There is a lady I used to buy braai’ed corn from almost daily during my commute home from town. She sold fresh produce in a rented corrugated iron shack located at the taxi rank designated to my neighbourhood and surrounding areas. Something I could not pinpoint drew me to her; I took an instant liking to her. During a conversation she was having with a friend of hers one day, the lady (whose name I still do not know) disclosed that her eldest son was studying Engineering in the Philippines on a scholarship.
Her face gleamed unapologetically as she spoke, as if the news she had just shared was not that big a deal. She continued to clean up raw corn cobs and place them on her makeshift braai stand while she and her friend caught up. On the surface, her demeanour feigned indifference but her voice was always filled with grace. Her unassuming smile, which I often observed as she flashed it to friends and strangers alike, also betrayed her show of indifference. “Humility never brags, but it confidently steps up when necessary,” I thought to myself. I concluded that her humility was the reason I liked her.
A woman may be attractive, desired and envied by many, financially well off and popular among her peers but only her humbleness will guarantee consistent growth in strength and a lasting impression on people. Humility compels us to recognise each other for the individuals we are, flaws and all, instead of being reduced to competing with and judging one another. Humility bridges the gap between socio-economic divides, levels of education, race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs and everything else we can come up with because it demands respect. As an African child, I was taught this since I could speak and am always in awe when I witness someone who embodies it.
Respect is the fibre that holds it all together
Be it a woman who is a rebel and challenges society’s models or a conservative who wishes to abide by tradition, the unifying factor is that self-respect and respect for others gives them both a permanent glow. Historically, many attempts have been made to keep women from knowing this truth. Society conditions us to believe that respect equals fear. Narratives such as ‘the mark of a virtuous woman is silence’ are both damaging and regressive because they overlook the fact that women are also intellectual beings. We either dim our lights too low to avoid offending authority or we become overbearing because we are bursting to validate our worth at whatever cost.
My first run-in with an authoritative figure as an adult was when I called out an alpha male for trying to dictate what I post on Facebook. His argument was that I was misrepresenting him and his teachings because he attributed everything I knew to his wisdom. Annoyed by his arrogance, I courteously told him that my intelligence was inherited from my parents and the Almighty. He was outraged to the point of threatening to physically reprimand me, but I was unrelenting. He was shocked. He ultimately apologised during a chance meeting years later and he admitted that it was because I did not lose my respectful and calm composure during our heated exchange. He went further by admitting that he had developed a newfound respect for me as a result, but it took me having to stand my ground, even under the threat of violence.
Patriarchy is the enemy
Patriarchal culture within the black community in Africa and beyond has for a long time socialised us not to observe the merits of womanness. Politicians and prominent men stand proud on podiums talking about the qualities of women but are not always active in orienting other men towards respecting the voices of women.
Patriarchy has us believing that women are the weak half of the species and therefore cannot exist as whole beings in charge of their own destinies. We have people of the opposite sex preaching comfortably what our needs are but they hardly offer us the platform to speak out, and when we do we are dismissed as being overly sensitive and emotional and therefore incapable of being rational. What this means is that women are not allowed to express the totality of their humanity without fear of consequences.
This is who we are
Women are a complex and paradoxical bunch; some are aggressive and rugged, while others are as delicate as feathers. Our strength, however, is universal. Humility and mutual respect for each other, regardless of lifestyle choices or personalities are the keys to unlocking our strengths. Humility and respect create room for honesty and compassion. These two core virtues set an environment conducive for black women and women everywhere to lift each other up instead of casting judgement and hatred upon each other.
We don’t need a women’s month, triumphant speeches and policies that do not match implementation. The world ought to personalise women’s issues and attend to them from an active point of view, not out of sympathy, because if we were to be perfectly honest, anything less is passive and patronising of the force that women actually are.
This article is brought to you courtesy of the Black Feminisms Forum. The Black Feminisms Forum will be held on 5 and 6 September 2016 in Salvador, Bahia, ahead of the 2016 AWID Forum. Check here for updates, information and activities of the BFF.