Women’s day, a brief look at the history. #UniteBehindWomen

AUTHOR: Lenina Rassool, 2013 Activator


Having been a journalist for a decade and a half, every Women’s Month, I am commissioned to write up articles and campaigns around Women’s Day, regurgitating the same narrative for different platforms. It generally goes like this:

“Women’s month was instituted in commemoration of the Women’s March of 1956, when over 20 000 women marched to the Union Buildings to oppose the Pass Laws of 1950.” Cue the Women’s Day theme from government for that year, which this year is #WhatWomenWant by the way.

Missing from the historical narrative, however, is the fact that women have been fighting the pass laws for almost half a century prior to the big march in 1956, long before they were even allowed to join formal anti-apartheid structures. That this is fairly unknown and speaks to the fact that – in addition to our colonised history – there is a patriarchal history that also needs to be recognised and deconstructed.

The untold Herstories of women’s activism is important because they hold significant lessons for activists today. When looking at the entire story of the Pass Law protests, which began in 1913 when Charlotte Maxeke, the first black woman to obtain a Bachelors degree, led protests in the Orange Free State, one starts to understand the steady build up to the women’s march on 09 August 1956.

SA History Online labels this period as follows, ‘Civil disobedience and demonstrations continued sporadically for several years. Ultimately the permit requirement was withdrawn. No further attempts were made to require permits or passes for African women until the 1950s. Although laws requiring such documents were enacted in 1952, the Government did not begin issuing permits to women until 1954 and reference books until 1956.’

What is striking for me about the history of the Pass Law protests, from 1913 to 1956, is both women’s resistance to being policed and their ungendered stance, with the wellbeing of their families taking centre stage in memorandums and petitions describing how “[their] husbands, [their] brothers, and [their] sons are still being arrested, thousands every day, under these very pass laws.”

While the Pass Laws have long been abolished and South Africa now boasts some of the most progressive legislation in the world, the threat remains. Except now it is poverty, gangsterism, domestic violence and sexual assault that threatens women’s bodies, homes and families. And women continue to march.

On the 01 August 2019, organisations and women gathered outside Parliament to deliver a memorandum asking our current government to take action against these threats. Now, as then, women march not just for themselves, but for their daughters, sons and husbands as bodies pile up on the Cape Flats and across South Africa.

One statement in the 1956 memorandum that is gendered states “that homes will be [broken] up when women are arrested under the pass laws.” That arresting women would have a detrimental effect on families and society was a strategic but accurate statement and it is even more relevant today. South Africa’s high rates of femicide, rape and domestic violence is no secret. Half of all women are murdered by their intimate partners and South Africa’s rate of femicide is 5 times the global average. Women did, and still do, perform the bulk of care work in the home globally. The untold story here is what happens to the families that are broken up when women are murdered.

Now, as then, we need to take a collective stance on violence against women and in our communities. As youth, as activists, as women, as daughters, as sons, husbands, as Activators and Change Drivers, it is time for us to unite as a movement, across issues, networks and sectors, or we will never really be free.

* See  https://www.gov.za/WomensMonth2019 for more information about Governments #WhatWomenWant campaign for August 2019.

*Reference: SA History Online https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/1956-women%E2%80%99s-march-idara-akpan

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