EnGendering Quotas or Quotaring Gender

Fighting for equal representation of women in political and government structures is vitally important but does not guarantee women's liberation says Phindile Kunene

Debates about gender quotas have occupied centre stage as political parties have debated the issue of gender parity. The main reasons tabled for the equal representation of women in some structures of power, centre around notions of democracy, justice and redress.

Shireen Hassim, one of the outspoken women on gender issues in South Africa, argues that equal representation and transformational representation (ie representation that transforms society) are two sides of the same coin.

For example once women are represented in power structures they have greater access to decision-making. This will create a favourable environment in which to advance transformation.

However, if this is the case how do we explain the many failures suffered by women’s movements with regards to the transformation of society?

Women claim more victories on issues of sexual reproduction like abortion, but have little to show when it comes to challenging the basis of social inequalities.

Let us look at a few examples: Women in South Africa (as the main carers and child rearers), aside from the maternity leave provision, are not compensated for taking the time to care for their children.

A universal Basic Income Grant, which would greatly benefit working class women, is still elusive. The ANC's 52nd National Conference rejected it saying that it would encourage dependency.

A parental allowance, a welfare provision that benefited white, Indian and coloured working class women, ceased to exist with the demise of apartheid. These are some of the losses incurred with regard to easing the burden of patriarchy on women.

The transformation project has not touched patriarchyMost importantly, the family as an institution is still to a great extent left untouched by the transformation project that the country embarked upon a few years ago.

Patriarchal gender relations at this level are still intact!Women’s struggles have suffered assault both in dealing with the symptoms of gender oppression as well as its roots.

Despite this, Hassim proposes that these failures should not deter women’s movements from engaging the state. As an alternative, the question should be: how should we engage the state and in what ways can legal and institutional reforms be made gender sensitive?

In this way the strategy and tactics of women’s movements should be informed by both a descriptive and substantive agenda remembering that inclusion is a means to an end and not an end in itself.

Another writer on women's issues, Maxine Molyneux’s argues that “women’s interests [are] historically and culturally constituted, reflecting, but not reducible to, the specific social placement of particular groups of women”….

In other words, 'where you sit, is where you stand!'Speaking of the 50/50 gender parity in the ANC NEC, Thenjiwe Mthintso seems to concur with this contention.

She says that although patriarchy is a common oppressor of women, it is not possible to expect this to unite all women since they may define themselves in class and racial terms as well as gender.

Mthintso further adds that “[t]his…is true of men too, who are neither a homogenous entity nor do they enter the leadership structures to represent the interests or fight the struggles of men”.

The common thread between Hassim and Mthintso is that although the presence of substantial numbers of women in institutions of power is desirable and a good starting point, it will not automatically rid society of patriarchy and its effect, gender inequality.

Whose interests do women in public office represent?So whose interests do women in public office represent? Can we honestly make the argument that their social backgrounds ie race, class and even ethnicity do not influence their world outlook and hence their roles in respective offices?

For instance, it was under Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi’s leadership that access to social security, especially the Child Support Grant (on which most working class women depend) was questioned.

It was during her leadership of the social development department that the rhetoric of dependency and laziness surrounding access to social security found salient expression.

One has to ask: Would the election of a female president in South Africa fundamentally change the socio-economic status of poor and predominantly rural black women in South Africa?

There are serious contradictions in the way that the arguments for substantive women representation are motivated. I will only mention two.

The first, often raised by liberal feminists, is that women are a demographic majority (ie they form more than half the population) and that it is democratically sensible that society should reflect this in all areas.

The contradiction in this instance is not so much in the argument itself as in the double standards of those who advocate it. Women representation is often supported with little regard for representation based on their class.

Surely in the current capitalist epoch the majority in society are the working class and based on this argument, it should be these women and men that numerically dominate the structures of power and influence!The second argument is that women have different values and a world outlook from men and that this would have a bearing on decisions taken.

Here it is argued that the inclusion of women in structures of power will enable the percolation of the values of caring and compassion in such institutions. The Nordic model is often cited in support of this argument.

Class central in determining women's outlookThe notion that women are virtuous and caring beings that have something fundamentally different to offer is too simplistic and smacks of maternalism. It romanticises the role of women as “natural carers” and mothers without due consideration of their social context.

There is a multiplicity of other identities that shape women’s world outlook and I would argue that class is central in this regard.

The argument being critiqued here is weak precisely because it implies that gender is blind to class and other forms of identities.

This is usually the problem of analysing issues without accounting for the material basis that gives rise to such issues. Additionally, we have seen the argument for greater representation of women being used to further political agendas that have nothing to do with gender equality.

An example of this is how some members within the ANC-led tripartite alliance perceived President Mbeki’s recent call for South Africa to have a female president as part of a bigger conspiracy geared towards denying Jacob Zuma the opportunity of leading the ANC and the country.

The contention that women are better guarantors of other women’s rights is too shallow. Rather, one can argue that representation of women is necessary and should not be open to debate.

It is an instrumental tool of reform in the current gender insensitive capitalist epoch. Gender parity, if properly instituted, can lay the foundation from which to advance the substantive liberation of women.

Debates should centre on how we can ensure that once women are equally represented, power, that has a gender perspective, and which is not blind to class and race, finds its voice.

Kunene is the Policy and Researcher Officer for the Young Communist League. She writes in her personal capacity.


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