The struggle to eliminate gender-based violence is essentially a revolt against culture and accepted morality. This is what makes the public outrage at one of the placards displayed during a recent solidarity demonstration to express concern at the persistence of violence against women and girls in Malawi unsurprising.
The placard undoubtedly trumped underfoot the prevailing standards of decency and propriety in speech and protest in the country. Intriguing, however, is the fact that the outrage expressed at the use of the words, measured at least in terms of the spontaneity, extent and intensity of the public debate they provoked, far outstripped the public outrage at gender-based violence expressed at any time since 1994.
There is a good reason for this disparity: standards of decency and propriety are more profoundly embedded and institutionalised in Malawian society than norms prohibiting gender-based violence. This is exactly what the placard sought to highlight and rebel against.
Feminists argue that accepted morality and societal standards of propriety and decency are not gender neutral, but are constructs that represent the male worldview and are created to subjugate women. Men define themselves and the world around them largely by reference to women. Their fascination with women is dual. Men see women primarily as objects of sexual fantasy. They raise in their imagination the ideal woman who serves as an object of sexual fancy, and then go about shaping the world of women to conform to their world of ideal women. Culture, morality and laws are the tools that men use to mould women to fit their contrived ideals.
As the gulf between the real and the ideal cannot be bridged, so can’t the gulf between the ideal and real woman. Men’s obsession with the ideal woman and the failure to have concrete access to her is a source of constant frustration, which manifests itself in violence against the real women that exist.
This leads us to the second fascination of men with women, which is essentially sadistic. The failure of the real woman to satisfy the sexual fancies the ideal woman promises to man turns the woman into an object to ridicule and scorn. Women are thus subjected to a whole range of derogatory, demeaning and humiliation behaviour, including actual violence. One again, language, culture, traditions and laws are marshalled to legitimise such violence and demeaning behaviour.
Understood against this background, the words used in the placard in issue were outrageously offensive in at least two fundamental ways. Firstly, they were said by the wrong person, the female. In men’s worldview, the female genetalia word in Chichewa is a word designed by men for use by men only. A woman cannot utter the word. This is precisely because the word does not just designate a biological part of the female human body. The word fundamentally serves the purpose of debasing and degrading the woman’s private parts. It is derogatory and pejorative. It is not surprising then that public consensus reached the verdict that the placard was offensive.
As many in social forums have pointed out, the word used in the placard is hurled out every time without attracting the same kind, or a proportion, of opprobrium. Why this time? Offensive the placard indeed was, but such offence can only be committed by men, not women. That’s what culture tolerates, condones or prescribes. Women are socialised to behave and speak in a certain way so that they approximate as much as possible the ideal—beautiful, gracious and sexually attractive—woman, to be married and to have children. The placard was hoisted by a woman who is by custom not expected to be obscene—that terrain of the obscene is reserved for men only, and obscenities are supposed to be directed at women.
Secondly, the placard was outrageous because it served no purpose to men. As noted above, to denigrate the woman is an object of sadistic fancy by men. In this case, a woman hoisted the placard and so uttered the offensive words. She did so proudly. She, like those around her, didn’t feel debased. In fact, they seemed to be empowered and liberated. All this is horrifying to the world of men because these words are supposed to reduce women to shame and ridicule. Ultimately, Beatrice Mateyu deprived men the sadistic moment of seeing a woman humiliated whenever those words are uttered.
That the police promptly arrested her is also not surprising either. They had to, even if this meant violating several rights protected by the Constitution in their quest to enforce an uncodified moral norm or a law that has no chance of withstanding constitutional scrutiny. The suggestion that the arrest was made to protect the dignity of women exposes the usual paternalistic pretext used to suppress women. State violence was here used against a woman who came to exercise her right to protest and used a placard to highlight the fact that one of the most common forms of violence against women is verbal.
Clearly, we still lag far behind in public awareness regarding the issue of violence against women. The placard has exposed how resistant to change our society and state institutions remain. n
*Danwood Chirwa is Professor of Law, University of Cape Town