Change the world


The SARChI Chair in African Feminist Imaginations is held by Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola from the Centre for Women and Gender Studies (CWGS). Heather Dugmore reports on why this is so significant for female empowerment.

“The Chair is all about shifting how we think about gender power and women’s contributions in the world,” said Prof Gqola, who joined the CWGS in May 2020.

“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.”

The Chair, officially launched in June this year, has collaborations with colleagues throughout South Africa, the continent and globe. One example is Prof 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.

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 disrupt patriarchal culture.

Knowledge is power

The first book to come out of the Chair is Prof Gqola’s work titled, Miriam Tlali, Writing Freedom. Miriam Tlali (1933-2017) was a novelist, playwright, short story writer, 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 eco-feminist 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.”

Prof Gqola’s next book, published in June this year, has received significant attention, including in the media. Titled Female Fear Factory, it sets out to understand rape and rape culture.

“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 to avoid being raped or assaulted, but we know we cannot completely avoid it.”

She uses the term ‘factory’ because fear is an ongoing production 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.

The fear factor

Fear is pervasive, says Prof Gqola, and intrudes into the everyday lives of women worldwide. An example, as described in Female Fear Factory, is the abuse 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.

“My argument as a feminist is that we have to undo fear, because we can never undo rape culture without addressing the fear,” said Prof Gqola. “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 offered 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.”

The murder of University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana in August, 2019, for example, showed that gender-based violence is far from an isolated event.

A light in the darkness

Prof Gqola said that, despite the ongoing pandemic of violence, there was  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 –  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, as they are just as important – and I want both of these strands to always be there.”

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