Gender DynamiX: Celebrating the strengths, contributions and diversity of women in the 1956 Women’s March and what this means for transwomen

On 9 August 1956 women in South Africa were united by a common goal of confronting injustice when they marched on the Union Building in Pretoria. Simultaneously, whilst pushing back against oppression under the apartheid regime women showcased their power by breaking many social norms positioning them as passive beings relegated to the confines of the private domain of the home where they were to socially contribute in rearing children and taking care of domestic responsibilities which is traditionally a far cry from participating in the public domain preserved for men. The march of 1956 was not only a push back against an oppressive regime and practices, it also marks the moment at which women actively claimed a space in the public domain alongside men, setting the tone for what we experience today as women empowerment. More than 60 years after this historic moment Women’s Day is reminiscent of solidarity amongst women and a reminder to South Africans of the power that women wield in South Africa’s transformation agenda.

Despite its historical significance, Women’s Day have become somewhat controversial from a transgender perspective. Gender DynamiX is a regional transgender human rights organisation engaged in advocating for social transformation that recognizes transgender persons as being a part of this nation whilst lobbying law and policymakers to recognise the needs of transgender persons with the aim of addressing these affectively. As we reflect on Women’s Day in 2017, we question its significance for transwomen and transfeminine persons. Transgender persons, having existed since time immemorial in both African and Western contexts, were only formally recognised in South Africa socially and legally in the 1970s through medical discourse developments. This ushered in a new are for our comprehension of gender in South Africa outside of the dominant cisnormative understandings. Historical accounts highlight that transgender persons, and in the context of this article transwomen and transfeminine persons, have existed even at the time of the march of 1956, although politically repressed. Arguably the political repression transgender persons were subjected to inevitably led to them being invisible, unacknowledged and marginalized at the 1956 march. These consequences however we ascribe to the regime at the time coupled with conservative feminist ideologies on issues of gender which made it challenging, if not impossible, for transwomen and transfeminine persons to effectively engage in political demonstrations publicly in solidarity with cisgender women. Today we reflect on what Women’s Day look like for transwomen who are constantly challenged with notions that they are not ‘real’ women simply because they were not assigned female at birth.

Despite the arguments of radical feminists that transwomen experienced a past of privilege due to the advantages that attached to their bodies by merely having been assigned male at birth, it does not detract from the adverse social realities of the past and present that having been continuously denied to live one’s true gender have resulted in transwomen having had and still being faced with a particular social trauma as women that cannot be denied. Women’s experiences of being women are vast and complex. The rigid essentialised notions of what it means to be a woman should be placed in sharp focus to establish who the gatekeepers are and why there remains a persistent need to exclude transwomen from women’s movements. The history of the women’s movement reveals that at different historical moments that even ciswomen embodying different characteristics seen as taboo at the time such as being black and/or being lesbian have been excluded. In the context of positioning the anatomy and functionality of women’s bodies in the context of essentialist understanding draws our attention again to the need to question transwomen’s exclusion. Not all ciswomen conform to the definition of what a woman is or should be when juxtaposed to cismen. Not all ciswomen are able to conceive children, are heterosexual or want to express femininity. This does not make them any less of a woman. The only commonality for ciswomen is that they were assigned female at birth. But having been assigned female at birth also does not imply that all persons assigned female identifies with being a woman. Many transmen have affirmed their manhood by disassociating themselves from the women’s movement and for all intents and purposes live lives socially, legally and politically removed from women. In this context transmen may even embody and subscribe to ideologies such as patriarchy and toxic masculinities alongside cismen that oppress both transwomen and ciswomen on account of them being women. The crux of the matter is that issues of gender and sex in 2017 and the social, legal and political understandings that accompany these have evolved and continuously acquire new meanings. In a country that affords legal protection to transgender persons, we need to start thinking around how we integrate transwomen’s perspectives into the women’s movements to consolidate solidarity and support to counter the negative impact of patriarchy and toxic masculinities. Instead of viewing transwomen as threatening ciswomen interests, ciswomen should reflect on the value transwomen bring in advancing the interests of all women in society.

Leigh Davids, an openly identifying transwoman, shares with us that: “When women’s day comes around, I think of how exhausting it is to go through it, because I find myself in a space where I am a woman. But people will say to me, ‘How dare you say you’re a woman’ They will look at me in a very weird way, which means I now need to express myself all over again to the exact same person I did it to yesterday.”For ciswomen, it can be easy to take for granted that one’s identity won’t be questioned through the day. There is privilege in existing in any given space without the worry that you need to convince those around you of your identity or of your womanhood. There is privilege in not being questioned and not having to pass. For transwomen who don’t have this privilege, social experiences can be marred by the reality of having to regularly “explain yourself” and your gender identity. Sometimes members of society aren’t always accepting of diverse gender identities, and can respond in ways intended to belittle and degrade a person’s identity. “They will find points of saying to you that you’re not a woman. And then you will have to find your way back either of making them understand who you are, that this is a gender you have made or you just decide ‘I am not getting into this.’ So you have to make the distinction between the two: do I want to get into this? Or don’t I want to go into this?” says Leigh.

Looking back on the historic march that first inspired the creation of Women’s Day, we can see that these activists mobilised to fight for their cause in a time when the experience of being a woman in South Africa looked very different than it does today. The women who marched on the Union Building in Pretoria over 60 years ago were motivated and united by a common goal of empowering South Africa’s women and confronting the injustice of pass laws. These women promoted their cause of demanding greater women’s rights in South Africa. To reduce the fight to only a fight for ciswomen’s rights is accusatory of a women’s rights movement that intentionally denied transwomen’s existence and actively excluded them from transformation imperatives. It is much more palatable to consider that women of the march were not too concerned about the process of becoming a woman, whether through the sex one was assigned at birth or through gender affirmation processes. Instead of arguing for purposes of excluding it needs to be acknowledged that there is a beauty that exists in diversity. The march of 1956 and petitions embodied the importance of unity and the value of diversity of womanhood, with several lines of the petition reading “…We are women from every part of South Africa. We are women of every race, we come from the cities and the towns, from the reserves and the villages. We come as women united in our purpose to save women from the degredation of passes…”

In the context of 2017 and a continuously changing South Africa, women can still reflect the themes and values of the original women marchers we honour on Women’s Day by confronting the injustices faced by the women society fails to affirm. Ciswomen can support and empower transwomen in numerous ways everyday, and the first steps toward this empowerment may lie in education and sensitisation regarding the lived experiences of trans and gender diverse women. Leigh would like to see more interactive training between cisgender people and transgender people. “There should be regular workshops where you find both ciswomen and transwomen talking about who we are. Talking about who they are. And talking about where we’re currently going” Leigh said.

Furthermore, ways to support and empower transwomen can be found in the March 2017 Position Document of Values and Principles from Transwomen and Transfeminine Persons from Southern and East Africa, a position paper signed by Gender DynamiX and endorsed by all stakeholders. Suggestions include affirming and elevating one another, challenging internalised transphobia and how this prejudice negatively impacts transwomen and transfeminine bodies, and embracing the belief that we are all beautiful in our diversity as individuals. It also identifies patriarchy and toxic African masculinities as undermining the existence and contributions of diverse women across the continent. Our mothers, daughters, aunties and sisters are beautiful because of their uniqueness and because they are diverse. On this Women’s Day, inspire the next generation of women by letting them see you affirm and support the transwomen in your communities whilst simultaneously valuing the contributions transwomen and transfeminine persons bring the women’s movement as well as to society at large. Great change can come from letting young girls see the powerful women in their lives honour and celebrate the diversity of South Africa’s women.