Recently, President Jacob Zuma caused waves when he appointed Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega to the post of Commissioner of Police. Regardless of whom he appointed, the news would have caused a stir because of the scandal in the police service at the time, but the real news was that a woman had been appointed to the position. 

    In as much as our “modern” society has become accustomed to seeing women in powerful political, professional and societal positions, women like Helen Zille, Advocate Thuli Madonsela and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, it still has set traditional ideas about gender roles and more specifically about how femininity and womanhood should be expressed. While 21st century women have taken great strides in attaining greater rights and freedoms, the levels of discrimination against, and the ongoing stereotyping of women shows that the battle rages on and it’s up to women to begin to define who and what they are, for themselves and for the generations of women to come.

    Women in Leadership

    Recently, President Jacob Zuma caused waves when he appointed Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega to the post of Commissioner of Police.

    In June 2011, Michelle Obama toured South Africa and in an address at the Regina Mundi Church in Soweto, the First Lady called on women to lead. For most, leadership conjures up images of Chief Executive Officers, presidents and it’s most often associated with some form of masculine authority. The age old belief that men are more naturally equipped to take on positions of leadership is one which society has accepted since time immemorial. Society seems to discount the many women who have proved that women are as capable as men at leading families, communities, armies and countries; and instead attempts to pigeon-hole them into roles of home-maker, sexual object and subservient followers of their male counterparts. Not to minimise the importance of women being home-makers, care-givers or liberated sexual beings, it’s time society, and women in particular, realize that we can be all these things and so much more. Being a successful woman does not mean that you have to discard your natural feminine inclinations or abandon the very things that make you a woman, such as being emotional and tender hearted. The very essence of being a woman is to be a life-giver, a carer, and a nurturer. Why should women be required to silence this part of themselves in order to fit in and get ahead in a world which so desperately needs these very qualities?

    For centuries women have accepted the definitions of femininity that have been dictated to them and while some brave women have rejected these ideas and chosen to forge their own paths, women have yet to carve out their own identities in society. Many women have opted in some cases to be second rate men rather than first rate women in order to fulfil their potential and follow their callings. They deny their femininity and take on a form of masculinity in order to get ahead in a man’s world. These women are to be applauded for their bravery, but beyond attaining a form of equality with men, they should also be striving to create a world in which women can fully define femininity for themselves.

    Women vs. women

    While women like the idea of casting men in the role of villain in the fight for equality yelling out that ”men must give us our rights”, more often than not, women are their own worst enemies. Whether or not men are the oppressors of women, a unity of purpose,  cause and recognition of the interdependence of women is vital to women attaining the freedom and rights they are worthy of. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed”.  But for as long as women continue to be the greatest enemies of other women and show no unity in their desire, they will not be able to demand freedom with one voice. General Phiyega, in her keynote address at the launch of the Mail & Guardian’s Book of Women 2011, noted, “Our failure and real danger is our inability to recognize and celebrate ourselves. We need to celebrate each other… Along the way of our self-development, we will find other women with the same quest, and when you do find these, walk together, for in that companionship you will learn much more from each other.”

    This unity of purpose and the ability to recognize the strength women have in their diversity will take women from the background of society, to being the force for change and good that society needs. On 9 August 1956, women from various tribes and races marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest Pass Laws in Apartheid South Africa. These women came together, as women, not as black women or women of Asian or European descent, but simply as women who had a single cause. This march has become a symbol of the strength and courage of South African women, a reminder that when united in purpose, they could change not only their society, but also a nation.

    We’re just ordinary Women

    So often, the world thinks that the truly great moral victories have been and will be won by those with power and titles, whom society has bestowed honour and glory upon. But as Mrs Obama in her speech at Regina Mundi Church stated: “…while today’s challenges might not always inspire the lofty rhetoric or the high drama of struggles past, the injustices at hand are no less glaring, the human suffering no less acute”. In our day-to-day lives, most of us encounter situations which we, as ordinary women, have the power to change. Some causes are bigger than others, but no cause should be too small for us as women to get involved with if it’s something our consciences lead us to. Dr Sindi van Zyl, featured in Mail & Guardian’s 200 young South African’s 2012 is a doctor who chose to specialize in HIV when she saw the effects of this illness. She now uses social media to educate people about the disease, answering anonymous questions for people who would otherwise be too embarrassed to ask their health workers. This simple innovation is making a difference in the lives of many. In the same vein, a young lady, on a whim paid for the meagre groceries of a lady dressed in a domestic worker’s uniform, who was in front of her in the queue at the supermarket. The lady waited for her as she paid for her own groceries and as they walked out, thanked her and told her how the groceries were her own gesture of goodwill for a less privileged neighbour.  As ordinary women with no pomp and fanfare as we do our good deeds, we can make a difference, even a small one, in the lives of others using the resources we have available.

    From great warrior women like, Amina of Zaria who was renowned for her military prowess to Joyce Banda, sacrificing the luxuries that came with political office for the good of her people, women have shown that they can be great political leaders.

    From the ordinary women who saw past differences and marched as one, to the Union buildings in 1956, to those nameless women who gathered outside the court in Limpopo to show support for Ina Bonnette in the Modimolle Monster case, women have shown themselves to be capable of unity and great strength which can change a nation.

    From the HIV doctor to the girl in the queue at the grocery store, ordinary women have shown themselves to be compassionate beings that can make a difference using the resources they have at their disposal. 

    It’s time women saw themselves as any and all of these women and begin to express this potential to make the world the place it should be.