Gender activism through the arts

Gender is a recurring topic in the 2016 Festival programme. Gender has always been something multifaceted and fluid and is increasingly being discussed more in the public sphere. A panel made up of Hassnae Bouazza, Gertrude Fester, Tracey Saunders and Warren Nebe bring their different thoughts to the table, creating a fruitful discussion.


Fester began the discussion with her powerful poem that is a modern, post-apartheid take on Gcina Mhlope’s Say No Black Woman, Say No. 

Four questions were posed to the panelists:

  • What do you understand by the word gender, how do you use it?
  • Why is it personal to you, why have you chosen to make parts of your work about gender?
  • Why is it possible for the arts to say and do things that one can’t do in other spaces like the political space?
  • What is the message you in particular want to put out into the world via the work that you are making?

“Gender is not a thing on its own, it’s embedded in so many other things,” says panel chair Anthea Garman. In their responses, the panelists proved this, stressing the intersectionality of gender issues by linking it to religion, race, class, ability and sexuality.

In defining gender, the consensus was that it is a social construct in which the use of power is central. It was also defined as being dynamic and fluid. “We live in a time where its really so fluid and everybody cites their own gender and that’s one of the most important thing to remember, that we don’t get to decide someone’s gender for them, which happens so often and with such tragic consequences especially on this continent,” says Saunders.

“There is a possibility for an ‘other’ to exist, as opposed to the toxicity of confinement, rigidity and inflexibility,” adds Nebe.

According to Bouazza, intolerance, inequality and discrimination could easily be tackled if people treated others how they would like to be treated. “I think it’s very simple, if you want chances in life, and to be treated equally, fairly.. if that’s what you want for yourself then you should want that for someone else. It’s a matter of reciprocity, I think people overlook or ignore reciprocity too often.”

Fester comments that there is a gender rhetoric in the world at the moment that is being used hypocritically, particularly by governments. She urges the audience to challenge the rhetoric of gender policy. “When will some of these wonderful rights become realities?” she asks.

All agree with the need for international solidarity and this raises the subject of inclusivity or lack thereof in feminism. Most debates are held in privileged spaces, and one audience member pointed out that academic language often excludes people who want and need to be included in debates and conversations.

The speakers all agreed that arts, particularly theatre, have a a strong influence on culture. They said that arts are very important for enabling discussions that would not be had in a typical political space. Arts are capable of showing people things they would not normally see, breaking taboos, providing different perspectives, taking away barriers between people, healing, and giving hope.

It was acknowledged, however, that much of existing media produces violent stereotypes and messages that enforce patriarchal culture. The panel and audience discussed the role of arts in creating a counter-narrative of these messages through arts education.

In going forward, a positive message was shared; that activism can be big or small, even through simply living those positive beliefs and values consistently, interrogating ourselves and asking questions. For activists, there was a reminder from the panel that it is about changing society, not about furthering a personal career.

“I think everybody has a responsibility, [..] no matter what you do, to engage in what for some people is a daily, life threatening occurrence,” says Saunders.

“Flip the script, every single time, everywhere. It’s up to us,” urges Garman.

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