Friday, July 26, 2013

Walking from the train station

A while ago I was having a conversation with one of my Grade 8 students. We were both walking from the train station heading for school at 7:30am, a dark morning in Cape Town. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and I asked her how's she's doing. I was expecting her to bemoan the early morning or tell me how tired she is or how much she hates school. But she didn't. Instead she responded "I'm inspired!".

I was taken aback by this response. What business did she have being inspired at 7:30 in the morning? I asked her what the source of her inspiration was and she responded with enthusiasm that she'd been reading poetry. As we closer to school we had a conversation about the form of poetry, sonnets, limericks and which would be easier to write. She promised me she would write a sonnet and show me.

Not all my students are as enthusiastic and curious as the student I mention above but it is a comfort to know that as a teacher I can be inspired while walking from the train station with a 14 year-old girl telling me poetry inspires her.

Monday, July 15, 2013

What if marriage wasn't anti-feminism?

I’ve been contemplating marriage. Not as an abstract idea but as someone who has come face to face with the prospect of marriage. My partner and I have always spoken openly about marriage and after running away from the relationship for five years I’ve decided to consider marriage. While trying to make sense of the women who has taken over my body and having conversations about marriage on my behalf, I’ve been reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex: one of the most groundbreaking texts about the position of women. De Beauvoir articulates the plight of women by looking closely at the historical context making a case for feminism in the 1940s, when the book was first published. Central to de Beauvoir’s treatise is an exploration of marriage and the role it has played as a social practice that is an example of patriarchy.
It’s impossible to write a book about the liberation of women without talking about marriage. And it’s impossible to identify as a feminist and not wonder about the institution of marriage. I realise that there are many feminists who have overcome this angst and decided on marriage in spite of the naysayers who simply denounce marriage as an example of why patriarchy still exists. It’s too easy to say that marriage is inherently bad for women. When women are no longer property, moving from their fathers to their husbands, the terms and conditions of marriage must change because a woman is choosing to be with someone in spite of the social expectations.
Is marriage fundamentally anti-feminism? My partner and I haven’t answered this question. We think of ourselves as feminists. We are also products of our cultural backgrounds: I’m Xhosa and he is Zulu. In talking about marriage we have come to the following conclusions: I will not change my surname, there will be no lobola, I have decided against having children and we will not have an elaborate wedding (I will not wear a white dress, we will not profess any fancy vows about me submitting to him as his wife). Ours will hopefully be a marriage of two minds who are seeking companionship rather than a slave for a wife and a hunter-gatherer for a husband. And yes, ours will be a monogamous marriage.
My parents got divorced when I was young. As a result of this I was not keen on marriage until recently. My partner and I are constantly contemplating what it means putting our lives together. He doesn’t want a traditional wife and I have no desires of being a traditional wife (whatever that might mean). We’ve spoken openly about our fears given the broken marriages we’ve seen and lived through. There are few examples of marriages or partnerships where two people do not compromise too much of who they are, but can exist in a relationship that is meaningful. Friends have asked me, “Why marry at all? Why not simply live together?”. My sister is surprised that I am seriously contemplating marriage at all given that I’m a feminist. I still can’t fully grasp why I would consider marriage (the legal and the social contract) except that I’m a romantic: I ran out of reasons not to be with him and I want to grow old with him. I’ve had to deal with the voices in my head that have told me I have no place in marriage. Black women who are educated are often seen as a threat to the institution of marriage because we’ve been accused of bringing our politics into the bedroom.
But is it that simple? Is it enough to jettison the performances of marriage but still enter into a marriage with an awareness of the complexities of a marriage? Marriage is both a private and social agreement. For Xhosa and Zulu people it is also a contract between two families. The real questions about equality, fidelity and sharing the responsibilities of housekeeping (cooking, cleaning, paying the bills) are not cast in stone. There are some non-negotiables: fidelity. But it seems everything else in a marriage is about negotiating and learning what it means to love another person without losing yourself in the process. I’ve been surprised at the level of communication my partner and I have had (coupled with a long distance courtship) and thus far we’ve been able to put everything on the table. And perhaps de Beauvoir would be disappointed to know that many decades later feminists such as my boyfriend and I are still contemplating marriage.
We’ll probably go through with it: move in together, get married and hopefully live happily ever after. Choosing to give into a social and legal contract like marriage has heightened my awareness of choice. For centuries, marriage was never about choice but for me it is. I’m choosing monogamy. And the fact that I am choosing monogamy as opposed to having my parents make the choice for  me has to count for something rather than make me appear as a bad feminist.
First appeared on FeministsSA blog