I was recently on the Mail and Guardian website, when my cursor hovered over an article titled “Sisters in the academic struggle”. Fate! As if daring me to read it, I complied and clicked on the title, waiting patiently to be routed to the article. And then, there it was right in front of me. The cause for my not pursuing my postgraduate studies further.
Ok, perhaps it wasn’t that dramatic. Sure. But I always feel such a sense of guilt when I get asked why I didn’t pursue my graduate studies further. Worse yet, when I meet university friends who have and they gloat about how great an experience it was for them. So, it didn’t at all help that my cursor led me to this article. It had me reaching for the nearest dessert I could find. Ice-cream, anyone?
Esther Ramani and Nancy Malema, co-authors of the article, from the onset assert that there are various reasons why “[m]en do most of the research in South Africa”. Startling? Not necessarily. One can take a shot in the dark as to why this is so and they would hit the bull’s eye. Research and academia have been strongholds of men the world over, and research, funding, scholarship is geared towards attracting men. Women, certainly in South Africa, are not encouraged to pursue higher education as strongly as they should. And when they do take up studies, it is often in disciplines and fields that are friendly to them: teaching, psychology and human resources. Even then, they are not encouraged or equipped to pursue these studies beyond undergraduate level. The authors cite other challenges such as the conflict between women’s domestic and professional roles and the inflexibility of the workplace to accommodate women’s dual roles and aspirations. Are we still counting?
In my particular situation, I didn’t pursue my postgrad studies further than Honours because of the pressure put on me both at home and on the library lawns by pesky BCom students urging me to “find a job”. It didn’t help at the time that South Africa was going through the depths of the global financial crisis which made jobs and opportunities for inexperienced BA graduates all the more scarce. Pursuing a Bachelor of Anything along with, oh, THOUSANDS of other young, black women did not make me anymore attractive.
But apart from the structural problems which I am satisfied are being addressed, if inadequately so, it is the guilt women carry around and the insecurity of security that I want to address here. The young, black South African woman is at such a vexing point in her life. She is faced with so much choice she doesn’t know what to do with it all. This is no complaint at all. I’m just trying to navigate my way as best I can through all these choices. I get stuck at the point where I consult the bibles of women’s empowerment – magazines in lieu of having a mentor – and get bombarded with contradictory messages about being a woman in South Africa, in 2012 nogal!
I can have it all, apparently! If anyone saw November’s issue of Destiny magazine, with Unathi Msengana on the cover, you know what I’m talking about. In fact, if you have read any consumer lifestyle magazine aimed at women, you will know what I am on about: Woman & Home, Cosmopolitan, True Love, Shape, Sarie [insert preferred magazine title]. The salient message is the same. For R30 per title, we give magazines entry into our personal lives, where we grant them permission to dictate our destiny, as it were and feed our guilt. Magazines are those insidious characters in our lives that make us feel guilty for going back to the buffet table for seconds or reaching for a third chocolate-filled cream cupcake. They make you question your parental skills because you have assigned the TV as the babysitter for the day in order to complete the methodology section of your thesis. They are completely unforgiving if you cannot fit into your ‘does-this-make-my-bum-look-big’ pair of jeans. And here you thought you were a fun, fearless female! Pah!
So, how do I better navigate this maze? I am apparently supposed to have it all; to want it all at the very least. And then, I am meant to consult these titles in my endeavor to reach it all. But with ‘It All’ being such an ill-defined concept, it’s hard to know whether I am coming or going. I’m getting dangerously close to the point where one asks the question: are you suggesting that we go back to “the good ol’ days” where a woman’s role was more strictly defined (explicitly: wife and mother) and where her trajectory is certain? More critically, I am suggesting that the roles of women, and the possibilities for them which are plenty, have not been given adequate mileage in magazines and that this is a problem. I am in fact problematising the continuing portrayal of women in these two roles, despite the feminist political movement having made great strides to go beyond them. “Is all I will ever be in my life a wife and mother?” is the more direct question.
Consumer magazines suggest, in the salient ways presented above, that women should aim for nothing more, or nothing different, than the role of wife and mother. They shroud this sentiment in glossy photo-shopped images of Unathi Msengana with ring on finger on Destiny magazine with the blurb: I want it ALL! They also highlight it in fashion spreads with this or that new black model in the latest form-fitting office wear from [insert label], replete with ‘husband’, ‘two kids’ and ‘dog’ at the breakfast table. Further, one is made to feel insecure if one does not aim for, reach or have ‘it all’. [Queue the ice-cream please]
Women are then stuck in anxiety and insecurity about themselves, because they fall short of the many boxes they have to tick to fulfill the requirements of Superwoman. Worse, we see our peers going for it all, and feel more anxious and insecure that we are getting left behind. Sure, it is difficult to shy away from this reality. Women are wives and mothers, amongst many other roles. “Amongst many other roles”, being the operative term! Why do these roles continue to dominate and be so pervasive? And why do we keep trapping young girls in the same cycles that subordinate us? If I hear about another young black girl who has dropped out of university, or gotten herself into debt because she buckled under the pressure, or was employed by a sugar daddy to fuel her cars, cash and cellphone ambitions or was chasing the elusive dream of it all… I’m gonna say I feel you.
The bigger political project for South African women is to support the University of Limpopo/Rhodes Women’s Academic Solidarity Association, to support the ANC Women’s league in its endeavor to decriminalize prostitution, to engage workplaces so that they become friendlier or more accommodating of women’s roles, needs and aspirations and to ensure that the stats speak more accurately of women’s realities [insert preferred feminist political project].
I don’t think young women – women of any age really – should want or chase it all. Certainly not at one go, and certainly if ‘it all’ has not been defined by beautiful, powerful You. But that is for you, woman, to chose. Chase your dream, live your dream. And pass the ice cream, please.
Naledi Siphokazi Msimang