Women's voices: lessons and wish lists

25 August 2015

In celebration of Women's Month, senior psychology lecturer Dr Shose Kessi and her daughter Kinè Mokwena-Kessi (17) shed light on how values are passed from one generation of women to the next. We also asked members of the UCT community to reflect on what they have learnt from their mothers and grandmothers, and what they would wish for their daughters.

Dr Shose Kessi and daughterUCT senior psychology lecturer Dr Shose Kessi, right, and her daughter Kinè Mokwena-Kessi (17). (Photo supplied.)

Intergenerational lessons
(Shose Kessi, Department of Psychology)

I am glad to be a woman in 2015.

Throughout the world women are the ones who instigate meaningful changes in society. Community building is at the centre of what it means to be human, and women in 2015 are at the forefront of social and political life.

My mother and grandmother came from completely different walks of life: One is white and middle-class, the other African from a small village in the Kilimanjaro region. Navigating these vastly different spaces has made me the person I am today. My mother was very principled and unwavering in her commitment to helping others. I remember her as always calm, thoughtful, and insightful. I only knew my paternal grandmother; a strong woman who gave birth to nine children (one out of wedlock – my father) and raised many more. She was very strict and people feared her. But like my mother, she knew the value of discipline and principles. Both these women were grounded, courageous and self-confident, which equipped them to break the boundaries of what was considered acceptable behaviour in very different but conservative cultures. From these two women, I have learnt to be strong and respect others in all their diversity – and inspire fear when necessary.

I am grateful for the many sacrifices made by women who have enabled us to enjoy the freedoms we now have. However, there is still much that needs to change. High levels of physical, emotional, symbolic and structural violence against women still exist in our societies. My wish is that my daughter/our daughters can explore their lives to their fullest and not be constrained by oppressive patriarchal norms.

My daughter Kinè should be free to speak her mind, be bold, live wherever she chooses, love whomever she chooses, and go through life with respect for herself and others. My hope is that I have given her some of the tools to do just that.

Womanhood in context
(Kinè Mokwena-Kessi)

Being a woman in 2015 is akin to being a schizophrenic. I am not the same person legging-it down the daunting streets of Johannesburg, as I am meandering around the pavements in London, or shuffling along the dusty roads in Dar es Salaam. Womanhood is contextual and to be a woman is to have multiple personae you carry with you, like weapons you readily wield to shield yourself.

I recognise, as do most women, that if there were ever a time to be a woman it would be now. Just think, as a barely legal young woman 60 years ago, chances are, I would be whittling away amid dull domestic incarceration, having already shoved out my third child to a man my father's age. Now, my most pressing issue is where I go to university, which is again not a reality for scores of women across the globe.

Navigating a world in which we women fight to be free in thought, in speech, in action is as thrilling as it is vexing. Yet, it is precisely this complex balance between deep hardships and intoxicating victories in becoming a woman that I'm realising an extraordinary power. Through being made to feel threatened, I have come to realise that I am in fact extremely threatening. We women no longer know our place.

I am being raised by a single mother. I believe we have grown up together, and I am lucky enough to have a mother who I see as an individual, a multi-faceted person. My mother teaches me to be free.

In tune with the untraditional nature of my family, I have three vastly different grandmothers from vastly different backgrounds. From Soweto, Ouma has taught me ruthless resilience; from Devon, Grandma taught me the importance of eloquence and honesty; from Ireland, Mareena has taught me to choose my battles carefully – and to shut up strategically.

I was driving out of Durban earlier this week and we passed a billboard that frightened me. "RAPE IS A CRIME", it said in a big bold font plastered above the shiny forehead of some indifferent minister. How did we get to this profoundly disturbing place? The paralysing disgust I felt in the face of sexual, physical, emotional and systemic violence directed at the female body is what I fear most for my hypothetical daughter – especially if she were to grow up in South Africa.

