Nomtika Mjwana is an activist for sexual and reproductive health and rights from South Africa. Many women and girls may be struggling to claim their space when fighting for human rights, social justice or gender equality. In this recorded monologue for Girls’ Globe, Nomtika shares her power advice to activists and advocates worldwide.
Nomtika encourages you to know that you are not alone, to dare to challenge power and to not be afraid to take up space. Watch and listen to this piece of power advice to girls below:
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A common critique of today’s feminism is that it has ‘gone too far’. Some say that we’ve ‘created’ a gender ideology, that we hate men, that we cook up harassment stories, and that we’re easily offended, angry or radical. Others want to belittle feminism by calling it a fad.
‘Today’s feminism’ implies that, once upon a time, there was a more acceptable, amicable and effective feminist movement. When people criticise ‘today’s feminism’, they assume that ‘yesterday’s feminism’ was preferable. And I wonder, was it?
The first wave of feminism took place between the 19th and early 20th centuries. It focused on achieving women’s suffrage among other basic rights. These feminists were known as the Suffragettes. The right to vote, to property and to divorce may seem like obvious demands now, but they were met with ridicule at the time.
Suffragettes were depicted by media outlets as disgusting, boisterous and radical.
Men who supported them were publicly mocked. Anti-suffragists claimed that women’s ability to vote would grow radicalism, increase domestic terrorism, and generally turn the world on its head.
A second wave of feminists emerged in the 1960s. These women fought for sexual and reproductive freedom, against strict beauty norms and for their right to work outside the home.
Second wave feminism suffered a tremendous backlash.
Society declared them ‘petty’ for discussing bras and body hair instead of ‘real problems’. Feminists at this time were heavily stereotyped as being humourless, hairy-legged, man-hating and unhappy women. Media outlets censored their fight by using the past tense when referring to feminism and falsely declaring that feminism was ‘dead’.
As a backlash to the backlash, a third wave of feminism sprouted in the 1990s – largely influenced by punk and underground trends. Third-wave feminists fought for social justice and focused on increasing the intersectionality and inclusivity missing from earlier forms of feminism. However, once again, they were demonised with the same arguments: man-hating, ugly, crazy, going too far.
I make these brief historical references to point out that no feminism has ever been fully celebrated. And in the current fourth-wave of feminism, which uses digital tools to strengthen the fight, anti-feminist voices are as loud as ever.
Anti-feminists have been critiquing ‘today’s feminism’ for decades.
Doing so allows them to acknowledge that widely-celebrated changes from the past were good, while simultaneously attempt to halt current and future progress.
Most people today will agree that to vote is a basic right and that women deserve economic independency and sexual agency. But not everyone understands yet that trans women are women, that sexism is an everyday problem and that the pay gap exists.
In 30 years time, we will look back and think of the #MeToo movement as a crucial point on the feminism timeline. It will be recognised as a necessary step on the way to equality – in the same way that no one now doubts that women’s suffrage was worth the fight.
One day in the future, 2019’s feminism will be normalised and seen as worth the fight. But for this to happen, we must never let them tell us that we’ve gone too far.
These are just some of the words that come to mind when I think of all the things I’ve heard and read throughout my life about the experience of going to the gynecologist.
Since I’ve started taking charge of my own gynecological health, I’ve been thinking more about what these words. What do they mean in broader context of the female experience, the female body, and feminism in general?
My experience with feminism comes through academic and scholarly research, and through conversations with women from around the world about feminist issues. Through both, I’ve come to learn how important it is for women to be able to own their bodies.
The culture and religion around me have always told me that my body is bad, sinful and dangerous, and that I should somehow separate myself from it.
This message has had a particularly negative consequence in my life in relation to an anxiety disorder that began in childhood. Anxiety makes me feel out of control – and particularly out of control of how my body is reacting.
I’ve also been told by religion and culture that I should separate my body and my mind from my soul. Through my work in therapy and research however, I’ve been learning that I don’t have to separate these parts of me. They all work together to make me the person I really am. I cannot fully inhabit myself or fully be in the world if my mind, body and soul are disconnected.
And so, I’ve been learning how to inhabit my own body. Most importantly, I’ve been learning how to care for it – including for my gynecological health.
Uterus, cervix, vagina and vulva are not dirty or embarrassing words.
They are part of my body and of who I am, and to care for my overall health and well-being I must take care of them.
During my latest Pap test (also called a Pap smear or smear test), I experienced quite a lot of discomfort and even pain. (Most people don’t experience pain during these tests. However, there are some reasons why pain might occur, so it’s vital to be open and honest with your health provider.)
I spoke up as soon as I began to feel pain. I said it loud and clear and my provider heard me. She kindly apologized for the discomfort and pain I was experiencing and moved slowly while walking me through the whole process. She kept checking in on me – “How are you doing now? Are you hanging in there?” – and I kept speaking up whenever something hurt or became uncomfortable. In just a few minutes, the exam was over. The relief of knowing I had done something so important for my health was worth the temporary pain and discomfort.
At the end of the appointment, I felt proud of myself and empowered because I spoke up instead of keeping quiet when things didn’t feel right in my body.
Saying “That hurts!” was not just a good way for my provider to better care for me, but also for me to take some control of my body in a situation where I didn’t have full control of it.
