#WomenofUP: UP Student Transformation Officer on empowering the ‘new’ woman

Posted on August 06, 2021

The marginalisation of women is broader than what society defines as “women/gender inequality”. It is a social exclusion discourse, subjugation and discrimination phenomenon in a society that should co-exist for all that live in it. For years, this phenomenon has relegated women to a position of no importance, resulting in them having a lower social standing in many spheres of society, such as religious/traditional households, workspaces, education systems and more.

The emergence of liberal feminism has served as a dismantling instrument of a systematic methodology of the oppression of women. Feminism has opened doors for women-led revolutions that changed policies and laws, leading to the deconstruction of patriarchy in our communities.

Women’s Day on 9 August commemorates a woman-led revolution spearheaded by the likes of Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn. In South African society, these heroines remain the pillars and cornerstones of the empowerment of women.

The term “new woman” redefines female identity; it entails redefining social constructs that influence our everyday lives, intimate relationships, and all facets of human labour. Through this concept, we acknowledge that the former social construct of a woman was gendered, and linked to heteronormativity and discriminatory attitudes. The “new woman” concept acknowledges that the construction of the female gender was associated with the systematic oppression of those who were born with female genitals, even if they do not identify with societal expectations of their assigned sex at birth (for example, having to wear skirts, head wraps, do domestic work, etc.) The concept breaks the ceilings of redefining sex and gender; this helps to redefine the sex-gender distinction, a social construct that reproduced unequal power relations in society.

After 27 years of liberation in South Africa, women in many communities still find themselves in perilous or discriminatory situations. The unemployment rate of black women is 31.1%,­ and is an indication of how opportunities in South Africa continue to be gendered and racialised.

The gender roles, behaviours and values that many in society expect people to uphold based on their assigned sex at birth is what has perpetuated the domestic role of women. This has labelled and categorised fields in our communities as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. These categories that people are generally expected to conform to are evidence that perceived gender roles continue to be persistent and persuasive. This can be seen in how careers are gendered: there are still perceptions that careers such as teaching, psychology or social work are “for women”, while some segments of society cling to ideas that lead men to pursue careers such as engineering or sports science because of their “non-domestic” nature.

Although women in modern society are breaking the glass ceilings of societal and gendered career classifications, they continue to face challenges as systems continue to justify patriarchy and the subjugation of women. Gender-based violence experienced in workplaces is evidence of the enduring patriarchal system – male bosses who ask women to sleep with them in exchange for employment or a promotion is an example of this. Gender-based violence against women shows that the belief and culture of the subjugation of women in intimate relationships and sexual orientation continue to breed in our communities. It is proof that while we might be free on paper, the minds of men and boys continue to be colonised and imprisoned by the concept of the “inferior” woman.

Amukelani Makamu is a University of Pretoria House Humanities Transformation Officer, Chairperson of the Sisterhood Society and a PDBY news journalist.

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