Happy Woman’s Day everyone. It does seem rather odd that South Africa has a different National Woman’s Day to International Woman’s Day which is the 8th of March, but there’s a very good reason for this. On the 9th of August 1956, about 20 000 women of all ethnic groups marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against South African legislation that tightened the apartheid government’s control over the movement of black people in urban areas. Rules such as ‘pass laws’, which required all black men over the age of 16 to carry their pass books at all times, as well as the Group Areas act which restricted where people could stay. The women sang a protest song “Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo!” (You strike a woman, you strike a rock) that was composed in honour of the occasion.
These brave women banded together in a display of indignance towards the unjust legislation. Their goal was to hand over bundles of petitions against the laws, signed by more than 100 000 women, to the then South African prime minister, J.G. Strijdom – who incidentally had arranged to be elsewhere. The petitions were however eventually accepted by his secretary. Although the prime minister was not there to receive the petitions, the message was sent loud and clear.
The protest group was led by Lilian Ngoyi, Rahima Moosa, Helen Joseph and Sophia Williams De-Bruyn seen in the image above. Photo Source: UCT NewsRoom. 07 AUGUST 2015. Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo. Photo by Jurgen Schadeberg
So this was 66 years ago, but the impact of the day continues. Commemorating Woman’s Day is a way to raise awareness around ongoing issues affecting women worldwide and highlights initiatives and campaigns focused on improving women’s lives and increasing gender parity. Or is it possibly merely only an idealistic step toward addressing important issues such as domestic violence, discrimination and harassment in the workplace, equal pay, education for girls and more?
I say idealistic because I’ve started thinking that there is something more basic and horribly overlooked that has the power to derail our noble endeavours towards an equal society. That is, ‘identity’. Is it plausible that one’s agency* is threatened if identity is threatened? So of course, my next question is “what is it to be a woman?”, “who is a woman?”, “what is not a woman?” – All rhetorical questions – I don’t have the answers…
I can share that having to shave my hair recently certainly got me thinking about what is to be a woman. It was traumatic losing my hair! I felt like I lost an important part that identified me as a woman. Admittedly, I felt really ugly and ashamed…. Inadequate. Thanks to the love and support of family and friends (and Mr Bump who reminded me the best of us are bald), I was able to navigate that dark space – but it made me realise that I need to challenge my preconceptions of what beautiful is, and what encompasses beauty. What being a woman is, and what being feminine is. In the part of society where I live, more women have long hair than short hair, and it’s extremely, very highly unusual to see a woman with a bald head.
By western cultural standards, seeing a bald-headed woman generally indicates that something went wrong – it’s considered taboo, threatening, or ugly. Somehow flowing hair is tied up with the notion of female beauty, a potent symbol of feminity. I am not suggesting that it should not be. However, I have been wondering why ‘no hair’ seems equivalent to being hyper-masculine? Why shouldn’t ‘no hair’ be beautiful or feminine? Is womanhood defined by my body parts, having children, my relationships, my jobs or something else? Is it my strength, my resilience, my vulnerability or my tenderness? Or all of the above…. none of the above?
What makes me worthy of being a woman? Why do I feel like I need to be a certain way or look a certain way to be a woman? And where do the societal expectations of what ‘I need to look like, be like, and sound like to be a woman’ come from? Does it even matter? And why do I care? Again, I don’t have the answers – and I don’t need the answers. But, I do have a bleskop (colloquial word for bald head). And somehow it feels right to own this look now. So I’m gonna rock this bleskop damn it!
*Agency = activity, intention or business