As gendered individuals, our lived experiences are not static, for our positionalities and realities differ. The creation of a safe space is important to prevent the isolation of our various day-to-day individual and organisational struggles. Often in activist work, we are viewed as “strong individuals”, yet women and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, Asexual (LGBTIQA+) community are often subject to capitalist-patriarchal realities (systems of socio-economic structures and practices in which men dominates and oppress along gender lines) that continue to ignite discomforting vulnerabilities, discrimination, and violence. However, safe spaces allows one to express oneself and powerfully display one’s vulnerabilities and emotions. It is a space created for inward searching, collective sharing, allowing for the flow of energy that penetrates the soul for the unveiling of realities which are often unseen, and creates a solidarity that is so rich, comforting, and healing.
We learn that in our contemporary activist struggles, whichever battles we chose to advocate for, there is a common denominator. Our common denominator is the prevalence of the interconnected oppressive power embedded in capitalism and patriarchy that impacts on one’s gender. According to Goldblatt and Meintjies (1996):
Gender refers to the social construction of masculinity and femininity, not to the sexual differences between men and women. The purpose of emphasising gender relationships is to highlight the particular manner in which women have been subordinated and oppressed through socially constructed differences. Indeed, gender differences have meant that South African men and women have often experienced our history in different ways. In South Africa, as in most societies in the world, women have been accorded identities which cast them in particular social roles which have restricted their civil and political status. Intersecting with gender are also race, class and other identities, such as ethnic and religious allegiances. These form the basis of the 'public-private' divide, which has given to men the role of civil and political representative of the household, to the exclusion of women.
Patriarchy existed in pre-colonial societies, and interacted with colonialism to create specific forms of gender subordination in South Africa. Interlaced with the racial and class development of our country, patriarchy has wound its bonds around South African women. As with other forms of social and political control, dominance of women has often been enforced by violence. While apartheid defined blacks as secondary political and civil subjects, women were given an even further diminished social and legal status through both the customary and the common law and other social mechanisms. It is this social imbalance which has enabled men to devalue women and which can be linked to the prevalence of abusive and oppressive treatment of women and girls in our society.
Reflecting back on the safe space that was created at a provincial gender conference in the Western Cape – Feminist Table in 2017 – allowed for individual introspection on how our bodies and the environment continues to be expropriated, subordinated, and oppressed. Gender resistance is directed to the prevailing colonial ingrained global systems of capitalism and patriarchy which thrives on its exploitative processes – this continues to exist across the social, political and economic spheres that continues to provide men with unequal power and authority in relation to women and the LGBTIQA+ community within the South African society. Furthermore, capitalism and patriarchy relies on the destructive over-consumption of the work produced by our bodies and the exploitative extraction of the environment’s natural resources. Thus, understanding the interplay of these oppressive systems reveals the ways in which capitalist-patriarchy has violently disconnected humans from nature.
Importantly, power dynamics operate as well within safe spaces and is inclusive of the applications of unconscious power in solidarity spaces which can exclude lived experiences. Creating safe spaces is not always easy given the diversity of individual identity appropriations. Therefore, it is important to be cautious of the use of language and concepts that can exclude experiences. For example, as participants at the conference we differed in terms of our gender identities – female, trans-women, womxn, gender non-conforming; and sexual orientations – heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual. Importantly, our biological sex, gender, and sexual orientations all exists on a spectrum which allows for our multifaceted fluid identities which are not fixated in static realities. Therefore, the ways in which lived realities were discussed, needed to take into consideration the ways in which language is used to prevent hostile spaces of exclusion. Safe spaces thus needs to be open to both HERstories and THEIRstories when applying a feminist lens on gendered experiences of oppression and resistance.
In addition, the question of who is considered as a feminist, is determined on whose reality is acknowledged in safe spaces and how language can exclude experiences. For example, referring to each other as “ladies” or “sisters” can create a space of exclusion. Society socially constructed gender norms such as the roles of a “woman” and how “she” must act to be regarded as a “lady”. These social constructions are challenged by feminists. Critically, how is activist solidarity language inclusive and exclusive to the individual’s gendered experiences? Additionally, prioritising a certain social movement has the potential to exclude other social movements. For example, in feminist spaces, the language used in referring to everyone as “sisters”, can be problematic for LGBTI and non-gender binary individuals. Hence, language can isolate and exclude their oppression and experiences.
In conclusion, patriarchy and capitalism ingrains socially constructed binaries which excludes diverse gendered individuals. Also, when using exclusionary language in activist spaces, there is often a replication of the cycle of oppression when enforcing binary understandings. Thus, in both individual understanding of gender and the organisational gender work in communities, gender struggles are often only viewed as “women struggles”. Gender struggles need to be redefined in activist work in order to critically understand the complexity and diversity of contemporary gender struggles. Importantly, political language is subject to change and the assertion of labels can be detrimental to understanding the diverse experiences of struggles. Therefore, there is a need for awareness in the ways in which people appropriate diverse feminist ideologies, acknowledge the fact that community mobilisations may not always be labelled as feminist movements, and understand the complexity in the use of language that can potentially result in gender exclusions in spaces of solidarity.