This piece was originally written for Vanguard magazine and published on AF with permission from the author.
I grew up in a household run by a woman for the most part. In my formative years my father was a stranger whom I saw infrequently but whose presence/ authority always loomed even in absence – I knew instinctively that he was there. In my neighbourhood this was the norm. As a rule, households did not have fathers. The exceptions where nothing to aspire to really, so I saw nothing amiss.
It was not until I started attending primary school that my ‘fatherless-ness’ became a problem. Growing up male, in a Nguni culture in southern Africa, raised by females made me a target for ridicule. I was soon to learn that my mother wasn’t accorded the same respect as that given to a male parent when parents’ day came around. She was deficient in some way that I didn’t understand; society said so, our culture informed it, there must’ve been some wisdom to it. It was very confusing. At family gatherings relatives would implore me and my brothers to watch out for my sisters and my poor mother. So at an early age I got it into my head that I was their guardian. I was after all one of the men of the house. It seemed heroic; I embraced my role and title and wore the badge with honour. Unbeknown to me, I was being trained to adhere to a code of conduct that perpetuated a form of oppression whose name I did not yet know but whose burden I already felt.
Patriarchy I would later learn is a system of institutionalized sexism, which espouses male domination over females and thereby perpetuating exploitation on the basis of gender. It is a pervasive form of oppression, which stunts the growth of individuals male and female, for it blocks the path to self-actualization free from the burdens of societal expectations based on gender roles.
One of my earliest memories is a close family member christening me with the name bafazini meant as a taunt, an insult, a term of ridicule, meaning ‘one who is forever in the presence of women’. I’m sure she meant no harm by it; in her ignorance she was attempting to lovingly chastise me for behaviour that was unbecoming for males in my culture, behaviour that would without question land me in an undesirable position, because to be a man carries with it a package of privileges that can be lost by the ‘wrong’ kind of association. She was simply looking out for me. This is what I mean by the oppressive nature of patriarchy; that a boy is not allowed to be, I was not allowed to like whatever I liked, to form an identity independent of society’s idea of what manhood is, I had no freedom of association, I learnt that lesson early as do most boy, and young men, and I learnt it often through reinforcement.
“Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” So says Bell hooks. Anyone with a functioning brain can appreciate this concept. However, as I have recently found while doing research for this piece, many fall at the first hurdle of reasoning. For the longest time I was one of these many. Opposed to feminism without a firm grip of what it actually was or really meant. You see, through a dangerous cocktail of mainstream media, religious fervor and general laziness, I surmised that feminists were a bunch of less attractive women, burning bras and the like in a futile attempt to be regarded as men.
Thankfully there is hope for anyone who possesses the willingness to; step out of his or her comfort zone, read, engage and stare at the world without blinkers, because everyone has the capacity to grow and change. I simply opened myself up to that possibility, and as the saying goes ‘when the pupil is ready, the teachers will appear’. Today, I’m comfortable to say I am a feminist at the risk of being misunderstood, because think about it, if you fit the profile of the individual that I describe above, I must be a curious monstrosity ‘a man … who is an angry woman who wants to be a man …’ how does that actually work? I nonetheless embrace my feminism and am prepared to face what it comes with. I do this because for me, it is a path to liberation for myself firstly; to be whatever I want to be, to chose the masculinities and femininities that I want to express to the world. Secondly, and just as importantly it gives me a different lens by which to see the world, and in seeing it I can not help but be confronted by the injustice of sexism.
I will say without shame that I’m not a radical by any stretch of the imagination. I view my place in the struggle against patriarchy as an ally to the primary victim of institutionalized sexism, namely the female who becomes gendered as a woman. My existence in a world punctuated by male domination means that I live in relative comfort vis-a-vis my female counterparts. The benefits of having a penis far outweigh the disadvantage of not having one, a curious outcome of winning a genetic lottery at birth. If I had another chance to tick a box, knowing what I know now I would probably go with male again! Therein lay the justification for my argument; I’m quite certain that most males would do the same, and if that it not an indictment on the system, I don’t know what is!
I hope to one day say to my daughters and sons, “You can be anything that you want to be in this life …” and mean it. Until that day comes, I shall continue to have the difficult conversations with myself and others, because for the most part, particularly for men, its an internal struggle, for ‘it is not the wolves at the door that we must be most fearful of, but the termites under the floor’.
Mlandelwa ‘Nqo’ Ndlovu is a reformed misogynist who still spends too much time around women… to his credit.