When I was growing up in the Eastern Cape I was never surprised to see my mother working in the garden every morning, lifting heavy rocks, trimming trees, ploughing the soil and watering the vegetables. Later on in the day, she’d sit at her sewing machine and start doing what she was she was known for in the whole town: dressmaking. In the late afternoon, when dinner needed to be prepared, she’d wash her hands and go into the kitchen to start cooking. That was her routine.
All I remember ever doing to help her out in this routine, is being asked to cook once or twice and planting potatoes during a time when she had been away from home for a week during planting season. She clearly didn’t need us, her sons, to do any of the heavy lifting. As her kids we watched in awe, as she went about every day, working herself to death. The lesson was clear: don’t expect someone else to do for you what you can do for yourself.
But in many other houses in our neighbourhood I saw a different story. Most of the women in my neighbourhood had husbands, uncles, brothers and sons who did the heavy lifting in their gardens and around their yards. Other men and women that spoke to me and my friends, though, sang a different song to the one my mother sang. They pretty much told me that it wasn’t a woman’s job to do the heavy lifting. It was a man’s job. I was told that a woman’s job was to take care of the kids, do the cooking, and perhaps even work on the sewing machine (a lot of women had sewing machines in our town).
It was also the old men’s job to over-see cultural ceremonies that were performed at the house and ensure that things were done in the ways of our ancestors, while the older women would advise the younger women of their role during those ceremonies.
It was a system everyone seemed to have accepted – except for my mother. It always felt like it was my mother, in one corner, versus the rest of the women in the community. Sure, there were a handful of women who had pretty much the same views as my mother. They were independent, kept to themselves whenever possible, tried to be business oriented, but they just never seemed to click with her. Whenever my mother tried to do business with them, there always seemed be some sort of conflict arising between them.
My mother would tell me how the other women judged her for being so independent and not needing a man in her life. She’d point out to me how even some of the widowed older women were expected to find themselves men to live with just to fit into what the rest of the neighbourhood was doing.
Looking back, I realised how difficult it must have been for my mother to be as independent as she was and not to conform to the majority of women in the neighbourhood’s views on the role of women – that there were jobs that women couldn’t do and shouldn’t do. Every day she would prove them wrong. And I think even though, as her kids, we never actually told her, she knew deep down that she made us proud with all her displays of strength.
I can’t say the same about the other kids in my neighbourhood. Somehow, I sensed that they feared my mother and just wanted to steer clear of her. I never understood what the reason for that was.
It is still hard for the women in my neighbourhood to truly be independent and empowered. There are many challenges standing in their way. There are always a bunch of men ready to take away any power women have claimed for themselves.
I’ve asked myself why?
Is it because the men feel threatened by independent women or is there some other reason?
Like is it, because a lot of women aren’t as physically strong as men and so men understand that to mean that women must be doormats?
Interestingly, my mother used to point out to me that it was also the women in our community who were convinced that a woman shouldn’t have that independence and empowerment that allowed them to stand as equals to men in all things, including work.
Changing attitudes that have been entrenched for forever is a challenge – is a huge one.
Maybe the men and women in your neighbourhood are not as stubborn as mine when it comes to change in the ‘traditional’ roles of men and women. Maybe in your neighbourhood men and women have accepted that times have changed, and that women can do what was traditionally seen as a man’s work.
#ChatBack: Do you think that times have really changed for women in 2015?
What is it like in your community?
Do women fight for their independence and empowerment and what are the the challenges that they face?