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Dismantling the fear factory of female oppression

New African Readers' Club

Dismantling the fear factory of female oppression

In Female Fear Factory: Unravelling Patriarchy’s Cultures of Violence, Pumela Dineo Gqola examines the complexity of living in a patriarchal culture as a woman, using the factory as a metaphor to argue her point that the fear women come to accept as a normal part of their lives, is fundamentally manufactured from what they are told and how they are expected to behave. Review by Gail Collins.

During the first week of South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, the police received a shocking 87,000 gender-based violence calls. In the same month, data collected from Nigeria’s government showed a 149% increase in gender-based violence. In June this year, a young Egyptian female student was murdered outside her university in broad daylight, by an unwanted suitor.

Sometimes a non-fiction book comes along that dissects and evaluates a subject so deeply that it becomes not just a book to read once and put down but a major point of reference. Female Fear Factory: Unravelling Patriarchy’s Cultures of Violence by Pumla Dineo Gqola is one such book: an uncompromising study that explores how patriarchal society encourages violence against women and sexual minorities.

Gqola examines the complexity of living in a patriarchal culture as a woman, using the factory as a metaphor to argue her point that the fear women come to accept as a normal part of their lives is fundamentally manufactured from what they are told and how they are expected to behave.

Extensively researched and written with innate sensitivity and hard truth, the book draws on examples from around the world – from Uganda, Nigeria and South Africa to further afield in Saudi Arabia, the Americas and Europe – to highlight why such systems continue to blight our world.

What might at first glance seem simple stories of women and minorities from across the globe, relaying their experiences, in fact becomes a means to starkly illustrate how the repetition of stereotypes desensitises abuse and creates a false sense of normality that seeps into advertising, the law, politics and beyond.

However, Gqola does not leave the subject without a vision of hope for a future in which empowerment will be key. In an interview with New African, Gqola explains why she was motivated to write the book and how she hopes it will kickstart an empowering conversation about the role of women in society.

How the female fear factory functions

NA: Your research for Female Fear Factory must have uncovered some disturbing facts. How does this personally affect you?

PDG: It’s not pleasant. I find myself reacting to the material in different ways at different times. It’s difficult material to sit with because I am also a woman who lives in the world and is affected by what I am studying. I am not an impartial observer.

So, sometimes it leaves me quite shaken. At other times I have some anxiety about returning to the work. Mostly, I push through these because I do think it is important to do the work of confronting patriarchal violence in all its forms. It’s the only way to dismantle it.

It is documented that African feminism truly took root in the 1970s, over a decade after the West. In your view, can African women expect monumental change in the next decade?

Well, I disagree with this assessment. There is evidence of African feminist energy, work and mobilisation long before this. If we look at the work of Ghanaian feminists leading up to independence and the immediate aftermath of independence in the early 60s in the spheres of law, the economy, journalism and academia, we would need to try very hard to say that was not [the result of] African feminist work.

The shortly-to-be-released film, When Women Speak traces this multigenerational African women’s and African feminist movement in Ghana.

The Federation of South African Women’s Charter of 1954 addresses the removal of what they call ‘social differences between men and women’ to end women’s status of ‘inferiority and subordination’. This was when they specifically addressed the liberation movement, before placing the urgency of removing social, familial, racial, legal, customary, educational and economic impediments to women’s freedom. They do so in language that would today still read as unapologetically feminist.

And there is evidence in Kenya and Namibia, different places of even earlier similar expression. So, no, African feminism does not start in the 1970s, not by a long stretch.

And it has made an enormous impact not just on the continent but on the global stage. So much of the international language of feminism, legally and conceptually, comes from African feminists. And this will continue amid a strong backlash. What African feminists have not been as good at is claiming that influence clearly and mapping it as such, for reasons that are both structural and our own fault.

Does living in a patriarchal society also pressurise men into unhealthy behaviour patterns towards women?

Yes. Absolutely. The patriarchy ‘script’ is how we are all conditioned into ideas of what ‘appropriate gender’ is. Patriarchy conditions us into unhealthy behaviour across all genders.  So, men are conditioned into thinking of themselves and presenting themselves as the opposite of whatever women are said to be, and second, to feel entitled to more of everything, including more of women’s time, labour, and bodies.

That means that violence is often the response to any challenge to these scripts from women or other men. Women’s insistence on owning their time, names, work, bodies is then met with extreme aggression whether in public institutions like schools, courts, hospitals, churches or private ones like marriage and family. 

From your knowledge and research, what is the biggest factor preventing women from feeling safe, valued and equal?

It is the constant threat of violence in one form or another against women’s bodies and psyche – what I call the ‘Female Fear Factory’ in my newest book. 

The Female Fear Factory works because women are constantly taught that the world is dangerous for them and that the responsibility to keep themselves safe is theirs. From lessons large and small, women also know that they are regarded as ‘safe to violate’ and are disposable; that they will not be believed if something violent is done to them, and if they are, that they will oftentimes be blamed for not having stopped or avoided it.

About Pumla Dineo Gqola

Pumla Dineo Gqola is a feminist author and research professor at the Centre for Women and Gender Studies at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa, where in May 2020 she accepted the prestigious Chair for African Feminist Imagination.

She grew up in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, hailing from an intellectual family; her father was an organic chemistry professor at the University of Fort Hare and her mother was a nursing sister. Gqola followed the family tradition by gaining master’s degrees from the Universities of Cape Town (RSA) and the University of Warwick (UK) and a DPhil in Postcolonial Studies from the University of Munich.

Author of several books, her 2015 Rape: A South African Nightmare was winner of the 2016 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award. Other publications include: What Is Slavery to Me? – Postcolonial/Slave Memory in Post-apartheid South Africa (2010); A Renegade Called Simphiwe (2013); and Reflecting Rogue: Inside the Mind of a Feminist (2017).

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