Nelson Mandela Foundation

Every year in South Africa, the month of August is used to highlight the various issues faced by women in South Africa and to showcase some of the achievements of women making headway in different spaces and disciplines, from sports to the arts, medicine and academia. This reflection is important in ensuring that we remember our history and the role that women have played in getting us where we are today. However, we also need to venture into a terrain that so many dare not enter into, we need to enquire more extensively about the social construct of the term ‘woman’. 

Looking back on Woman’s Month 2023, I find it important to move away from merely celebrating women and really start to question what womanhood and womanness are. What really constitutes a woman? Is it merely our genetic makeup, the role we play in society, and our ability to bring life into the world? Or, is this identity far more complex than we would like to admit?  We need to understand what this term entails; it is a concept that has been protected and heavily guarded by both men and women alike.

Feminists in diverse contexts have made it a point to write extensively about womanhood. This term is an incorporation of a list of socially constructed and defined attributes and characteristics that are considered to be appropriate for women. Womanhood in terms of marriage, motherhood, femininity, softness. It is important that our starting point is taking an anti-essentialist approach to this debate - understanding that there is no single set of characteristics and features that someone needs to have in order to be classified or identified as a woman. Womanness falls outside of what has been considered and understood as natural or fixed. It has always been sensitive to when and where - it is chrono- and geo-specific, and even then the term means differing things based on the culture that is using it. We must reject the argument that there are common identities among women, a core or essence. 

Natalie Stoljar argues that there is no golden nugget of womanness that all women have as women, that makes them women. There are significant differences that cannot be merely overlooked, differences that need to be recognized and acknowledged. Differences in culture, class, race, religion, personal experiences, and roles that continuously shape our identities. All of this even before acknowledging how womanness, like all gender(s), can be understood as a spectrum.

This leads us to question whether feminism as a political movement is able to operate and fully represent a unified group of women, especially looking at a country like South Africa and its very diverse nature. It interrogates the relevance of political movements such as the ANC Women’s League. Especially looking at its history and the recent shift in leadership, is the organization able to represent the interests of different women within the country, looking at racial, cultural, and religious as well as other categories that differentiate women?  How impactful has the women’s league been in the last five years, especially in addressing issues that impact different women differently, from gender-based violence, unemployment, access to resources, and gender discrimination? 

If we view womanness as a universal concept, it will then imply that womanness is fixed, unchanging over time, the same here as it is there and does not respond to a society’s changing needs. It then becomes limiting to women and groups that identify as women but do not posses or fit into this universalist concept and are automatically sidelined, not seen or recognized within society. A Universalist notion of women also excludes many people who identify as women, including  trans women, intersex people who identify as women, women who have had hysterectomies and mastectomies and many others.

This point takes me back to Caster Semenya and the recent verdict taken on her case against the IAAF. Semenya once said “I am a woman and I am fast”, clearly identifying herself as a woman. Semenya was under constant scrutiny about her gender, sexuality and her very identity constantly questioned down to the molecular level under a microscope. This was primarily because she did not fit into a neat box of what womanness is. Caster Semenya was viewed as not conforming to the IAAF’s ideas of what womanhood is and was automatically sidelined from a sport she is passionate about. 

Pidgeon Pagons argues that certain bodies are not allowed to just exist without being questioned. Semenya was constantly misgendered and was not allowed to race against other women. This was a reminder of how people who do not conform to perceived notions of femininity and masculinity and fall outside of what is considered to be womanness/ womanhood tend to become subject to public persecution. This is an injustice that so many marginalized groups are subjected to.

It is then important to relook, reimagine, and refigure our ideas of what womanhood is, and focus on defining it in different ways as opposed to focusing on a single narrative. It is important that we deconstruct binarized gendered categories and ground womanhood and the very concept of ‘woman’ in personhood, dignity, sexual empowerment, access to human rights and diversity. 

We need to understand the idea of body politics - the idea that the identity we call “woman” is socially constructed and shaped by socio-cultural ideologies that define her and create conformity and how that conformity is used as evidence for the validity of the claim that women are all the same in this way or that way. It is important that we understand that the term ‘woman’ does not simply equate to female human beings,  it is a social and cultural category that is distinct from one’s sex. 

We need more expansive and inclusive conversations on gender and womanness. We need to move away from simply othering individuals who fall short in meeting the criteria of what these concepts have historically been described as. We need real conversations that will allow for gender reconciliation and justice and a complete relook at how limiting and problematic these binarized gendered categories tend to be for all members of society.