violence against women parliamentarians. The report, which is based on a sample survey, found that 80 percent of women parliamentarians have been subjected to psychological violence, 21.8 percent to acts of sexual violence, and 25.5 percent to physical violence. The manifestations of psychological violence include the following: humiliating sexual or sexist remarks (65.5 percent), images of or highly disrespectful comments with sexual connotations in traditional media (27.3 percent), extremely humiliating or sexually charged images of self through social media (41.8 percent), threats of death, rape, beatings or abduction (44.4 percent), and harassment – insistent and uninvited behaviour (such as unwanted attention or unwelcome verbal contact), or interaction that may have caused fear (32.7 percent).

Women parliamentarians reported encountering stereotyped perceptions about their appearances, speech, behaviour, and the role they should play. They also reported daily acts of condescension and sexism, conveyed through inappropriate gestures or sound, such as being shushed when they speak, whistles, air kisses, handshakes involving the lewd use of a finger, etc. Almost two thirds of the women (60.5 percent) recognised that the motivation for the threats and violence stemmed from them taking a clear position on particular issues, including those considered controversial such as advancing women’s rights and human rights-related issues. The IPU report confirms the gravity of some of the incidents already exposed in the media.

Parliaments are often referred to as giving voice to members of the public. However, the fact that women parliamentarians draw a direct link between their victimisation and their voices, suggests that legislative bodies, as former strongholds of male power and privilege, continue to function as mediums to muzzle female voices – albeit less overtly. Parliaments are by no means the only public spaces where women’s voices are routinely gagged or mutilated in an attempt to discourage them from straying too far from the path that many still consciously or unconsciously believe is predestined for them. Seniority is not necessarily a deterrent for the typical sexism and misogynist experienced by women in public office.   In 2012, former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, called out the former Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, for his misogynist double standards. Gillard subsequently also spoke out about being criticised for not having children when she was charged with being “deliberately barren”, labelled a witch and a bitch, and being cat-called when she spoke in Parliament.

South Africa’s former Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Lindiwe Mazibuko, during her term, was also subjected to an incessant stream of sexist comments about her clothes, weight, hair, and the way she spoke. It would appear that her youthfulness and political alliance made Mazibuko a prime target. Similarly, opposition MP, Phumzile van Damme was labelled a “straat meid” ( colloquial derogatory reference to a woman who engages in transactional sex), while the former opposition national party leader, Helen Zille, was accused of having appointed her “boyfriends and concubines” as criticism for appointing a predominantly male provincial cabinet. Senior female politicians (including cabinet ministers) in the ruling party have also been subjected to sexist and misogynist slurs – Lindiwe Sisuslu was branded a “Barbie doll” and Naledi Pandor ridiculed for her accent. The IPU report points to aggravating risk factors for women, such as being a member of an opposition party, being relatively youthful (those under 40 are targeted more frequently), and being a member of a minority group, but it would appear that, generally speaking, all women are at risk.

While sexism and misogyny may be more visible in politics, given the way in which national legislatures function and the general public interest it invites, women leaders outside of public office (whether at grass roots level or executive boardrooms), are not targeted any less.  Recently, Magda Wierzycka, CEO of a major asset management company in South Africa, revealed that she has been the object of death threats and digitally manipulated sexual images circulated via social media. The slur campaign was allegedly accompanied by claims that she created her successful business on the back of sex work in the past. Wierzycka was targeted as she became increasingly vocal against corruption and financial exploitation in the public and private sectors.

One of the most haunting reminders of the extent to which perpetrators will go to expunge non-conformist female voices must be the tragic death of the late Suna Venter during June 2017. At the relatively youthful age of 32, Venter died of a cardiac condition called stress cardiomyopathy – known in layperson’s terms as ‘Broken Heart Syndrome’. She was a member of the so-called “SABC 8”, a group of employees at the public broadcaster who resisted attempts at censorship. Venter suffered sustained threats of violence, victimisation, and harassment. A few months before her death she was shot in the face, on another occasion she was abducted, tied to a tree and the grass around her set alight.    At the time, those close to Suna Venter believed that her illness was, if not caused, certainly aggravated by the periods of prolonged stress and trauma she was subjected to.

