Change the world


The South African Research Chairs Initiative, or SARChI, launched a chair in African Feminist Imaginations at Nelson Mandela University, South Africa, on 5 June, headed by Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola from the university’s Centre for Women and Gender Studies.

“The chair is all about shifting how we think about gender power and women’s contributions in the world. This includes generating research on the archive of African women’s intellectual and political work as key thinkers, theorists and figures in the liberation struggle, decoloniality and transformation,” says Gqola.

The chair is called ‘Imaginations’ because, as a professor of literature, Gqola is interested in how the creative genres and popular culture are sites of knowledge production and how they nurture ideas that are disruptive to patriarchal culture.

“In the main, we still don’t treat imaginative or creative outputs as catalysts of change, and the chair works to address this,” she says.

The first book to come out of the chair is Gqola’s work titled Miriam Tlali, Writing Freedom on Miriam Tlali (1933-2017), novelist, playwright, author of short stories, essayist and activist against apartheid and patriarchy. In 1975, Tlali became the first black woman in South Africa to publish a novel in English, titled Muriel at Metropolitan.

“It is part of the Voices of Liberation series published by the HSRC Press and I am very excited to be part of it, as my book follows on the work of two very important African feminist scholars: Shireen Hassim’s biography of Fatima Meer and Grace A Musila’s volume on Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan ecofeminist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

“Prior to these three contributions, the series had almost exclusively been dedicated to male liberationists with the exception of Ruth First.”

Global collaborations

The chair already has strong collaborations with colleagues throughout South Africa, the continent and the globe. One example is Gqola’s lecture on gender-based violence in January this year to the GendV Project based at Cambridge University in the UK, which includes feminist researchers in South Africa, the UK and India.

Also coming out of the chair is Gqola’s new book, which will be published by MFBooks in June this year and is awaited with great anticipation. Titled The Female Fear Factory’ it sets out to understand rape and rape culture, as she explains: “I came up with the concept of ‘the female fear factory’ as a way of describing how patriarchy uses fear to keep women controlled. Fear is a very important mechanism through which women and sexual minorities are socialised.

“We are conditioned to fear rape and to think about rape as a possibility or inevitability. We modify our behaviour to try and avoid being raped or assaulted but we know we cannot completely avoid it.”

She uses the term ‘factory’ because fear is an ongoing production of fear in relation to rape, homophobic violence, femicide and policing. South Africa has one of the highest murder rates in the world, and a femicide rate that is more than five times the world average.

Gqola explains that fear is pervasive and intrudes into the everyday lives of women worldwide. One of several examples she offers from around the world is that of Saudi Arabian women who were arrested, tortured and sexually violated for fighting for the rights of Saudi women to drive.

But they kept driving and kept getting arrested. Through their courage and defiance, they put the issue into the public sphere and shifted the public discourse until, in 2018, they were legally granted the right to drive.

It is one further step towards freedom in a country where Saudi women are subject to strict ‘guardianship laws’ that prohibit them from making even basic decisions without the permission of a male relative.

‘We have to undo fear’

“My argument as a feminist is that we have to undo fear because we can never undo rape culture without addressing the fear. So we need to draw on our courage and hope, and continuously work to undo situations that instil fear, big and small. We need to keep opening the cracks until it collapses.”

She offers the example of young women being harassed by men. “We see this happening in public all the time and we need to stop minding our own business. We need to scream at the men to stop doing this. We need our assailants and oppressors to know that women will not put up with this behaviour.

“We need to keep up the #TotalShutDown and #AmINext campaigns against rape and murder of women in this country so that gender-based violence is not treated as an event but as the pandemic that it is.”

She discusses the murder of University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana on 24 August 2019 and how this was far from an isolated event.

Gqola says that, despite the ongoing pandemic of violence, there is some hope. “We are starting to see a shift in consciousness and we are seeing women’s capacity to work together across party political, race, culture and age lines. We are seeing this happening in South Africa and worldwide.

“Some of the successes are clear: we are seeing predators getting fired and sent to jail; we are seeing some clear institutional change. In El Salvador, for example, for the first time they now have gender specialist judge-only courts dealing specifically with sexual violence and femicide.”

Sometimes the successes are less tangible, she adds; where just being able to talk about issues that we couldn’t talk about before brings them into the public sphere and helps us to start addressing them.

“We have to keep on disrupting and sabotaging fear and patriarchy in big and small ways. There is hope and there is capacity for freedom and joy and, while we think and theorise about violence and act against it, we must also keep joy and hope alive in our imaginations. They are just as important and I want both of these strands to always be there.”

Professor Pumla Gqola holds a DPhil (magna cum laude) in post-colonial studies from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich) in Germany, and MA degrees from the Universities of Warwick and Cape Town. She is a full professor in literature, with specific focus on African feminism, African literature, postcolonial literature and slave memory. She has authored several books, book chapters, journal articles and magazines on African feminist studies. Her book Rape: a South African Nightmare was awarded the 2016 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award and is one of the most read books on rape today.

This article, written by Heather Dugmore appeared in University World News on 7 June 2021


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