COLUMN // IN THE VILLAGE OF WOMEN – THE IMPORTANCE OF CLOSED SPACES

In the Village of Women  

In the face of the daily, grinding violence meted out on women like murdered lesbian Motshidisi Pascalina, why should it come as a surprise that black girls are demanding their own spaces?

In the Samburu region of Kenya there are four villages inhabited and run by women only. One day in 1990, a Kenyan woman named Rebecca Lolosoli left her husband and village after she was beaten by the men in the village for speaking out against the rape of Samburu women by British soldiers.

It was this – and the fact that Samburu girls and women are forced to undergo genital mutilation, marry old men, and stay in marriages bonded by beatings and hard labour – that led to her and 14 other women leaving their homes to establish Umoja, a new village where no men were allowed.  In the 26 years since, Umoja has become a place where women run their own affairs, look after their own land, rear their boy and girl children, protect and feed one another, create their own economy and interact with men on their own terms.

They can hire male labour from other villages if they want. They can have lovers and relationships with men but are only allowed to conduct them outside the village, though there are many who have sworn off men completely.  And another three matriarchal villages have been established in the region, some of which allow men to stay provided they follow the rules. Naturally, the response from men outside the villages has been violently negative, with men occasionally beating the women and stealing the profits they make from selling handmade necklaces to tourists.

What began as a response to violence has become a model for oppressed women to take control, to make safe spaces, to pursue their needs. To take is to stop asking. Which is also the motivation for the rise of black-female-only spaces around the world and in South Africa today.  Except, in urban areas where female oppression is a little more sophisticated – disguised in legislation, corporate culture, bedroom culture, magazine culture, organized religion and so-called natural responsibilities like motherhood – women are yet to start their own towns.

Instead there are spaces like the Cape Town-based monthly event For Black Girls Only, in which hundreds of black women come together to talk about things only they understand as the most oppressed people, to buy and sell at black woman-owned market stalls, to picnic and to party. Of course, they are seeing resistance from those who don’t understand the need for them in contemporary racist, rapey, rainbow South Africa.

These kinds of spaces exist because we have the blood of Motshidisi Pascalina on our hands as a society. Non-black lesbians and gay men are not prescriptively mutilated and murdered for their sexual orientation. For them, there isn’t a term to describe a special kind of rape only performed on black lesbians.

These spaces exist so that black women don’t have to explain themselves and why they are angry, sad, traumatised, paralysed by an air that only they are forced to breathe. They exist so that black women can, for a few hours, exist outside the presence of a perpetual subjectivity to male and racial domination. They exist because of those who don’t understand why they need to exist.

What would a women’s village or town look like in South Africa if we had the resources and impetus to start one, which we do? I enjoy imagining this place because it’s important to envision what we want while we are fighting against what we don’t want.

Would it be a sanctuary or a retreat where women can spend six months or year at then go back to their regular lives? Or would be a forever place? What would the grounds to entry be? How would the racial dynamics that exist in South Africa be dealt with? How would we ensure that classism does not create an exclusive hierarchy?

There would likely need to be an entry-level course on unlearning how women see themselves through the eyes of men, an unlearning of patriarchy. The Constitution would be written by the villagers and revised every couple of years. Education would prioritize the role of women in world history, stories history books have deliberately left out.  Courses on design, architecture and town planning would have a female approach to space. The cooking and the cleaning would be shared. Agriculture would be a subject under life skills. The village would be self-sustainable, placing food production, home creation, physical and emotional healthcare as its top priorities. Menstruation and the reproductive system would be honored in a monthly moon ritual.

The economy would be designed to suit the wellbeing of the villagers and the environment. A custom-created spirituality in which nature is central, would be the foundation of all the pursuits of the village. The villagers would decide on a system regarding the participation of men. The villagers would wear whatever they want to wear, express love in ways they want to express it. There would be no centralised power. It would be a colony of functional, organised roles and responsibilities. But most importantly, this village would exist with the intention of replicating itself as its fundamental purpose.

Milisuthando Bongela

This piece first appeared in City Press on Sunday 17 January 2016

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