Transformational Spaces: Celebrating the unsung women leaders within our communities
By Sokfa F. John
In celebration of Women’s Day and Month, one of South Africa’s biggest newspapers the City Press, in collaboration with Barclays Africa Group published profiles of 60 outstanding “Made in Africa” women leaders in diverse fields. The article also confidently asserted that “Women run South Africa”. Truly, Africa is witnessing an increasing growth in the number of women leaders and these women are celebrated across Africa as symbols of transformation and progress. Indeed, it does feel like progress to see new names being added to the list of women who occupy important positions of power in our societies, and to see these women as leading us into a new phase of our history where power will no longer be synonymous to “man”.
Alongside this growth is the scepticism and suspicion among many who believe that the expansion of the ‘list’ does not necessarily reflect real change or progress in society. The argument is that these women have become products of systems that exist to serve the interests of men. It is argued that in order to attain their positions of influence, these women must exhibit characteristics and values associated with patriarchal power, such as dominance and authoritarianism. In other words; the characteristics required to excel in a male-dominated arena are the same characteristics that help uphold the system of male privilege. Among these women, those who desire transformation are limited and threatened because the world that surrounds and keeps them in power comprises of men. From this standpoint, the only way out is to topple or completely transform the structures that oppress women and which limit their participation in leadership in the first place.
The danger in focusing solely on the transformation of the system or structure is that of failing to acknowledge and appreciate the many different ways in which women are spearheading and bringing about transformation within these oppressive structures in our communities.
I learned recently about the Women’s Cultural Group in Durban known more for their cookery books, Indian Delights. It started off as a group of women who came together voluntarily around 1954 to carve out a new identity for themselves despite and within the spaces that their cultures, religious traditions, and society confined them. They created a space which reflected their creativity as women and “housewives”, not only in finding alternative ways of asserting themselves, but transforming society as well. Although the nature of their agency was barely understood, they have used the tools at their disposal – food – to transform many lives through their community development initiatives, charity, funding of education, amongst other things.
There are many of these voluntary and informal groups in our communities, religions and other settings through which women spearhead change by creating spaces where agency is elicited; socio-political visions formed, nurtured and asserted; leadership promoted; and where grassroot transformation begins to emerge.
The efforts, struggles and achievements of such women may not be readily obvious, but they are real nevertheless and must be acknowledged, appreciated and encouraged. These transformational spaces offer a chance to destroy oppressive structures from their foundations. Radical approaches to change must not undermine them but must seek ways of enhancing and promoting them.
While we celebrate our women who have made it to the top against all odds, we must create a firm support system for them by celebrating and encouraging those leading from the bottom.
We can also not afford to dismiss any real effort and change no matter how small. If the list of African women who are rising is expanding, it is indeed worth celebrating.
Yes, we must be critical of the processes that produce these women and how the systems that keep them in power also threaten and limit what they are capable of and willing to achieve. But at the very least, we must present them as an inspiration for the many young women (and men) who also aspire to greatness, and as encouragement to, and celebration of, the many women (and men) who create spaces for transformation in the different aspects of our communities.