I am Woman, hear me Roar

The history of Women's Day

On 9 August 1956, twenty thousand women led by Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophia Williams marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to petition against the pass laws that served to further restrict people’s movement during the apartheid era in South Africa.

The march represented all races and societal layers of the country’s women, who stood together for over half an hour and sang a protest song that was composed in honour of the occasion: Wathint'Abafazi Wathint'imbokodo (Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock). In the years since the phrase, which has been reincarnated as "if you strike a woman, you strike a rock", has come to represent women's courage and strength in South Africa.

Every year we take a day off to supposedly celebrate women, but is this day effective in what it aims to achieve, and does the ordinary man and woman on the street do enough to participate?

Even though the prime minister at the time, JG. Strijdom, refused to meet with the protesters, the march is considered a turning point in the role of women in the struggle for freedom and equality in society at large. While the issues that concerned women then are very different to the issues facing women in modern day South Africa, the background of the 1956 Women's March helped to shape the ideologies that are set down in the South African Constitution.

Since that eventful day almost 60 years ago when 100 000 signatures were delivered in protest, women from all walks of life have become equal partners in the struggle for a non-racial and non-sexist South Africa. Or have they?

Is one day out of 365 enough?

Besides Women's Day on 9 August, South Africa has declared the entire month of August Women’s Month, and the African Union has further declared 2010 - 2020 to be African Women’s Decade. It's a commendable move in the right direction, if you look at it as an illustration of South Africa’s commitment to the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). But does Women's Day (or Women's Month, or even Women's Decade, for that matter) truly address gender discrimination at a practical level?

Despite our political advances, South African women remain underrepresented in the economy. There are more unemployed women in South Africa than there are men. If you take these problems and add on crime, rape (we have the highest rape statistics of any non-warring country in the world) and HIV-infection, the prevalent risk factors in our country, one can't help but wonder whether one day out 365 is enough to turn the spotlight on the problems that women face in South Africa, not to mention the world at large.

And considering that Oscar Pistorius, who shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day 2013, is likely to be awarded an early release from prison, (one must cynically note that his release will take place during Women's Month), it's almost impossible not to get into a frothy rant about Women's Day, and whether it means anything at all.

A hollow holiday?

Chatting to The Afropolitan, Thandi Puren (40), a Johannesburg-based actress, begged the question: "How do we celebrate women in a society that doesn't value them? Women's Day should exist to commemorate women - both their problems and their ability to change the world - but in South Africa, this feels insincere. We live in a largely misogynistic country where there is an epidemic of violence against women. I honour the brave women that marched against the dompas in 1956, but today, the 9th of August shows up our country's lies. Women's Day is unfortunately a hollow holiday."

Women's Day certainly feels hollow after a short Google search, which reveals several listicles on how to celebrate the occasion, many beginning with the suggestion that you should spoil a special woman in your life with a spa voucher, flowers, or lingerie.

It's safe to say that in 1956 twenty thousand women did not march to the Union Buildings for a spa voucher, or a racy panty. By addressing the societal ills of the time, the Women's March paved the way for every South African woman to have the right to stand up and say: enough is enough.

"We need to return to a time when women engaged in social protest," says Thandi, who adds that the bigger picture of South Africa’s societal breakdown provides a difficult context in which to address the problems that women face.

Those who need it aren't touched by it

How many women (or men) will use the day to volunteer at a women's shelter or raise money for survivors of domestic violence? Sadly, in its most basic form, Women's Day is seen as merely another public holiday.

Pam Horwill (37), a pre-primary school teacher in Cape Town, says she doesn't celebrate Women's Day because she finds it impossible to negotiate the massive divide in our society that allows her to enjoy a day off from work while down the road, there are hundreds of disenfranchised women that are entirely untouched by the concept. "The women celebrating Women’s Day don’t need it and the women who need it the most gain nothing from it," she says.

A day of reflection

Tracy Seeley-Jeppe (34), a Johannesburg-based Attorney takes a more positive stance. "Certainly, women still face countless gender-based inequalities, but it's important to remember that we have made and are continuing to make strides towards a more equal society. Instead of focussing on the negatives, Women's Day gives us an opportunity - and certainly a platform - to not only consider progress still to be made, but to also applaud how far we have come, like the fact that there are more women in the judiciary now than ever before."

 Tracy suggests that Women's Day, if anything, be a time of reflection and connection. "It's a chance to connect with our communities, families, sisters and friends," she says. "It's important to celebrate women, and even the simple gesture of reassuring a friend that she's a great mom will go a long way in reaffirming her strength and determination. In many ways, every day should be Women's Day."

I am Woman, hear me Roar

However you spend Women's Day this year, be it knee-deep in a community upliftment project or with family and friends enjoying some much-needed time off, take a moment to pause and consider the twenty thousand women in 1956 who took a stand against injustice.

Without reducing the concept of Women's Day to saccharine sentimentality, we can all draw strength from the ideology that "if you strike a woman, you strike a rock." Sometimes we just need to reminded of our strength.