On 9th August 1956, approximately 20 000 women marched to Pretoria’s Union Buildings to protest the carrying of passes by women. This march challenged patriarchal ideas of womanhood and sent a clear message that women would not be silenced or intimidated when confronted with injustice. It was during this march that the famous, ‘You Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock’ first emerged, and the expression has since served as a strong statement that embodies the courage and strength of South African women.
The women’s march was strongly intersectional long before that became a buzzword. Women of all races and various ages, as well as economic backgrounds, joined forces to challenge an immoral system that sought to regulate their movements, and confine them to certain spaces. Women defied the idea that their place was in the kitchen, instead claiming that it was everywhere. The fortitude and resilience displayed by these women of 1956 is longed for in a time where gender-based violence tears and rips its way through South Africa’s social fabric. We are in need of that same courage and strength particularly at this time where women’s bodies are policed and shamed; where her body is up for public consumption, objectified, and forcefully detached from her person.
The 1956 women’s march showed that political issues are deeply intertwined with gender issues, affirming that the political is personal and vice-versa. That political emancipation means very little without freedom from patriarchy. That we cannot speak of justice without acknowledging how gendered the concept is, and how it manifests differently subject to gender. We cannot speak of reconciliation without acknowledging how fragmented gender relations in South Africa is, and that by excluding gender, we set ourselves up for failure. There is not a single challenge that South Africans face today that can be spoken of in isolation to gender issues. Intersectionality is complex and difficult to practice, but without acknowledging the multi-facetedness of our being and identity and how understanding how we practice that in the world, we will provide incomplete, and ineffective solutions.
It is clear that advancing gender equality in South Africa needs to go beyond consciousness-raising to transform the institutions that produce and reproduce unequal relations of power (and the extreme marginalisation of poor black women who have borne the brunt of colonialism, and now bear the brunt of neoliberal economic policies). How do we, as South Africans, envision a gender-just society, and who takes the primary responsibility for ensuring the realisation of this vision?
Danielle Hoffmeester IJR’s Project Assistant for the Gender Justice and Reconciliation Project