Mother's prayers
(Norma Derby, International Academic Programmes Office)

Norma DerbyNorma Derby

My mother was the kind of woman who, when she woke up, made the devil cry out: "Oh, crap! She's up!" Her prayers are the reason I am who I am. She taught me never to expect, assume, ask or demand. As a single parent my phenomenal mum raised two daughters in the township. She taught me about strength, determination and sacrifice. She worked hard and loved us completely. She prepared us to stand up to racism, sexism, and the other demeaning '-isms' that confront us daily.

I remember 9 August 1956, when black women expressed their dissatisfaction with oppression with the statement, "You strike a woman, you strike a rock". I would like to see the rising tide of woman power grow, as described by the 2015 Women's Month theme "Women united in moving South Africa forward".

Matrifocal family
(Zethu Matebeni, Institute for Humanities in Africa)

Zethu MatebeniZethu Matebeni

Generations of women in my family taught me one valuable lesson in life: never lose your voice. This is a very difficult lesson to always hold on to, particularly when there are always forces that constantly aim at muting certain experiences. I have had the pleasure of growing up in a matrifocal family and so the dominance of male presence and authority is something that I find completely odd and alienating.

All children should become the people they need to be. The kind of world I help shape for my nieces is one in which they will be happy to be who they are, regardless of what their bodies look like or who they want to love, live with or become.

Humanity in others
(Gina Ziervogel, Environmental and Geographical Science)

Gina ZiervogelGina Ziervogel

My mother's unconditional love for me has enabled me to become who I want to be. I have always felt supported. Now that I have children, I can see that it's not easy to support your children unconditionally, so I value it even more now.

We are moving towards greater equality in some pockets of our society, but we still have a way to go in many areas. I would like my daughter and other young women to become adults in a world where people are listened to because of who they are and not because of their gender, race, income, class or experience. I think we all need to hear the humanness in others more, as that is when we connect, feel valued and can build a more innovative, inclusive society.

Independent mother
(Tania Williams, MSc student, Oceanography)

Tania WilliamsTania Williams (left) with a fellow student Khushboo Jhugroo. (Photo supplied.)

My mother is an amazingly strong woman. She does exactly what she needs to do to keep her family happy and together, but also she knows how to balance her own needs. One of the best things is her ability to be independent. As a young career woman it's important for me to learn from my mother.

Today I'm on a ship [the SA Agulhas II] on my way to the Southern Ocean and that was an opportunity only given to men back in the day. I can discover new things alongside any amazing scientist – and there's nothing stopping me from achieving my goals. I hope my daughter will grab all the amazing opportunities offered to her because in today's life it's all about equality. But it's also about pushing yourself to be the best.

Inequality rife
(Amal Nagia, final-year postgrad LLB student)

Amal NagiaAmal Nagia. (Photo supplied.)

My grandmother taught me resilience, strength and compassion. She raised four successful children as a single parent in the heart of apartheid and still opened up her home to those who had nowhere to go. My mother has taught me how to stand up for what I believe in, to empower other women and to make a difference in the lives of others by being a socially conscious individual.

As grateful as I am that in 2015 women are more empowered than ever before, we need to be cognisant of the fact that gender inequality is still rife. I would want a level playing field, in all respects. I'd like feminism to not only be about equality between men and women, but focused more on the intersectionality between race, class and gender.

Dream big
(Elle Williams, Development and Alumni)

Elle WilliamsElle Williams.

My mother has had an immeasurable influence on me. Now a retired school principal, she taught me to read when I was three. That aspect of my early childhood determined the course of my life, because it meant that I could seek out – and access – written information almost on my own terms from day one. My mom also taught me through her own example that every individual has the power to define themselves that you don't have to fit into any box, or accept the limitations placed on you by society or circumstance. During her working life, she was a strong advocate for the professional rights of women of colour, and successfully managed both a career and a very demanding family. As her daughter, I've been very fortunate to be raised by a woman who encouraged me to think independently, dream boldly, and exercise confidence and compassion.

I would like all daughters to live in a world where feminism is part of the essence of humanity. And by feminism, I mean social, political and economic equality of the sexes (to paraphrase the definition referenced by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her famous TED talk). As fortunate as many of us are to be empowered, many women are still subject to gender discrimination, ranging from subtly pejorative interactions in the workplace, to horrific violence and socially sanctioned human rights violations. I would like our daughters to live in a world where women's and girls' rights are universally respected.

