A cult can be described as a particular system that requires individuals who subscribe to that system to display a form of such devotion toward it and its practices. Throughout her work, Pumla Gqola uses the phrase ‘cult of femininity,’ yet does not explicitly define it. Using parts of the aforementioned definition of cult and the social construct of femininity, the ‘cult of femininity’ may describe how women, within a particular context, should devote their behavior and action. Furthermore, this ‘cult’ is how women, despite position or authority, are to act both publicly and privately given the patriarchal parameters within South Africa. One may ask how exactly can such a thing exist within a ‘Rainbow Nation’ and “constitutionally equal” South Africa. Gqola repeatedly stresses how the dream crafted by those who fought in South Africa’s liberation movements is not representative of South Africa’s current “contradictory” reality (Gqola, 2007, 114). She requests that the issues surrounded around gender inequality and gender-based violence be combatted not with silence but with a deeper look and addressing of the violent histories upon which these inequalities are built. I will both interpret and critique that what Gqola so passionately speaks of through examining “this siege” Gqola describes as well as her views on violent masculinities.
The “siege,” as Gqola calls it, is the constant attack on South African women causing a feeling of isolation from the equality that South Africa promises to all of its citizens. These attacks specifically include gender-based violence and the overarching perception of women’s empowerment. She notes that while women in South Africa’s history helped to fight for equality and other rights, the narrative shaping women’s empowerment is not transformative and the concept itself is instead almost entirely disengaged (Gqola, 2007, 115). Rape accounts and gender violence statistics help to support this claim and show that South Africa has, in a sense, turned a blind eye to rape, thus perpetuating this ‘cult of femininity.’ Privileged women are able to attend college, acquire wealth, and hold positions of power yet are still expected to subscribe to patriarchal ideals and meanings of success. For women in South Africa, that is not enough. There, too, lies a dual nature within the most seemingly conscious men, who on one hand will publicly agree that everyone should be treated equally, yet demand that women be subservient and at the will of men in their homes (Gqola, 2007, 117). Gqola paints the brutal picture of how these struggles are not being addressed and acknowledges that both men and women who influence this ‘cult of femininity’ are to blame. Thus, poor, disadvantaged, lesbian women and privileged women are told that they are responsible for their own rape and need to be conservative or meek to avoid such actions.
Gender-based violence in South Africa has roots in violent masculinities, which can be seen all throughout the country’s history. Gqola suggests that it is violence that links all of South Africa’s liberation movements together and served as South Africans’ defense against colonization (Gqola, 2007, 113). In addition, this same violence exhibited during these movements is now instilled in the children of these communities as a repercussion of those periods, resulting in a playground of violent interactions and misogyny. This mindset, though birthed in anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements to fight their oppressors, is now being used to dictate and oppress the actions of their own women and contributes greatly to the ‘cult of femininity.’ Gpola concludes that these violent masculinities have been carefully shaped and crafted from a deep history in colonization and adds that masculine mentalities must be challenged for transformation in a post apartheid South Africa. Moreover, Gqola says that this transformation of the male psyche around issues of gender will require that all masculinities be radically reconsidered and evolved into a way of thinking that exhibits gender-equitable not just on paper (Gqola, 2007, 117). This process will undoubtedly require more than just a conversation on violence; it will call for a more in-depth analysis regarding the ramifications of what it means to be a man both inside and outside of the home.
Overall, I concur with Gqola’s beliefs that the discourse on gender in South Africa is not equal as the powerful speeches from politicians try to make it seem. When rape is a constant issue on the campus at the University of Cape Town, that is a major problem. When women on campus are asked to alter their walking patterns and to keep clear of certain areas late in the day or night, that is a problem. Why do these conversations with regard to gender violence and rape revolve around the actions of women? The conversation should be about increasing security in the area where the rapes have taken place or finding ways to transform the way we perceive rape. Even today, we see our friends and other women again being asked to change how they present themselves to “prevent” being raped (Gqola, 2007, 120). I also agree with Gqola’s beliefs about the disparity between women of various social backgrounds. While the constitution has increased the chances for privileged women to get higher positions of power and places within government, the conversation ends when thoughts of the non-privileged become involved. During my orientation period at the University of Cape Town, it was said habitually that people in South Africa do not shy away from conversations on race. However, how is that in a country where these conversations on race are so prevalent that discussions on the disparities and issues that exist revolving around race, class, and gender inequity remain silent? Class and race must, too, be considered when achieving gender equality for all. Thus, we have to examine how and why poor Black women are treated differently from wealthy white women. Once it is acknowledged that these women are in fact being treated differently, it is only then that conversations and questions regarding what can tangibly be done to help women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds be propelled to a status that is considered equal to those of a higher class be held.
In short, women’s empowerment can no longer be constricted to patriarchal expectations. Solutions to increase gender equality and women’s empowerment must take into account the intersectionality of womanhood. Laws cannot simply aid the privileged and must benefit the disadvantaged and marginalized who in South Africa are the Black majority. History must be acknowledged and violent masculinities need to be transformed. Most importantly, men must remove themselves of their perceived views of the roles of women in society to dismantle the ‘cult of femininity.’ Only then will South Africa be not just a land of the constitutionally free but also equal.
Gqola, Pumla D. “How the ‘cult of femininity’ and violent masculinities support endemic gender based violence in contemporary South Africa.” African Identities. Taylor & Francis Group, 2007. 5:1, 111-124, Print.