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What do Lindiwe Zulu, Marion Bartoli, Nigella Lawson and Julia Gillard have in common? Mike Siluma has the unfortunate answer.
Johannesburg - What do Lindiwe Zulu, Marion Bartoli, Nigella Lawson and Julia Gillard have in common? On the face of it, by either geography, politics or line of work, they shouldn’t have much to share beyond being women.
Zulu is an ANC leading light and a former diplomat, while Bartoli is the current Wimbledon women’s champion. Lawson was, until recently, what could be regarded as the poster woman of modern female success – a mother, a wife and a celebrity professional. Gillard is the recently deposed, first Australian woman prime minister.
Their commonality is that, despite their elevated public standing, they have become symbols of the pervasiveness and endurance of sexual discrimination.
Zulu was, of course, the target of Robert Mugabe’s vitriol in the run-up to the Zimbabwe elections. Mugabe was apparently irked by something Zulu said about that country’s state of readiness for a free and fair poll. Ignoring the substance of what Zulu had to say, the octogenarian ruler to the north resorted to mudslinging, notoriously calling Zulu a street woman.
One wonders if he would have used the same description had Zulu been a man. We were all suitably outraged.
Gillard was, by all accounts, not the worst leader Australia has had. Her track record was considered in many respects to be better than that of some of her male predecessors. Yet, throughout her tenure, she was dogged by barely disguised sexist slander. Taunted as a “witch” and a “bitch”, she had to endure a relentless barrage of hostile comments about her cleavage, her dress sense, her tone of voice, even the fact that she was unmarried and childless.
While she was a sitting head of state, a dish at a political rival’s fundraiser was labelled “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Thighs”.
For Bartoli, the put-down came as she reached the pinnacle of her tennis career – winning the Wimbledon title. Instead of being showered with accolades like her male opposite number, she was engulfed by controversy sparked by a male commentator’s reference to her purported lack of good looks. Never mind her prowess on Centre Court!
In some instances, the misogynistic baiting has not stopped at the verbal, manifesting physically as well. Ask big-name media personality Lawson, whose husband brazenly throttled her in public, reducing her to a sorry object of public sympathy.
As we mark South African Women’s Month, we may be tempted to pat ourselves on the collective back, marvelling at our constitution with its anti-sexist exhortations. But should we?
Not too long ago, we had our own Gillard moment in a place no less august than Parliament itself.
The subject of debate, such as it was, was the DA’s leader in Parliament, Lindiwe Mazibuko.
First she was ridiculed about her weight by ANC MP and now Justice and Constitutional Development Deputy Minister John Jeffery, who later withdrew his comments. Then she was laid into by ANC MP and young communist Buti Manamela, who complained about her dress sense.
In both cases, the merit of what Mazibuko had to say became less pertinent and important than her appearance – as with Gillard. It was a great time at the office for most MPs, male and female, who had a good belly laugh.
This inglorious episode in our national legislature raised a number of questions.
One is why, even if it mattered, the MPs found the comments about Mazibuko’s weight so hilarious, when so many of them have serious BMI issues of their own?
Henceforth, would our legislators also consider the size of a male colleague’s boep or how far his hairline has receded, before lending them an ear?
Second, if indeed Mazibuko was dressed inappropriately, why was the matter left to the male members to raise, in a Parliament full of woman leaders?
At a time when we, as a nation, are seized with trying to educate young men, all men, to respect the rights of women in society, what message was being sent out to them?
That the next time a woman expresses a view that a man does not like, he can legitimately silence her by poking fun at her attire or physical appearance?
And what would the heroines who marched on the Union Buildings in 1956, whom we honour this month, and who stood together irrespective of social status, race or looks, think of this turn of events?
Should we not expect that our Parliament, which makes the laws, set an exemplary tone, reflecting the ethos of our constitution of gender equality and human dignity for all?
After all, the honourable members who occupy its benches constitute the political leadership of our nation.
The other thing is whether women’s rights are divisible, to be selectively defended for some women and not others, depending on which side of the political, racial or class fence they sit.
When scorn was being poured on Mazibuko, for instance, why did our female parliamentarians from all parties not come to her defence?
And when protesting teachers sought to humiliate Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga by publicly displaying what was meant to be her outsized underwear, why did the female leaders in the various political parties and elsewhere not raise their voices in protest?
Did they think she was getting her just deserts for being an ANC woman leader?
As a country, we justifiably pride ourselves on having globally one of the highest female representations in Parliament and other public institutions.
But we have to ask if this quest for equality is not all about numbers without principle and form without substance.
* Mike Siluma is a veteran journalist and editor, who has held senior positions in both the electronic and print media.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.