By Deva Lee
I smile as I spot a guy on campus wearing a t-shirt that says “feminist”. I am glad he acknowledges that the status of women in South Africa is not only a woman’s problem. I am also amused because I know that not everyone on campus is going to be impressed.
When I first arrived at Rhodes, someone asked me if I was a feminist. “Of course not,” I said, “I don’t think women are better than men”. I had thought all feminism was radical and was hesitant to associate myself with fundamentalist ideas. If feminism meant I was going to burn my bra and dismiss men as the enemy, I was not keen. This misconception is shared by many, even those of us who achieve degrees in a university that values the humanities so strongly.
After studying feminism in its complexity, I came to identify with much of the theory. I wanted to promote equal opportunities and equal access to resources – both material and intellectual. I was frustrated by those who thought I was incapable of activities outside of what was assumed to be feminine behaviour, and therefore wanted to challenge gender constructs. The theory and practice, however, seemed distant from each other. Socially and stereotypically, feminists are understood to be those who present themselves in traditionally masculine ways and yet reject male perspectives as valuable. This made me feel more than uncomfortable about my views. I hated being thought of as a man-hating hippie who had a bad temper, just because I wanted to start the fire at a Saturday braai rather than stick to the salads in the kitchen. I also shouldn’t have to feel inadequate if I need help carrying heavy objects.
The term ‘feminism’ has been understood in different ways by so many people that it is almost impossible to discuss as one idea. I can only explain what it means to me. Feminism rejects patriarchal systems without rejecting the ideas of men. It is not a rejection of traditionally feminine expressions and concerns and allows women the freedom to express themselves in non-traditional ways. I thrive on the aesthetic and physical freedom that my femininity allows me and yet value masculine perspectives. I don’t feel I have to prove that I am capable of everything that men are, because I certainly am not capable of all that has been achieved by women. Strength and power cannot be measured through rationality or emotion, but only by how you approach the challenges you face. I don’t feel restricted by my feminine aspects, but am empowered by them. And this is why I choose to express them. That’s what our constitution is premised on – choice. Our freedom is rooted in the awareness of choice in our lives, including sexual freedom and gender identity.
I am a feminist because I value the contribution of free women to society, whatever form that contribution may take.