Over the years, there have been several instances of LGBTI women maimed and killed for publicly asserting their right to their bodies and for their refusal to deny their sexual orientation. However, it is the death of a young woman, 22-year-old lesbian activist Noluvo Swelindawo[1] in December 2016, which served as a brutal reminder of the extent to which those intent on maintaining the status quo will go to mete out their peculiar level of discipline to ‘wayward’ women. Swelindawo was well-known in her community as an active member of a grassroots organisation creating awareness on gender issues and LGBTI rights. A day after she was assaulted by the man subsequently convicted of her murder, Noluvo Swelindawo was forcefully abducted from her home by a group of men. The court found that Noluvo’s murder was motivated by her sexual orientation. Noluvo’s Swelindawo’s abduction and murder was a deliberate act of pissing on her rights not to be discriminated against on the basis of her gender and sexual orientation, to have her dignity and bodily integrity respected and protected, to be free from violence, not to be treated in a cruel, inhuman or degrading manner – all of which are enshrined in our world-renowned Constitution.


Unfortunately, not all accounts of attempts to censor or obliterate women’s voices make it to the headlines. The stories shared above, whilst a mere fragment of the global picture, share a common thread of vilification, stereotyping, sexual objectification, defamation, denigration, and violence. The motive is to keep women in check, to dissuade them from disrupting the status quo, and to compel compliance.

In her book, Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership, author and academic, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, recounts how women’s voices have historically been suppressed through crude and torturous instruments and modus operandi (think about catcalling and slut shaming, for example). One of the most persistent strategies is the equation of women’s public speech with promiscuity or questionable morals, whereas their silence bears testimony to their modesty or virtue (think about all the maxims and religious scripts about the virtue of a woman’s silence). Variations of this theme plays itself out over time, space and across different cultures, but the message remains essentially the same: a woman should hold her tongue or face the (misogynistic) consequences. Jamieson explains why attempts to silence disruptive female voices are so often underscored by innuendos about their sexuality or morality, as illustrated in the examples discussed above. She makes the case that some men liken the search for power with lust, and therefore intuitively reach for such descriptions when they perceive their own power being threatened or diminished. This theory goes a long way towards an explanation of why distorted sexual images or indictments about women’s morality are the low hanging fruits to distract from their voices in public discourse. Finally, Jamieson challenges the notion of how the public focus on women’s private behaviour has been legitimised through innuendos and accusations about their sexuality – which is not the case for men.

Given the intensity of, and malicious assault on women’s voices, I would argue that such actions represent significantly more than attempts to interrupt or silence, but extend to symbolic acts of lacerating and mutilating the female tongue. The public spectacle of women’s voices being bloodied and butchered continues to this day – albeit in a different guise from the practice of being dunked, bridled or burned at the stake. The crude and discernable customs of yesteryear have just given way to more socially tolerable and camouflaged practices as women are increasingly making their presence felt in former male bastions that have retained their misogynist identities. Newly coined phrases such as ‘catcalling’ and ‘slut shaming’ affirms that this is indeed the case. However, in her book, Jamieson does offer a glimmer of hope that women are able to do what they have done for centuries: challenge and surpass these obstacles, while systematically exposing the deceitful constructs conventionally used against them. Gillard unmasks this eloquently in her response to Abbott: “[…] He could change his behaviour, he could apologise for all his past statements, he could apologise for standing next to signs describing me as a witch and a bitch, terminology that is now objected to by the frontbench of the Opposition. He could change a standard himself if he sought to do so. But we will see none of that from the Leader of the Opposition, because, on these questions, he is incapable of change. Capable of double standards, but incapable of change. His double standards should not rule this Parliament.[…]”



Collison, C. (2016). Lesbian activist’s murder puts spotlight on hate crime; shocking new statistics. Mail & Guardian. 8 December 2016.

Davis, R. (2017). Parliamentary sexism: when is enough ENOUGH? Daily Maverick. 17 February 2017.

Etheridge, J. (2017). Broken Heart Syndrome kills ‘SABC 8’ journalist Suna Venter. News24. 29 June 2017.

IPU (2016). Sexism, harassment and violence against women parliamentarians. Issue Brief. October 2016.

Jamieson, K (1995). Beyond the double bind: women and leadership. Oxford University Press.

Rourke, A. (2012). Julia Gillard’s attack on sexism hailed as a turning point for Australian woman. The Guardian. 12 October 2012.

Sunday Times. Magda Wierzycka’s mission. Sunday Times. 21 January 2018.

Transcript of Julia Gillard’s speech. (2012). The Sidney Morning Herald. 10 October 2012.

UN Economic and Social Council. 2017. Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals: Report of the Secretary-General, E2017/66.

Underhill, G. (2012). Malema and Shivambu to apologies to Zille. Mail & Guardian. 14 June 2012.


[1] Collison, C. (2016). Lesbian activist’s murder puts spotlight on hate crime; shocking new statistics. Mail & Guardian. 8 December 2016.


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