Why You Don’t Have To Be A Man Made Woman

What are the roles of a woman? This question sounds so strange to westerners, but for others, it’s a common question that easily answered.

I love my adopted country of South Africa, but it’s not the best place to be a woman. You see, feminism and tradition have no relation whatsoever. In fact, feminism, to men, is evil or maybe non-existent.

When I got married in 2004, it felt as though I’d suddenly disappeared. Like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, the minute my husband put a ring on my finger, Nicky, to all intents and purposes was no more. Standing in her stead was Colin’s wife – an appellation I’m expected to answer to even now.

However, my experiences are pretty tame compared to what other South African women go through when they marry. I understand why you don’t have to be a man-made woman. Some women don’t know this.

South Africa truly is a Rainbow Nation, and we have 11 official languages “to cater for the country’s diverse peoples and their cultures.” Out of those, the main four are Afrikaans, English, Xhosa, and Zulu, and each of those practices its own form of patriarchal oppression and misogyny.

How Xhosa Women Marry A Family, Not A Man

In Xhosa culture, “when you are married, you are not only married to your husband but to the entire family.” That means you are “expected to work around the house, make tea for visitors, and be respectful and friendly to the community.”

If that sounds disconcerting, the practice of ukuthwala will give you nightmares. Ukuthwala or bride abduction was made illegal in 2016 but continues in some of the more rural areas of South Africa.

Women as young as 12 are being snatched away from their families and forced into marriage. In some instances, “women were dragged and beaten in the process.” Fortunately, that kind of behavior is now “considered assault,” and ukuthwala is no longer seen as “the only way of starting a family.” It’s progression. These young brides are beginning to understand why you don’t have to be a man-made woman.

Why Power Of The Zulu Woman Is Oppressive

In some ways, life as a Zulu woman is even more difficult. While women have certain powers that come from “their symbolic association with the natural and spiritual worlds,” it is not sufficient to “offset the power of their husbands and fathers (and chiefs and kings) over them.”[1].

Women have a subordinate role in Zulu society in which “she is inferior in both status and value… She cooks, cleans, has babies and brings them up, cultivates the land and harvests, collects firewood, brews beer, fetches water if there are no children to do so.”

Zulu women serve their husbands a meal but do not eat with them. “Before serving her husband a meal, the wife enters the hut or room – usually on her knees and brings him water to wash his hands.”

The Mother Of The Nation Forced To Her Knees

Afrikaaner women should, theoretically, have one of the best experiences of being a woman in South Africa. However, they have, historically and traditionally, been given “idealized titles… such as ‘die boervrou’ [the Boer woman], ‘moeder van haar volk’ [mother of her nation] and ‘volksmoeder’ (the nation’s mother).”

As empowering as these sound, they also “went a long way in distracting them from male domination.”

According to Prof. Christina Landman, “Manipulation through social apparatus and religious means, as well as political instruments, was used by men to keep (Afrikaner) women silent in an oppressive environment.”

Is Equality a Dream in a Masculine Culture?

Despite these grim images, feminism is here in South Africa, hidden beneath our aprons and tucked into our bras alongside our spending money. It doesn’t look the same as American feminism or British feminism, though.

“The emerging feminism is being claimed by many previously invisible women and differs

fundamentally from the white, middle-class, heterosexual profile for which Western feminism has been criticized”.[2].

Some call it the “fourth wave” of feminism in South Africa – a time of empowerment rather than awareness. This so-called “Hashtag Feminism” “aims to fight outdated gender stereotypes that are preventing women from empowering themselves in every facet of life.”

Can Traditional Gender Roles be Reversed?

Is there such a thing as a role reversal world? A series of interviews published in the New York-based magazine Fader in 2015 reveal a more positive perspective of being a woman in modern-day South Africa.

For 25-year-old Zamazee Ikalana, even six years ago, things had already changed. “We do what men do,” she said. “We make our own money. We don’t depend on men”. Here we see women depending less on masculine societies and more on equality. The understanding of why you don’t have to be a man-made society is easier.

Sane Lisiee Ndabezitha, also 25, sees a world where the previously disadvantaged are given a leg up. “Women have always been undermined, so they’re given first preference now when considered for jobs,” she says.

What Influences Gender Roles?

If you’re wondering what influences gender roles, think of it this way: If you’ve done the same things for centuries, it’s hard to break that mold and reverse gears. History plays a huge part in influencing the gender roles of today.

Curiously, in the same article, Nomhle Mtshali admitted that, while she tries “to empower women,”  she wouldn’t call herself a feminist.

This sentiment suggests that not all women in South Africa see a correlation between gender equality, women’s rights, and feminism.

Maybe feminism has been so long associated with white middle-class women that black South African women feel ostracised from it – as a word and concept.

Maybe we need our own word, a truly South African one, that sums up the past disadvantages, the vague misogyny of our current society, and gives us a way to connect and move forward as women, finding unity and strength in each other regardless of our past abuses, skin color, or culture.

[1] Hanretta, Sean. “Women, Marginality and the Zulu State: Women’s Institutions and Power in the Early Nineteenth Century.” The Journal of African History, vol. 39, no. 3, 1998, pp. 389–415. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/183360. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.

[2] Steyn, Melissa. (1998). A new agenda: Restructuring feminism in South Africa. Women’s Studies International Forum. 21. 41-52. 10.1016/S0277-5395(97)00086-1.