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News ::
First World/Third World Ė Challenges for Women in a Rapidly Changing Culture (english)
16 Nov 2002
Devi Rajab Dean of Students at Kwa-Zulu Natal University discusses the racial, class, and generational challenges facing young women today.
You have been part of this countryís great transition from apartheid into the post apartheid era. There were tremendous pressures on the society which helped bring about that evolutionary shift, and there were some unusually visionary leaders during that period. It is hard to imagine that a little over a decade ago, it was inconceivable that a woman of Indian descent could possibly become Dean of a mixed student body here. Now there are some very different and difficult issues facing the young generation in South Africa; issues that have to do both with the rapid social transition and the abrupt co-mingling of first and third worlds, and to do with the developmental issues that challenge the entire world. This generation is just trying to find their feet in their new freedom and at the same time are dealing with the pressures of HIV/AIDs, which affects 26% of the South African population, with the upcoming famine which is going to hit southern Africa with a vengeance, and with all the issues of sustainable development which are putting tremendous pressure on Africa as a continent. What is your experience mentoring this new generation of students?

You really hit on a very sore spot and a very challenging area of work we have to do in higher education. The transition came very rapidly. Literally it opened the floodgates in the sense that institutions that had been separate were now open to everyone. But not enough was done to support the advent of a changing

cohort of students. Funnily enough, Iím actually running workshops for academics called ďKnow Your StudentsĒ because the gap between first world middle class academics and
their student cohort is so great. Thereís racism, intercultural insensitivity, and so forth, and itís affecting the students in various ways.
But I want to talk about some of the barriers women specifically face in institu-tions. My observation is simply this: There is a very clear divide between women of the various racial groups and at another level their problems are similar. If you take the stance that we treat all women are alike and just deal with genderómale/femaleóissues a lot actually gets lost. The leadership of the womenís movement has come from the vociferous white women and some of their concerns donít take black women along with them.

Can you give an example?

Letís take sexual harassment and reporting. We did a survey three or four years ago where we looked at race and the definition of sexual harassment and we found very different definitions among western women and African women. For example, western women are very clear as to what constitutes sexual harassment as opposed to African women. And western emancipated women feel thereís absolutely nothing wrong in reporting incidences of sexual harassment. African women, on the other hand, really have a problem reporting incidents of rape because invariably it gets translated as political insensitivityóyouíre letting another black down.
At another level it goes even deeper. There isnít consensus about what our priorities are and there isnít a consensus about what constitutes gender inequality. African women feel itís more important not to emasculate the man. They try to understand his demands and try to accommodate them, authoritarian as they may be. Because ultimately itís about living with this person and the children and doing everything thatís culturally expected of you.
I was at a gender conference recently and there was a very poignant example of this cultural insensitivity. There were these very articulate western women talking about gender issues and a wee little voice came out from the crowd. It was a young black woman sitting on the side steps, and she said, ďI donít know what you are talking about. I know you are talking about me; you are talking about us. But I donít understand what you are saying.Ē There was silence, absolute silence in the whole place. And then, the speaker carried on in the very same vein. Itís this sort of thing that gets compounded because thereís very little sensitivity and the gap is actually so great between first world and rural women.

Do you think gender is still a valid issue? At the Summit there were some very strong womenís caucuses led by white privileged women that insisted that ďgenderĒ be put on the agenda as a separate issue for sustainable development. It seemed that that many of the arguments and demands were out-moded and expressed a smaller perspective on the crisis being faced by the entire worldís population. The solution is not, for example, ďLetís get women onto the board of the International Monetary Fund and then we wonít have poverty,Ē which was one of the way-oversimplified arguments I heard. On the other hand, lack of clean water and adequate sanitation facilities, for example, impact women specifically. If there are no sanitation facilities at the schools, girls simply wonít attend and the next generation of women will not be educated. If clean drinking water is four kilometers further away from their village, it will affect womenís health, ability to be educated because they wonít have the time, physical safety, etc., since carrying water is a womanís task. Indoor pollution from unclean fuels causes serious illnesses and premature death in women in the southern countries. Still, Iím not sure ďgenderĒ per se needs to be on the agenda. But maybe thatís a perception coming from my background as an American. What do you think?

