Universities must take transformation seriously

Read this article in The Daily Maverick

At the Annual Scholars’ Conference, hosted by Canon Collins Trust, leading feminists working in South African tertiary institutes facilitated a discussion on “Resisting Patriarchy in Higher Education”. The aim was to debate how scholars, activists and academics can challenge the patriarchy that infuses power structures and internal processes within university settings. This is a summary of a presentation by Mary Hames, the Director of the Gender Equity Unit at the University of the Western Cape.

Historically institutions of higher learning have excluded women, and this continues to this day in the physical structures, the curricula, and the institutional cultures. Women have to provide ‘empirical evidence’ of the institutional violence and discrimination against them before Senates and Councils relented to even consider policies of inclusivity. Systemic violence is present in the classroom, in committee meetings, on the sports field and in the social spaces. It is often very difficult to place your finger on when the violence started as it is so elusive. Women’s sports codes do not receive equal funding or resources as the men. Men speak over the heads of women in meetings. All too frequently, the achievements of men are highly regarded and that of women dismissed.

Policies have not been designed because of a benevolent patriarchy, but out of the struggle against discrimination against women. In the early 1990s, the first feminist policies at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) included a Sexual Harassment Policy, a Gender Policy and a Non-Sexist Language Policy. The institution created these so-called progressive policies because of a hostile environment. We soon found that policies merely provided a framework, and that the lived realities of women still reflected deep-seated patriarchal and sexist oppression.

Women at universities advocated for a long time for the right to maternity leave, medical aid, housing subsidies, sabbaticals and a number of rights previously only afforded to men. Sometimes people forget that these were not always part of the employment rights for women. In many institutions, the right to parental leave now includes the right to adoption leave for single women and for same-sex couples. And, where feminist activism has brought both accountability to institutions, for example, in the granting of proper maternity leave for women, these benefits have also spilled over to men, who now also have the benefit of paternity leave. We must jealously guard these rights because they can so easily disappear with a stroke of the pen or the change of the regime.

While women now occupy positions that were previously the domain of men, it is a myth that women have ‘arrived’ and that the academy is supportive of them. A change in gender appointments has not automatically translated into feminist institutional cultures, as not all women are necessarily feminists. For instance, higher education institutions still neglect women’s bodily rights. Very few, if any, of the institutions provide adequate childcare, aftercare or have breast-feeding facilities, as if women leave their reproductive choices and rights at home. This affects particularly women students, who often make decisions to postpone their reproductive rights for a number of years.

Patriarchal institutions such as universities, parliament and the church, feed into each other. These establishments form the barometers of society and more often than not, they feed into each other. Religion and faith-based organisations play an important role in the lives of the majority of South Africans, and almost all universities have theology faculties or religious studies departments. Law professors at universities assist the lawmakers in government to write the laws. However, it is very difficult to find religious leaders guilty of hate speech, as religious freedom is comprehensive and it is extremely difficult to take litigious action. This ‘unholy’ relationship feeds into the cycle of systemic institutional violence. It is imperative that the academy should be alert to the dismantling of oppressive ideologies embedded in the curricula of students of religion and government studies, and how this meshes with patriarchy in other institutions.

Finally, institutions should not become dependent on donor funding to achieve their transformation goals. We need to advocate for a dedicated gender budget, and not be confined by the limitations of complying with the legal and policy frameworks, or the stipulations set down by the agendas of donors. We should strive to go beyond compliance.

At the Gender Equity Unit, we strongly believe in equity above equality. We have started to engage with gender differently in all its complexities and started to focus on the intersectionality and multifaceted nature of violence against all women and persons who refuse to live within the binary understanding of gender. The struggle is not over yet. I am very excited that the feminists in the academy still refuse to be complicit in the silence regarding violence or the trauma brought about by compulsory heterosexuality and other oppressive gender practices. The gender discourse is still under construction.

Mary Hames holds a PhD in Gender Studies from the University of Cape Town. She serves on several official university committees and structures to ensure that gender equity takes place within the university environment.