A few year ago in 2014 I visited Tanzania, which is a couple thousand miles north of Cape Town. Before we left, our program leaders instructed us to dress modestly out of respect for the culture. The girls on the trip wore long pants and shorts and were mindful about the traditions communities we visited. Being black in Tanzania meant that the expectations were sometimes higher for me, as other black Tanzanians expected me to assimilate into the culture. Though my white peers got away with wearing shirts and long pants, my host mom didn’t let me leave the house without tying a kanga on my waist. People would ask me (and only me) “Where’s your hijab?” when I walked around the village with my hair exposed.
I remember listening to the men around me talk about a woman’s “place” in the home. I remember a member of a Maasai tribe asking me to marry him in exchange for a dowry of cattle. I remember that my host mom was noticeably younger than her husband. All I could do was respectfully observe, listen or keep my thoughts myself, because I didn’t want to impose or interject my specifically Western version of feminism. My personal beliefs were being challenged in a country that wasn’t my own, so who was I to disagree with their deeply cultural values?
The other night, a related conversation came up when a friend who has lived in Cape Town for the past few years. He pointed out how American feminist dialogues have been centered around hetero, white women. To him, this diminished the entire value of the movement. I agreed that “free the nipple” feminism took a different, and maybe less important approach to women’s rights, and that it was championed by mostly white women. Womanists and black feminists have been fighting for issues like wage equality, access to women’s reproductive rights, and other opportunities that seem more important or urgent to me. But I didn’t want to completely dismiss the importance and interconnectivity between respectability politics and employment opportunities. What has been labeled as “White Feminism” may be misguided or problematic, but it still has value, and it has definitely informed my own idea of what freedom can look like for women. The gender wars have different sides, and feminists have had to choose their battles.
Though Cape Town is a relatively “liberal” city within South Africa, my idea of feminism continues to change and be challenged. A few weeks ago, a guest speaker-politician told our group that the ANC was “ending the patriarchy” in South Africa. I listened in confusion and silence. This past weekend during dinner, a group of friends pointed out strange distinctions on the menu for smaller portioned meals labeled “for ladies” while the fuller meals were distinguishably described as for “hungry men.” Each time I go out, I notice that nobody asks or demands for consent before they dance with each other. In everyday conversations, the men around me sometimes talk about women in objectifying or condescending ways. When I walk down the street, strangers sometimes say sexually-charged or disrespectful comments. And I never know what to do or say.
Working at WLC always keeps me aware of the structural and legal barriers that women here face. It is easy for me to understand how sexism is encoded in the law, or write a detailed essay about feminism and its challenges. But it’s always been harder to understand how I deal with misogyny that happens in front of me – like when my dad jokes with my male cousins about women who can’t cook, when I overhear people talk about my friend who “sleeps around too much” or when I’m with a guy who doesn’t respect “no” for an answer. I feel stuck. Feminism is complicated, conflicting, and contextual… and for me, only sometimes confrontational.