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The black female in modern history: from South Africa, Khadija Sharife narrates how history has often reinforced exploitative actions and failed to dismantled barriers which leave women with less access to platforms that matter. Pertinently she asks. Was and is there a male-dominated influence with regards to the history is noted and transcribed?

In her debut book Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy aptly states that women have absorbed the rhetorics of the male mentality/ideology as it relates to commoditised versions of the female identity, reducing half the world's population to a state of being lesser than.

This tangibly translates to the de-emphasis of female achievements save for, at least in most cases, politically correct equity targets or alternately, exceptions to the rule.

And, of course, as per the Orwellian phrase, some women are more equal than others, for not only have women had to confront and defeat the historically entrenched patriarchal constructs of engineering social inequality--depriving half the world's population of rights, education and mobility, but simultaneously, women have had to challenge racism. Essentially, this double-edged sword ensured that women faced double the trouble from both without and within.

On the subject of diminished, colonised and branded gender identities, Levy tells African Woman: "It will never happen the way it does to women; it isn't comparable... This type of culture isn't created in a vacuum; men are valued and thought of as real people. You can't reduce a real person to a sex object. Women are seen as less than human."

And therein lies the crux of the matter: the general perception of females in the context of human rights, human ability and humanity recognised. Or in the case of women-only partially acknowledged, devalued and overwhelmed in historical narratives through male mediation that reveal far more about the narrator than the subject.


If and when strong, assertive and educated females surface, they are viewed as exceptional, and by default, 'manly' in their accomplishment of tasks often reserved for and occupied by, males; this naturally lends the interpretation that success lies in the domain of maleness and women are by nature inferior.

Even feminism has to a large extent built itself up on foundations of the male identity, affirming the standard, forcing integration (read conformity) vocalised by tones that undermine voices relegated to the margins.

Do women then achieve equality through the vehicle of maleness, reinforcing the male standing even further?

"It just makes me so angry and sad," says Levy, "that women cannot be the leading protagonists in their own life, but are taught instead to be the supporting actor."

Responding to questions on the documentation of female contributions recorded in intellectual histories, professor Julian Bond, Chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) says: "Women were always engaged in the struggle for civil rights, and were generally marginalised."


Is this a general reflection of how women are perceived overall? "The treatment of women in civil rights histiography is a reflection of the treatment of women in society generally," he says.

Concerning female heroines such as Rosa Parks, Betty Shabazz, Albertina Sisulu and others, Bond states, "they were examples rather than exceptions. That list could be much longer. In recent years, Civil rights scholarship has included a wider concern for the efforts of black (and white) women."

Using Albertina Sisulu as an example, political commentator and activist, Professor Lubna Nadvi says, "Ma Sisulu was really an example, and as many have commented, she was considered as an equal to her husband at all levels. While she did play the role of wife, mother and caretaker, she was also an activist in her own right, and I think the literature does do justice to that fact.

"(But) she married into a prominent political family, which played a role in her profile being raised. There were other women, that did similar things but they didn't necessarily get the same attention, and there are various factors that have contributed to this."

Reverend Douglas Prather, founder of Revive the Vote and former board member of the NAACP states, "In many instances one could argue, because of the patriarchal nature of humanity, that their contributions have been more."

"Racism and sexism were injected into history," he continues, "and it is dominated by white male thoughts and psyche, Nevertheless over the last 50 years, the tide of history, as I see it, we can no longer deny the role of women and their contributions to those movements that have advanced the world."

In South Africa, which holds a greater proportion of females in government than 85% of countries globally, composed of a large number of female ministers and officials as well as a female deputy president, the roles of woman in the struggle against apartheid were reduced in both quantity and scale of magnitude.

In many cases, due to historical subservience emanating from the culture of obedience, women were expected to cancel their achievements in lieu of established male narratives. To make the men look better and bigger than they actually were. Invincible.


Back to Nadvi: "Many prominent black women who were political activists or publicly active did get heard in terms of their message of resistance against apartheid and oppression, but very often this was mediated through male frameworks and patriarchal structures.

"These women were often regarded as the support structure for the male heroes of the struggle, and not meant to be at the forefront, or be the ones who made the final decisions at the end of the day."

