President Jacob Zuma is in the thick of it again. This time the Commission for Gender Equality has advised the president to watch what he says about women. Their recommendation comes after the commission’s findings in relation to a complaint of sexism lodged against the president by the DA. The opposition party filed their complaint after the president made a series of contentious remarks about women during a television interview in August 2012.
Speaking about his daughter Duduzile’s marriage, the president said:
I was also happy [when she got married] because I don’t want to stay with daughters who are not getting married, because that in itself is a problem in society,” he began. “You’ve got to have kids,” the president continued. “Kids are important to a woman because they actually give extra training to women, to be a mother, he would later go on to say.
Sexism in parliament
Unfortunately, the president isn’t the only member of parliament whose been guilty of sexism. On paper, parliament is supposed to operate by the non-sexist values enshrined in the constitution. In reality, sometimes the place is more circus than caucus , which is to say there’s a lot they’re doing that they shouldn’t.
Former DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko was often the target of sexist attacks. ANC MP John Jeffery once made a crass reference to Mazibuko’s weight (although he denied it), saying: “While the Honourable Mazibuko may be a person of substantial weight, her stature is questionable.” And when Mazibuko wore a black mini dress to the parliamentary budget vote debate, a number of ANC MPs tore into her, with the party’s chief whip Molato Mothapo saying her dress showed “total lack of respect for the decorum of the House”. No such comments were made when Malusi Gigaba showed up to the State of the Nation Address in a pilot’s uniform a few months later.
It doesn’t stop there. During a portfolio committee on agriculture, fisheries and forestry in 2013, the debate is said to have gotten so intense that DA MP Pieter van Dalen allegedly saw it fit to call minister Tina Joemat-Petterson a “teef” (Afrikaans for “bitch”). A few months earlier his fellow MP referred to ANC MP Lynne Brown as a “hippopotamus”, in reference to her weight.
Time to stop making excuses for sexism
Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga has chalked up Zuma’s comments to a lapse in judgement—a moment of stupidity, if you will—and has asked everyone to chill out. “If President Jacob Zuma says young women must marry and other things, let’s not make a big thing out of it,” said Motshekga. If only it were that easy. When members of teacher’s union SADTU brandished a large pair of lemon coloured bloomers during the height of their 2013 protest with the words “Angie’s panty” written across them, the minister was justifiably incensed. She threatened legal action, further stating: “The deplorable display of the women’s underwear has a deeper meaning…that women cannot be fully human.”
And this is the entire point of the matter. Most of what we say has an underlying subtext, so when the president says he doesn’t want “daughters who aren’t getting married…because that’s a problem in society”, the phrase is pregnant with meaning. It infers that marriage is the height of women’s existence; that women cannot be whole without it. And the idea that “you’ve got to have kids” also reinforces the idea that women’s highest purpose is the ability to bear children.
Motshekga rightly made a “big thing out of it” when SADTU body-shamed her. Mazibuko had every right to speak up when male members of parliament tried to police her choice of clothing. And, guess what? The opposition has every right to “make a big thing” when the president uses language laced in patriarchy to prescribe how women should live their lives. It’s a big deal.
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