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How we normalise women’s misery



THE 8th of March marked International Women’s Day. The day was, as usual, celebrated worldwide with stories of women who had overcome extraordinary hardships to thrive and make it in the world. While it is inspiring to know women still manage to thrive despite the challenges it is a little disconcerting that we have normalised celebrating women only if they have struggled. From feats in the corporate world to the domestic sphere, the world demands a certain level of suffering before one can be lauded and celebrated as a strong woman. The effect of this has been generations of women who wear struggle and disfunction like a badge of honour. This strength is supposed to transcend across work and personal spaces. In the workplace it is the expectation, though unsaid, that women must work twice as hard for less pay. The expectation is always that one must put in superhuman effort or else they are failing. The strong woman cannot take an off day to tend to her personal life or she risks being told they are underperforming. This strength often comes at the expense of women’s mental health and interpersonal relationships. She cannot always lose her temper as that renders her hormonal so she must be this stern machine with no feelings or failures. To be anything other than a perpetually smiling hyper-performing machine is frowned upon. The unsaid rule is always that one cannot exhibit normal human emotion. What good is an award if after the applause dies down the receiver is tired and depressed? In the age of social media, it has become commonplace to see men posting their wives with a long caption about how they have been together for eight years during which time she forgave multiple infidelities, supported his career, lent him money and generally bekezelad while he gallivanted until he was tired and was now ready to retire to the role of respectable husband. Young girls are raised to know that they must withstand all manner of hardships so as to be rewarded in due time. This is not a new phenomenon either, our grandmothers bekezelad in their time and passed that message down to their daughters. This spirit of celebrating women for “strength” manifested itself profoundly in the late 80s and 90s when scores of men who had left their wives for years came back from South Africa on their very last legs and society expected and celebrated the wives who nursed them back to health. Most died and the wives soon followed, leaving behind scores of orphans. Picture the scenario for a moment. Here is a man who left his family for several years and has been living his best life somewhere else. Then there is a woman who has been fending for herself and her children and has probably found a way to make the best of the situation. Then in strolls Mr-gone-for-years, hobbling and inching towards his grave, and as a society we celebrated the woman who took him back, nursed him, went back to sharing his bed and risked her life and the security of her children. We expected other women to follow her example! A saner society would have stoned her to death for her stupidity and bad parenting. Now think of a situation in which these roles are reversed. No self-respecting man would have been expected to entertain such nonsense. The celebration of strength in women as the benchmark for success also means that women are at all times held to a higher standard than their male counterparts. Be it in business or home women are supposed to be both good mothers while thriving in their chosen career. The ridiculous notion is that in marriages and relationships, they are expected to forgive infidelity while there is a general understanding that men are incapable of forgiveness. The strength of women is so often celebrated to their detriment. I am not one to dispute that to succeed at anything in life one needs a certain level of perseverance and feats of human perseverance should be celebrated. But to normalise and celebrate the notion of unnecessary hardship is an entirely different issue. There are women whose strength in the face of immeasurable obstacles is to be applauded but we should never normalise suffering and pain as the standard from which greatness must emanate. Be it for women or anyone else. Our obsession with the strong woman is annoying at best and harmful at worst. The strong woman is supposed to be infallible and dispossessed of normal human emotions like weakness and most of all tiredness. Now, I am not saying that we should not celebrate women succeeding despite the challenges that they face. The bigger question should always be why are the challenges there to begin with and what can we do to eliminate them such that the path to success does not come at such a high cost? If we have a group of people who must consistently year in and year out face immeasurable obstacles to succeed, then we clearly have a structural problem that we must fix. To continually promote having to go through certain hardships is to risk having that hardship as a norm. The battle should be about removing those hardships so that women can thrive. The stories of women succeeding against odds are heart-warming but the real inspiring stories will be about how society has worked to remove the obstacles that stop women from thriving. As we celebrate those who have made it, we should remember that we are probably justifying the oppression of women. We may think we are telling great stories when we are merely perpetuating a terrible system. Thakane Rethabile Shale

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