Sunday, August 10, 2008

my woman's day reflections...

Only days after speaking of her desire for a proper house, Irene Grootboom, who spearheaded a Constitutional Court case in 2000 for proper housing for the poor, died in her shack in Wallacedene. She was 39.....
Eight years ago Grootboom brought an application to court on behalf of 510 children and 290 adults living in deplorable conditions in Wallacedene, demanding better housing.
The benchmark judgment declared that the state was obliged to devise and implement "a comprehensive and co-ordinated programme to realise the right of access to adequate housing".
However, last Wednesday, Grootboom has died "sick and tired" of being on the housing list.

(The Cape Argus, 04 August 2008)

On Friday, a young theological student at the Northern Theological Seminary, Catherine Mabilo, led a Biblestudy at a theological conference on gender, on a fascinating fascinating passage of scripture in Numbers 27:1-8 In the Old Testament, this passage stands out as a critique on the laws of landownership, but also of the tradition of Old Israel, a tradition steeped in patriarchy. How are we to understand it today as we reflect on the significance of Woman’s day, in our Southern African context.

I also listened on Thursday morning, to Prof Yolanda Dreyer, from the University of Pretoria on Thursday, speaking at this conference. She recounted her story as a female theological student. She came into an environment where the topics of discussion, the culture and ethos were foreign to her. She was the only female student in her class. When realising that her input is not going to change things- because the brothers were in charge, she felt like trying to fit into what she calls ‘Brotherland’ and to achieve in terms of the criteria set by Brotherland. It was, for her a lonely journey against tradition, against the expectations of her immediate environment, against who she knew she was. She felt alienated from who she was. I couldn’t identify with her because I am male and part of that power-structure, part of the Brotherland, yet I could identify because, as a coloured theological student, I was in the same situation, whilst I studied theology at the kweekskool of University of Stellenbosch, doing it in ‘Witmansland’. It is dangerous territory..

All these experiences are intimately linked to the ancient story of the 5 young women who claimed their space. This story happened at a time where the daughters of a man were invisible, they were an embarrassment a sign of weakness to the community. Deut 21 gives insight into this: ‘that the son is the first sign of the father’s strength’. The faith of Old Israel was steeped in what people call today, patriarchy – a system where the ‘pater’, the male-father rule the household, hence males also rule the community and society. The practices of society, their interpretation of God’s presence in their midst was shaped by this- hence it was not frowned upon when the 5 daughters of Zelophehad did not inherit the land of their deceased father, and the land of their clan and tribe. There are so many instances where some in communities are invisible, are not capable of, not destined to be…

Yet, an this is what fascinates me-there was something in these women, which Catherine, on Friday, highlighted:
1. they walked up to the public place, spoke up and voiced out their protest to this ruling on land, on property ownership;
2. they declared: we are here- 'ke teng' They affirmed: we are not invisible, we are not sub-human, we are here..

The significance of this protest against what was understood as normal, but also their affirmation of themselves, their genderised selves as females, need to be understood in terms of the patriarchal religious and social backdrop. Here they did not simpy spoke up to be ingored. They risk ridicule, isolation, the possibility of a cruel death in going to stand up in public and declaring their status, in claiming what rightfully belongs to them. Why would people do this kind of thing, I wonder. Surely this was not the first time it happened ? Surely they were not the only daughters in Israel or the only family where there are only daughters or where the father have died and only daughters are left?

This is the same question of what makes it for women, the Irene Grootbooms, Catherine Mabilo’s of this world to stand up, against all odds. The Bible does not make it clear what how we can answer this question. In their argument before the council, we however get a glimpse of how they were thinking and I see the following:

1. they name the history and tradition;- they call it out…
2. they put the finger in the injustice- what was wrong in that history and tradition: it is wrong that only some are recongnised and others remain invisible, unnamed, oppressed… robbed of their history, of their identity, but ultimately of their livelihood- of their economic means.
3. they reclaimed their space. They knew what they wanted: give us the rightfull property of amongst fathers relatives;

Woman’s day is something of a celebration, yet is it also a reminder, a challenge. I was thinking of the other women that currently inspire me. Not that they necessarily inspires others, I admit. The South African Olympic committee gave me the answer: Natalie du Toit. Carrying our South African flag on Friday, epitomised not only her journey, but also the journey of so many other name-less, invisible, against the odds, yet, powerful women. What has driven her to carry the flag… against all odds.
Kevin McCallum sportswriter of The Star, reflects on the significance of this day, but also on the symbolism of her carrying our flag. He writes and in a sense it starts to give perspective on all my questions, on the significance of the quest of Irene, dying the shack in Walacedeen,
“On a hot Beijing night when an 18-year-old dream and 5 000 years of culture were celebrated at the Bird's Nest, Natalie du Toit embodied the words of Confucius, who was among the many elements that made up Friday night's dazzling, and no doubt vastly expensive, opening ceremony of the 24th Olympic Games.
"Our greatest glory is not in never falling down, but in getting up every time we do," has been the credo the 24-year-old Du Toit has personified since that fateful day in 2001 when her leg was taken from her in a car accident. Being the flag bearer for Team Rainbow Nation last night [Friday] was the fulfilment of the first part of an Olympic dream that first took root at the age of 6, a desire that was intensified by the amputation…… Du Toit's and Team SA's lap around the stadium lasted just three minutes, but it mattered little to her. For seven years she was told the Olympics were a dream too far; for seven years she kept falling.
On Friday night she got up yet again. As Confucius said, it matters not how slowly, so long as you do not stop.
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