Be strong
(Charmaine Kannemeyer, Supercare staff member)

Charmaine KannemeyerCharmaine Kannemeyer.

I learnt to be strong from my parents, and what I learnt from them, I teach to my children too. Fiona, my daughter, she's like me. In terms of the gangs, there's so much violence; you have to always be looking over your shoulder. You used to be able to sleep with your windows open. Now you must lock everything. A person shouldn't be living in such fear. There's so much drug abuse. But the gangsters mustn't think that they can control us. But even my sons get robbed when they're just walking to the shop; so what then of a girl child?

My daughter raises her own child, who is four years old, very strictly. Look at how many children go missing nowadays. Criminals no longer have any concern for children, or even adults, for that matter.

Legacy of humility
(Wadia Mosoval, Jamie Shuttle tuck shop owner)

Wadia MosovalWadia Mosoval.

My mom is a woman of wisdom from whom I learnt humility and a fear of God, who holds our destinies.

My wish for my daughters is that they'll have equal opportunities and freedom.

Be strong
(Aamirah Sonday, Communication & Marketing)

Aamirah SondayAamirah Sonday.

My mother is the most amazing woman I know. She was resilient in adversity and despite people mistreating her she never mistreated them. She taught me to be humble and kind and to accept everyone, regardless of their circumstances. She has also taught me to be strong and persevere and believe that I can do anything. Unlike many Indian mothers, she has not brought me up to be a housewife and to listen to a husband. She is headstrong and stubborn, a trait my sisters and I have inherited, which I believe is necessary in this world of uncertainty.

If I were to have daughters I would like them to be free and to be seen as equal in all aspects of society. I want them to have hope; to believe that they really can change the world. Most importantly I want them to feel safe. I want men to stop believing they have power over women and that it is their right to treat them as they wish.

Patience and kindness
(Tracy Booysen, Mechanical engineering)

Tracy BooysenTracy Booysen.

I have learnt so many things from all the women in my family. My mother taught me patience and kindness, and that, although you should consider problems at an intellectual level, you should also listen to your heart. She showed me the value of having a close-knit family. I was lucky to have such a dedicated and loving mother.

I want to see violence against women drastically decrease. I want my daughter to move through the world without constant fear and caution. I also want to see women in the top positions at top-performing companies. As of this year there were more CEOs of FTSE100 companies called 'John' than there were women.

No to body-shaming
(Phindile Sithole-Spong, HIV/Aids activist and UCT alumna)

Phindile Sithole-SpongPhindile Sithole-Spong. (Photo supplied.)

From my grandmother I learnt not to care what people think of me and just to be myself – I am still learning this but I think I am on the right track. From my mother I learnt that being a liberated woman doesn't mean giving up on the things that were meant to trap us before (like cooking, cleaning etc.), but to use them to our advantage to create something meaningful and lead beautiful lives.

I would like body-shaming to just disappear. I subscribe to many magazines and I love fashion, but this idea the media has created of a perfect body is absurd to me and does more bad than good. It's another way of reducing one to a singular identity i.e. fat/skinny, pretty/ ugly. I believe that as women we need to just be healthy and love our bodies in their various shades, shapes and sizes.

Tell good stories
(Lilian Mboyi, Properties & Services)

Lilian MboyiLilian Mboyi.

My mother and her mother were amazing storytellers. From them I learnt to tell happy stories that build a family, community and nation. I learnt that for my life to be beautiful, I have to tell beautiful stories about it. I grew up watching them and drinking from their love, words and wisdom. As result of their nurturing I am a writer, who is passionate about producing and sending out positive messages.

I would like to see the upcoming generation of girls receive so much love in their formative years from their mothers, grandmothers and carers so they do not have to seek love and validation elsewhere, but be content with the love they carry within. I would like them not to have invisible ceilings placed in their life experiences and career paths by patriarchal systems, but to be able to flourish to their best ability.

Curated by Abigail Calata, Yusuf Omar and Helen Swingler. Photos by Michael Hammond.

Monday Monthly Read more stories from the August 2015 edition.

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