Women’s Day in South Africa

Since 1994, South Africa celebrates National Women’s Day every year on the 9th of August, and more generally the whole month has become one in which the woes of women are highlighted and tribute is paid to their outstanding achievements. The occasion marks a march led by a 20,000-strong gathering of women on August 9, 1956, in protest against the proposed amendments to the Urban Areas Act (which curtailed the movement of non-whites in urban areas and allowed them only 72 hours without permission or a “pass” document). They left bundles of petitions containing more than 100,000 signatures at the prime minister’s office door.

Fifteen years after the enactment of this national holiday, I take a look at how the South African media portrayed Muslim women on the occasion.

One of my favorites is an article by community activist and blogger Bilal Randeree, who wrote an article for the Mail & Guardian entitled, “When You Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock” (the slogan of the 1956 march, translated from the phrase “Wathint’abafazi, wathint’imbokodo”), a phrase which has come to represent the strength and courage of women in South Africa. Randeree focuses on the Lubna al-Hussein case, relating it to similar incidents in South Africa in which women have been harmed for wearing pants:

Closer to home, three men are still facing charges of attacking a woman for wearing trousers two years ago. They were accused of ripping off Zandile Mpanza’s trousers in public and parading her around the street half naked because she violated a “pants ban”. Mpanza subsequently obtained a court order instructing that a ban on women wearing trousers in that area be removed and prohibited from being practiced.

This is really significant, because it shows hows the media has ignored incidents of the same nature which are not related to Islam. Randeree, without explicitly mentioning it, points out that religion is not the issue, but patriarchal society is. Randeree concludes with a rather obvious yet important remark: “Women and men need to work together against the ills of society.”

Another article, this time slightly skewed, appeared in allAfrica. It sought to highlight the achievements of Faghmeda Miller, the first Muslim woman in South Africa to publicly declare that she is HIV positive (Miller was infected by her husband).

The article claims that

Although it (her declaration) drew mixed reactions from her community, that single act of defiance won her the hearts of those outside her Muslim faith.

Miller’s is a momentous story, so to say that it simply “drew mixed reactions from her community” is really an injustice to South African Muslims, who for decades have been working to prevent HIV and AIDS. That “those outside her Muslim faith” were proud, makes it seem like only non-Muslims are capable of empathy.

The article quotes South Africa’s AIDS consortium’s communications manager:

She comes from a society where women are seen to have less of a voice and the point that we really wanted to make resonating with Women’s Month is that women like Faghmeda really remind us of the activism and they reignite that ‘standing up’ as women and ‘speaking out’ for what we believe in. It’s women like Faghmeda who remind us of the spirit of activism ignited by those women who led the political and significant march on the 9th of August in 1956″

That all South African Muslim women are “seen to have less of a voice” is a sweeping statement for the communications manager to make and the agency to publish. It negates the very essence of the women I mentioned earlier, who were leading figures in the struggle against both racial and gender apartheid.

Nevertheless, that the allAfrica article featured Miller’s story is great–she is certainly an important figure in the community’s fight against stigmatization of people infected and affected by HIV and AIDS.

The Radio Islam radio station in South Africa presents some problematic coverage on Women’s Day and women generally. Not only do they not mark or mention the occasion, but have come up with an alternate campaign called “Women of Wonder” (WoW), which is supposed to mark women’s achievements on the occasion of Ramadan. Doesn’t sound too bad does it? Wait, there’s more. Since the release of their campaign coincided with Women’s Day, its practically begs criticism.

The WoW campaign is aimed at…wait for it…women who stay at home. Now, let me state at the outset, I have absolutely no problem with women who choose to remain at home to care for their family. I admire them, and believe that they do deserve accolades. What is problematic is when the woman who remains at home is the only one full of “wonder”. It not only excludes women who work, study, and contribute outside the home, but perpetuates the notion that the only right kind of woman is the former. The women who work are less deserving because “they get paid for their jobs, get promotions and bonuses”.

This simply highlights the station’s long history of blatant sexism. It’s difficult to forget the national case against them by the Gender Commission  because they would not allow women presenters on air, as it would “entice” men. (eye-roll) More irksome is that they are targeting women who exist within the “confines” of the home. They actually use that word, several times. So, they admit that relegating women to the home does indeed confine them, and would now like to celebrate that.

Do not despair though, because there was also some very encouraging coverage coming out of the South African Muslim media.

The Voice of the Cape radio station featured great programs marking Women’s Day and drew attention to problems of gender inequality and domestic abuse. Their website contains no less than 20 articles on women’s day, in which they marked happenings around the country, specifically within the Muslim community My favorite is an article entitled “Changing Gender Roles Remains a Challenge“. It focuses on six prominent male community members and their views on what men need to do to give women the respect, dignity and equality they deserve. The article is honest about women’s current status in society, and the men in question do not seek to determine what women’s roles should be, but rather, how to create a more inclusive environment in the home, workplaces, and mosques.

I liked the approach of getting the men to speak about the injustices perpetrated by their own gender. I leave you with some snippets from the article to make you smile:

As for how men deal with the changing roles of the sexes, men just need to be bloody men and realise that being a man means showing respect to the women in their lives – Anwah Nagia, chairperson of the District Six Beneficiary and Redevelopment Trust.

Personally, I love it when women take something on and run with it. But especially in the corporate world you see how often men are threatened by such women. Today more women are challenging traditional roles everywhere, and it is their right to do so. – Farouk Abrahams, sports writer and coach

We often say that every day should be Women’s Day, but we also know the reality is that this is very far from the truth. Invariably women are still humiliated and treated like lesser human beings by men. So we need this month as a reminder. This includes using every means at our disposal, like the media, to change perceptions that have manifested themselves over generations. – Sheikh Ebrahim Gabriels, president of the United Ulema Council of South Africa.

A belated happy Women’s Day to you all from South Africa.

  • laila

    Finally, I have been waiting awhile for MMW to included problematic Muslim media on women. It makes this site more authentic and real when you cover Muslim Women in the Media from non-Muslims and Muslims (from the inside and outside). It’s usually 1 in every 25 MMW posts that we read about how Muslim women are depicted in Muslim media outlets ( good and bad).

    Great job on the balance post Safiyyah, which includes some Muslim Media problematic coverage of Muslim women that is usually ignored.

  • Asma

    Very well written article. Thanks

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ Laila: I know exactly what you mean, and it’s a problem we’re trying to address. Since many of us live in the West, we cover what we are surrounded by. MMW is getting a few new contributors that are located in predominately-Muslim countries, and so this should spread it around a bit. ;)

  • Safiyyah

    @ laila, you’ve raised an important point. South African Muslims being such a close knit community means that when you attack the Muslim media, you are labelled as a rebel, liberalist and even “kafir”. there are much more atrocious things the Muslim media say and do and its about time we critique them, else things will just say the same…labels or no labels. Allah help us.

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