Breaking Out Of The Gender Boxes II: The Cocoon & The Butterfly

Beware of the “Fem” in Feminism. This was a statement was intended to be a joke and like all good jokes it made us think that for a movement that champions equality, by its name, it is rather gender specific.

Words by Kiesha Hill (Poet) and Alex Gwaze (Researcher)
Questions by Kiesha Hill

Can men truly know what it feels like to be a woman? This questions made us reflect on the #BlackLivesMatter versus #AllLivesMatter debates. The long and short of such debates is – Yes! All lives are equal and men can understand what it feels like to be a woman if they are considerate, fluid and emphatic. Knowledge is not hard to pass on, that is why we put it in books, dialogues, and art. However, what men cannot do is experience what it feels like to be a woman. Experience is a great teacher because it is live, direct and personal. And, it is experience that puts the “Fem” in Feminism. Therefore for part II: The Cocoon and the Butterfly, we discuss the personal aspects of Feminism.

No woman knows everything and experience is not uniform. This is why there are many branches of Feminism and so many interpretations of what Feminism is. Nonetheless, the driving force behind Feminism has always been one’s own lived experiences. It is a fight that starts inside each and every woman when they realize they have been crawling around bunched up like a caterpillar trying to force themselves into the “woman” stencil. This stencil is not only men made but also has ideas and inputs from other women. As a consequence of different women’s application of Feminism, some feminists retreat to the cocoon of their own lived experiences to reboot. This polysemantic aspect of African Feminism became more apparent when we asked four feminists “what their goals within the feminist movement are” and “how do they handle societal standards conflicting with their beliefs as a feminist?”

Situmbeko Wambulawae, A Zambian journalist who runs Zambian feminists – an online platform on Facebook and Instagram, began by saying “You know the problem is that people think that feminists are against home and kitchen roles but that is actually quite false”.

“What we would like to see is a situation where women would rather choose these things for themselves without it being made like it’s something we should do. I just feel that we need to reach a state where roles should not be gender assigned but they should be things that both men and women should do, and it’s funny that both culture and society agree on this point”, she added.

Expanding on Situmbeko’s statements, Amanda Tayte-Tait Marufu, a Zimbabwean author of the book “At What Age Does My Body Belong To Me”, co-founder of the award winning media company Visual Sensation and creator of the Feminist content platform, #NoFilter says, “We aren’t fighting for merely the right to choose; simplifying it as a simple choice is to oversimplify the problem”.

“What we are asking for is to have equal opportunities to climb the ladder, earn the same pay, we want to be equal. We want to be seen, to be heard, to be more than a body that we aren’t even allowed to own. Instead, we are looked at like we were just fragile bodies that learned to talk a little too loudly. That learned to speak, out of turn and dared to say no! We are judged for our courage. I once thought we did indeed live in a society where everyone wanted equality. Where equality wasn’t that much of an ask”, Amanda said.

And, beyond equality, Catherine Dunford, a Zimbabwean Educator says, “I want to be able to participate in, contribute to, and create part of the history that passes on in the stories of who we are. I want to tell people what we do and did – before and after the trauma of colonialism. I love the storytelling and oral traditions of African culture, as these heavily informed my upbringing”.

“So, I want us, as a diverse and dynamic community, to tell our stories to heal ourselves and the future generations – and prevent the transmission of generational and community trauma. I think that if we as a community gathered around to understand real change and used it to evolve, we can tell stories that foster a dialogue that moves away from upholding negative norms and extractive systems. That way we can move towards equality at a greater pace”, Catherine added.

According to Kenyan media consultant / Curator of HOLA AfricaTiffany Kagure Mugo, “Feminism is this constantly shifting and changing thing, it’s so large and all encompassing”, so for her it’s an opportunity “to do me”.

Tiffany is also a TED Speaker and the author of “Quirky Quick Guide To Having Great Sex” and “Touch: Sex, Sexuality and Sensuality” – and she says,”I have whole worlds inside me that I want to explore and I want the space to explore them. From figuring out how to hold my career, to figuring out what makes me orgasm, to figuring out what sort of media I want to consume. And, figuring out how to best explore friendship and family. I am trying to figure out my best life”.

While Feminism from the outside seems to be this black and white movement that pits “angry” women against all men, from the inside it’s quite clear it is more of a cocoon for healing and self-discovery. It is a tool for women to realise their purpose, what has been robbed of them in the past, and learning how to reclaim what they rightfully deserve. In other words, it’s a rebirth of the colourful individual that was always inside. Situmbeko says, “For me at first I used to be very frustrated like going in the comments section and fighting people, trying to explain myself. But now I’ve just reached a stage where I talk about what I want and things that affect me; hopefully it resonates with someone out there. Now I have stopped receiving a lot of hate. And, men come and they tell me we understand what you are doing. So for me, my Fem-in-ism is about lived experiences, one-on-one experiences that people have been through, that I’ve been through. It’s about reaching a stage where we can fully and confidently talk about our experiences without fear of repercussions. I just tell people, a person’s experiences should not be attacked because that is their truth, it is what they are living with. And, you find the more women start to talk, speak out and share these experiences, the more women gain some strength, some power, and their purpose”.

“It isn’t easy to share”, Amanda says. “The world will fight you at each turn. But I’m honest with myself about the fact that I am unlearning and growing. I’m sharing not to say that I am unique but to say that enough is enough. To say that the only feminism I know is the feminism in which I have the right to my own body. I do not know everything and women are not a monolith but I know exactly what I’m scared of. I’m scared of the touch. I’m scared to be asked the questions again. To be labelled a victim one more time. To lose another little part of myself. Another piece of who I used to be. To die yet another death. If we share our stories we cannot be silenced”.

“When I am feeling a little stronger and I feel I have the range, I set up little corners of the world where folks can find some love, joy, peace and sometimes a little sexy fun”, says Tiffany. “I am of the firm belief that, within the movement, we need as much sunshine as we have rain, doom, and gloom. So I always seek to add that little bit of sunshine into society. I find that what tends to open up are spaces for folks to learn, explore, converse, and engage in a way that feels like a best friend sitting with you speaking about things. Maybe learn some things, or simply reinforcing how awesome you are”, Tiffany added.

In the end, what we learnt from these four feminists is that Feminism is about becoming a social butterfly. Not in the sense that you are hopping from one conversation to another, being very likeable and talkative. But being aware that the fight for equality isn’t as black and white as an ‘us versus them’ scenario. There are many layers to it. As Catherine put it, “As a feminist I recognise that we are often fighting three battles; firstly, to be equal in a society that renders us invisible because of the active discrimination against women. Secondly, racist colonial practices that relegated African women below European women; that still plays out in every aspect of our society today. Finally, getting African men, who are not at the top of these racist hierarchies, to see how damaging their participation in these negative practices are to themselves, women, and future generations. So, I do a lot of personal work. Unpacking how those conflicts trigger me. Observing my reactions, which I know, will have consequences. And also working on understanding how I can make a contribution, however small, to change the whole of society for the better”.

So for us in order to break out of the gender boxes, you have to become a ‘social butterfly’. This means becoming aware that Feminism is about realising how valuable your lived experiences are to the whole of society. And, finding the courage to speak out and share what you know for the benefit of all generations. Like Maya Angelou said, “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women”.

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