Image: Natalie Hua (Unsplash)
“Some people ask: “Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?” Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general—but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problems of gender.”
This quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie articulates the problem of neutrality in contemporary discussions of political and economic reforms. Queue the eye rolling from the gatekeepers of patriarchy and misogyny all the way at the back. Depending on the circle you move in, being a feminist is either redundant or just a fashionable label to remain relevant. This is probably a huge assumption on my behalf about the kind of individual who is reading this article, but let us indulge the theory for a minute. In any society with a democratic government elected in a four or five year cycle that has a relatively well functioning bill of rights which makes vague references to women or gender it is largely accepted that such a society allows any individual the freedom to maximise their potential regardless of an unimportant detail like gender. Such a ‘fact’ allows policy makers to articulate that the process is a neutral response to a given issue or concern as it is assumed that men and women are affected equally by the issue. A gendered analysis has exposed policy making to be inherently bias in its formulation and implementation.
Let’s look at the recent Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) where Minister Tito Mboweni announced several policies to address South Africa’s current economic predicament. A key take-away from this was the cutting of police and education budgets. Such a stance would be viewed as having an equal effect on both men and women, and a superficial analysis would support this assumption. If you were to adopt a gendered perspective, you may not come to the same conclusion. In a review from 2018 it was indicated that women made up 72.5% of state employed teachers. A budget cut to the department could have a few implications; less women may be employed as government does not have the finances to hire more teachers, women disproportionately shoulder the burden for limited resources in education or possible negative effects of salaries and salary increases. In this microcosm of a policy measure it is clearly illustrated how, without a gender analysis of policy formulation and implementation we fail to see how the effect on women differs from the effect on men. What about instances in which the role of women is considered? In South Africa (SA) we have multiple frameworks which guide the consideration of women when creating policy. One of the key documents is the South African National Policy Framework for Women’s Empowerment which reiterates the need for gender mainstreaming and the implementation of laws that empower women. It includes employing measures to improve the meaningful representation of women in decision making structures.
In order to achieve this goal, the government has provided incentives to motivate organisations and institutions to appoint more women. So why do we still find ourselves arguing for equal representation for men and women? The answer to this question can be consolidated to the lack of implementation by both the government and the organisations or institutions. While the policy documents exist to improve the experience of women, the culture has not changed and masculine norms of leadership and management still exist when appointing for certain vacancies or roles. It is the belief that in order to be a good leader and a capable one, you must embody certain characteristics, namely being less emotional and more rational. You must also be willing to sacrifice the domestic (being a mother and/or wife) for the needs of the organisation. There are two things wrong with this; it essentialises being emotional and domestic to the woman as in these are the only things she is capable of being or should be and that these qualities automatically exclude women because it is viewed negatively. There’s not much I can say on these perspectives other than, quite frankly, that they are outdated ways of thinking and are legacies of time where women were considered only as objects to be desired and modelled after the male gaze.
To say that a man is more capable in a certain position or title than his woman counterpart ignores the structural and material inequalities which exist between the genders. Politics and economics do not occur within a social vacuum, in fact culture and ideology is what drives both. Thus, we must critique the obsession of neutrality in in any policy environment. Including a more diverse ideological agenda in policy making can only benefit the formulation and implementation. It may be hard to hear but feminism is good for everyone.
Kaamillah Soeker has recently completed a Masters Degree at the Wits School of Governance in Public and Development Management. She is interested in Policy Analysis of South Africa and the African continent.