Asked about how the historiography pertaining to the anti-apartheid struggle, specifically within the context of the African National Congress (ANC), has been documented, Navdi says:

"The ANC Women's League was set up largely to reflect the women's voice in the broader struggle in South Africa. There were powerful voices within the league, and the structure created spaces for ordinary women, like housewives to be able to have a role in overcoming the challenges; however it would seem that in a post-apartheid context, the League is not really able to harness its political influence of yesteryear.

"It has become almost a rubber stamp for the broader ANC policy framework, which many have argued, has lost touch with the needs of the masses on the ground. The women's voices in this space would have been instrumental in shaping a new direction, however they have chosen to largely support patriarchal policy prescriptions, where male leaders are yet again turned into heroes to be placed on a pedestal, without being challenged on their track record."

Was and is there a male-dominated influence with regards to the way history is noted and transcribed?

"It is often the case that those who record, document and describe the history of any society are usually men. It is also true that regardless of the gender of who is telling the story, the narrative may be constructed in such a way that glorifies male heroes and masculinity."


But is the mainstream information economy open to depictions of the female identity in a positive, empowering light or are there vested interests that profit from women?

Journalist Jennifer Pozner, in her article Power Shortage for Media Women analysed the report Who Makes the News (2000); the study which revealed "that women-half the population -are only 18 percent of the world's news subjects". Pozner opened her article by quoting the New York Times which "declared the glass ceiling 'shattered' when Hewlett Packard's Carly Fiorina became the third female CEO of a Fortune 500 company."

On female representation, Nadvi says, "if women are appointed on merit, then there is no tokenism happening, if they are considered the best person for the job, then they should be given the opportunity. what becomes tricky ground though is when there are equity targets to be met, and women are simply appointed so that there is the appearance of equity and gender sensitivity."

In her book The Beauty Myth, author Naomi Wolf articulates the state of women in the modern era-legally free but psychologically bound by the beauty myth-implied by Wolf to be largely a socio-political tool used to amplify and over-exaggerate images of ideal female physicality, solidifies the patriarchal system and controls the manner in which females react and are responded to, immersing females in distorted and draining fallacies.

"Beauty is a currency system like the gold standard," says Wolf. "Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact."

Again Ariel Levy adds: "It is less the media, than the culture. The media reflects what is out there. People have bought what they have been sold by the culture, without thinking about it too much. They don't know to think about it. Nobody told them."

Not even history itself has dismantled these barriers for history is merely a process by which data is obtained, sourced, interpreted, valuated and transcribed. It is a human process, reflecting human bias, all the more so when the point of view is defined by those informed by ideological prejudices. In fact, history has often reinforced the impression of exploitative actions as having beneficiated societies, nations and cultures on the whole, particularly as it pertains to Third World regions, where women have less access and privilege to platforms.

"Patriarchal practices which are passed off as being culturally legitimate are still present in all spaces, for example, in African society, black women are expected to be generally subservient to black men, or in some spaces in the global Muslim community, where it is considered unacceptable for a Muslim woman to go out and work alongside men," says Nadvi.

"But times are changing, it is actually now politically correct to support, advance and highlight spaces in which women are active contributors, and this includes glitzy functions where they are recognised.

"What is sad, though, is that privileged women now do get a lot of recognition, while working class and poorer women, are often excluded. There is now a class divide that is getting bigger, whereas it was once a race and gender divide," she adds.

'"It's a self-generating cycle,' says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Public Policy Institute, "making it less likely that women will move their way up."

Women in pockets of Third World countries, and large percentages of those residing in first worlds, may finally be legally liberated, free of societal constraints binding us to the stove, the factory, the farm, but do we understand the weight and responsibility accompanying such freedom?

Perhaps the only way to break this circle is redraw boundaries, motivating female platforms via female writers, thinkers, journalists, directors etc in order that the female voice, irrespective of content, can be heard as often-and loudly-as that of men.

History will only change if we enter the arena in which the battle for narratives is fought, for the fight itself quickly becomes history.

"Perhaps the poet Edwin Markham had it right," says Prather, "They drew a circle that shut me out, but I drew a circle that took them in."

This time, let it be on our terms.
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Title Annotation:COVER STORY
Author:Sharife, Khadija
Publication:New African
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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