Certainly all women are disadvantaged by their status but the degree to which this disadvantagement occurs is what needs to be acknowledged. Youíre right when you say that the rural women face very basic consequences of gender inequality. And thereís other absolute gross brutality like circumcision and so forth that one cannot ignore and cannot ignore as emerging almost directly from the status of women in that society. Class is a very important issue, thatís really what Iím saying. And it seems that the more vociferous and the more articulate classes are the ones who are speaking on behalf of women and often they only know theoretically what the rural women are experiencing. They actually do need to need to let the leadership come from the grassroots level.
One of the biggest challenges lies in getting African women to be more assertive. Our university students will be walking across campus and if some male calls them they will turn around and meekly come stand in front of him just because heís a male, answer whatever questions he asks, just because he asks, and often they get themselves into trouble with that sort of behavior in this urban setting. We had one incident recently in the dorm, where a somebody knocked on a studentís door and she opened it and he said, ďCan you show me where the ATM is?Ē So she comes out, and then he says ďCan I come in?Ē she doesnít say anything, and he pushes his way in and he rapes her. Itís that kind ofóI donít want to use the work naivetyóitís trust, that is constantly getting broken down in an urban setting. It about drawing lines and that is getting a lot of African women into serious trouble. But teaching assertiveness in a western frame of reference is very difficult.

Right, itís not a western culture. The scenarios you described are very interesting. You have these girls who have been brought up with tradition village values, and yet here they are instantly thrust into an modern, urban, academic setting. The positive values theyíve been raised to trust and respect are not supported by the urban culture the way they are in a village culture. You have a clash of these two systems and the women are suffering because of it.

Even in parliament, the women ministers are just knuckling under. They have the power but they donít really exercise the autonomy.

What do you think will help the women exercise that autonomy?

I think theyíll have to grapple with it. Change will be slow. It is happening, thereís an upward spiral. Unfortunately the price that many of these women are paying for type of emancipation is to be single.

The womenís movement here has to be different than the womenís movement was in the seventies in the west. As you said, youíre dealing with the end of apartheid. As a woman you donít want to undermine menís power because black menís power is something thatís very new. And you canít be seen to, not only be seen to oppose that, but you donít want to subtly undermine that. Because it is a difficult transition and these men havenít been in positions of public power before. There are mistakes being made, of course. So how do you support that forward movement and support womenís increased participation in that process as well? Because women are essential to move Africa and South Africa forward. Without womenís full hearted participation you wonít be able to effectively stop the spread of HIV/AIDS, or be able to control the use of natural resources at a grassroots level.

Absolutely, youíre absolutely right.

What do you think the best avenue for change is? Will it come from the corporate sector, the private sector, the grassroots level, or the political network?

Itís a good question. The private sector is very problematic because there arenít enough jobs. But the corporate sector is scooping up high-powered women and they are doing very well. Itís quite amazing when you look at some of them and you wonder, ďWhere did these young ladies come from?Ē These women are quite intelligent and theyíve done brilliantly despite the levels of disadvantagement. I think the corporate sector is where these women are getting groomed. Theyíre getting good training, theyíre doing jolly well. In the NGO arena, at the grassroots level, the women are also doing quite exceptionally. And they are getting good support. I think despite their deprivation they are very promising. There are pockets of excellence here, itís not all bleak, in fact itís quite amazing. Itís very heartening at one level and quite inspirational and I think the rest of the world can even learn from those pockets of excellence. But we have a long way to go and we have to keep the pressure going and we have to grow young women students who will take up the positions of leadership.

In your role, what do you think are the most important issues to push forward in order to move the whole culture forward while preserving the important values and coming up with new methods of productivity that are sustainable?

Besides my role as an educator and I also write a column and I find that thatís quite powerful. People read the column, it touches them, students write essays about the subjects I bring up. Writing has a lot of impact. Peopleís lives are such a drudgery, they want something inspirational, something they can hook on to but something manageable, thatís not beyond them. At an educational level I would sayóconnecting, networking, starting more organizations that will help people. One thing Iím starting is a little project to improve the lives of domestic workers. Iím setting up collectives of ten homes or so, and then getting the women from the homes and their workers to meet once a month and talk about issues and educate them, start literacy programs. There is a potential in each home to elevate the workers and their children. For example, I have on the property a family, a woman and her two children. We educate the children, provide them with their books and their school fees and so forth. Itís possible to uplift that entire family that way. There are possibilities, pockets, that all of us can do. Itís about making those kinds of connections in the society.
The other area that I think we need to go is to provide at least some free education. Put more money into education and less money into arms. The number of students who are in lines and queues waiting for financial aid is very sad. And almost half of any budget that the students come to me for is spent on food. They are hungry. They have very few survival mechanisms. So I think if South Africa really wanted to get its act together it would start some literacy programs that are free. It would start an open free university. If India can have open free universities as well as Cairo, then why canít we? We need that, we donít have enough financial aid.
The biggest challenge is improving interracial connections. I think the danger now lies in producing a kind of xenophobia among Africans. If I were the president of this country, I would say ďWhat would be the best way in which I could improve the lot of my people, feed them, and educate them, and take them up to the next era?Ē Forget all the usual concerns about Africanization or post-colonialization but really jumpstart them into the post-modernist phase and into the computer phase, where you could really take illiterate people and move them on. There is such a gap between our country and what is happening in the rest of the world. Weíre light years away. Itís about producing a country that can meet that.

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