Despite the discomfort, I felt connected with all parts of myself during the experience of my gynecological exam. Because of my anxiety, I had been doing a lot of grounding and breathing exercises to prepare. I made sure I was fully engaged in the conversation with my provider, listening to her advice and tips and answering her questions honestly and openly.
By taking time out of my day to focus entirely on myself and my body, I felt like I was finally validating my body’s existence and needs in all its complexities. The female reproductive system is a marvellously complex world of its own. I was speaking up against the voices that have told me that my body is dirty and shameful, and saying loud and clear, “No! My body is good and an essential part of me that deserves care and love.”
Taking control and care of my body are concepts that are becoming increasingly vital to how I live my life.
I wholeheartedly believe that doing so – even through something as routine as attending a gynecological exam – is a feminist act.
I have been a football fan ever since the 2014 FIFA Men’s World Cup. This year, for the first time, I have been watching the Women’s World Cup. It’s not that I haven’t previously wanted to, but the last time a Women’s World Cup was broadcasted in South Africa was 2011.
This year is the first time the South African women’s national team, Banyana Banyana, has ever qualified for the Women’s World Cup. Here are some things I have learnt from watching the tournament so far:
The Speed of the Game
Critics can be quick to describe the women’s game as too slow. With many teams, this is far from what I have observed. I personally think the USA Women’s National Team is as good as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City team! The only criticism I have is that there should be more investment in players for women’s teams.
The market is there. Nike recently reported that the USA’s women’s shirts sell better than any other sports shirts. I had absolute chills when I saw the same company’s advert before the World Cup. It was the first time I had ever seen a sports advert with so many powerful women in it.
There are also people who say that tickets don’t sell in the women’s game. One million tickets for the 2019 tournament have been sold. Organizers have admitted that they may have miscalculated and should have used bigger stadiums.
There is a huge pay gap between men and women
Like in many other industries and sports, there is pay inequality between male and female footballers. The prize money for the Men’s World Cup was 38 million dollars. The winners of this year’s women’s tournament will receive 4 million dollars. For someone who loves the beautiful game, this is disappointing. The USA Women’s Team are currently legally challenging their federation against discrimination and demanding to be paid their worth.
The Biggest Positives
What I like most about the women’s game is that it is not overly commercialized – as yet. The footballers are really playing for the love of the game. Women like Brazilian legend Marta, and possible player of the tournament – America’s Megan Rapinoe – are inspiring millions of girls AND boys all over the globe. There are so many female footballers whose voices and stories are not heard as they should be.
The Biggest Let Down
What has frustrated me most about this World Cup has been the refereeing. Many have seemed inexperienced, especially in interpreting the highly complex and controversial Video Assistant Referee (VAR). I hope FIFA and football associations around the world give these women the opportunity to do more refereeing and gain more experience. Why not have female referees for men’s games as well?
Le Grande Finale
The FIFA Women’s World Cup Final takes place on Sunday 7 July 2019. It’s going be a big one. Defending world champions the USA are up against current European champions the Netherlands. I am incredibly excited, and I hope you will be watching too!
This is the question I’ve been asking myself while reading Thomas Sankara’s ‘Women’s Liberation and the African Struggle’.
The book has made me think about the powerful images of Alaa Salah from Sudan. It’s also made me think about the women in South Africa – of all races and backgrounds – who marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria in 1956, and the female members of the Black Panther Party draped in leather and berets.
I thought of all the women around the world who have taken to the streets to demand their rights, and I thought about how women have always sacrificed their time and bodies in the name of a revolution – just as men have.
“You are our mothers and life companions, our comrades in struggle, and because of this fact you should by rights assert yourselves as equal partners in the joyful victory feasts of the revolution.” – Thomas Sankara, March 8 1987
Women have long been asserting ourselves as equal partners, but are we fully indulging in the feasts of revolution?
In my own country, South Africa, I would say that the answer is no. Women have been written out of history. When I learned the history of Apartheid in school, there was zero mention of any women. Not Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Not Albertina Sisulu. Not any of the other women who participated in the March of 1956. Not the women of the Black Consciousness Movement. I also remember learning about the Black Power Movement and hearing no mention of women like Angela Davis or Kathleen Cleaver.
Despite revolution, women still struggle for equality.
One current example is that the government in my country wants to expropriate land to the historic rightful owners. However, there is no clear plan as to how women should be included in this. We want ‘radical economic transformation’, but women are excluded from holding powerful positions. According to Africa Check, in South Africa women made up 72.5% of teachers and 37.3% of principals in public schools. The statistics in other fields are just as depressing.
Historically, the women’s rights movement has also been exclusive to middle-class white women.
This was shown by leaders of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States through the exclusion of black women. Why would you exclude a group of people who undergo even more oppression than you do?
Personally, I still think the #MeToo movement has mostly benefited white women in Hollywood and middle-class white women in the West. What has changed for girls and women in countries like mine because of #MeToo? To me, it seems like nothing at all.
In some countries it is still legal to mutilate a girl’s genitalia, despite widespread acknowledgement that female genital mutilation has absolutely no health benefits for girls and women. It is a way to ‘prepare’ girls for childbearing and marriage. With this in mind, where is this ‘sexual revolution’ the Western world speaks of?
These are sad truths, but I want to call on all my sisters worldwide to take a stance together.
Let us take a stance against oppression in all forms, so that society can reap the rewards of equality. Maya Angelou said, “Each time a woman stands up for herself, she stands up for all women.” Let us be those kinds of women.
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