Let us Live

Three generations of women; one shared narrative

Words: Kyla Phil | Photography: Bevan Davis

It feels as if there is this general presumption that the month of August is a special time for the women of South Africa, a time to celebrate the gift that is your mother, your sister, even your grade 3 teacher, wrapped in pink flourishes and words of encouragement. 

It feels as if there is a general tolerance of Women’s Day by women. It feels as if Women’s Day is an alleviation of guilt without accountability. Women’s Day feels like it is constructed around men’s feelings.

So not only is it this meaningless acknowledgement of some of the disparities that femme bodies are faced with insulting in its superficiality, to construct a celebratory day within the gender binary is also just inherently violent - it is not inclusive of the transgender experience whilst simultaneously erasing non-binary people. To put it plainly Women’s Day is trash for the exact people you’re attempting to celebrate.

Since safety is a constant issue for us we find that solidarity, that comfort, that healing in each other. Which is why the assertion that women deserve a day, even a month of celebration is so bizarre to me when we’ve been celebrating us, it’s how we survive this world that refuses our existence.

When given an open brief on a video work for “Women’s Day” my self-awareness went into overdrive like, there are so many issues pertaining to existing in this palatable yet fetishised, light-skinned body that I could speak on. I could turn the camera on myself, put together some beautiful montage of me flicking my natural hair in slow-motion, talking about being an empowered, strong woman for all those little brown girls out there to look up to, an older, South African version of Amandla Stenberg…

The gag is I’m not empowered – this faux liberation comes at the cost of a dark-skinned woman’s self-esteem. The forgotten ouma in Blikkiesdorp pays in the years she dedicated to a family whom could not escape racialised incarceration and generations of the Dop System. Bodies that are fat and femme simultaneously that are not represented. Women who weren’t assigned “female” at birth, forced to sacrifice their humanity every time you assert onto the world what “real” women are supposed to do, what they’re supposed to look like, how they’re supposed to dress, how they’re supposed to be. 

Stop with attempting to represent what a good woman is and actually begin to look at how you may be a violent body by not being cognizant of the fact that womanhood and the femme experience is so vast and broad, that the nuances that make up the experience are not finite. Women are complex, bbz.

And I remember the blood that runs in my veins, the story of my paternal great-grandmother escaping the farm she’d been working on from the age of 7. Her daughter with her stompies for fingers pointing at my kroes hair letting me know I was about to get it combed out. My maternal grandmother’s sister mumbling about seeing her at a Black Sash march but learning this on the same day I find out that my grandmother was raped before she was murdered. Brah, I come from a wild line of matriarchs and we are incredible, plus I’m a storyteller, so now I have to start getting these stories out. Otherwise they get re-written, retold, repackaged and sold by white straight men who don’t know what intersectionality means.

I cried with my remaining grandparent on Sunday when we sat down to talk, I asked her “La, how do I turn these feelings off? Make this pain go away?” She told me “you can’t my child, you just have to keep looking in you and seeing what it is you can change about your behaviour, yourself, to make it right.” These words, although something I inherently knew, were comforting. Not in the sense that they were the ultimate solution but more; here sits this amazing person who in her life has seen the pass laws come into existence, witnessed and participated in the first democratic elections, saw the Oscar Pistorius trial as well as my relationship with my hair – sharing coping mechanisms with me, attempting to heal me.

I have also cried with and for my mother, recounting her being pregnant with my sister and being slapped through the face by a white woman for walking next to my black father. Even as women we can internalise that misogyny and tear each other down. Power grabs and radical politics and figuring out how to navigate my black identity with my white mother. She tells me sometimes “all you can do is put love into the world and perchance some of it comes back your way.” Maybe, but we attempt to heal. 

So I begin to understand more and more that no femme experience is the same. We find healing, empathy, and solidarity with one another, but at all our intersecting oppressions could you stop with the assumptions and entitlement? Not only just for the month of August but all the time. 

I often think that having to traverse this world in my body was a curse bestowed upon me. Surely I can’t be loathed on site? Yet people I do not know, people who have no direct insight into my life, my journey, feel entitled to me and by extension all the different components that make up my identity. I think that my output is grappling with the assumptions that get superimposed onto me. My work is for the so-called coloured seamstresses who couldn’t get their matric certificates, for my great grandmother who worked for a madam well into her 70s, for the young girls on the Cape Flats who haven’t even hit puberty but have to assume the roles of head of the house. My work is an attempt at not objectifying the femme body. 

So this Women’s Day I think I am going to be very preoccupied with how women were handling their business on the 9 August 1956 and then how in 2016, we’re going through the same shit asking people to #SayHerName and #RememberKhwezi. How about we do away with the marketing elements to Women’s Month and you guys stop raping, murdering, erasing and exploiting us? That would be the ultimate message of love and solidarity for women, if you just let us live.