The intersection of race, class and gender form the underlying premise of Critical Race Feminism. It is to point that this reflection will take on how this intersection influenced the #FeesMustFall movement with specific reference to black female and queer students. More specifically, the relentless hunger of black, under-resourced, often silenced, majority underprivileged black women, trans women and queer people, to be heard in a movement led by patriarchal ideals in efforts to silence them.
This piece forms part of a series of reflections on the 2015 #FeesMustFall movement.
While black women and queer persons have always experienced the short end of the stick, in every way imaginable the disproportionate harm towards them because patriarchy and toxic masculinity has ensured that they do not get the necessary long-lasting recognition and protection they deserve. This is especially true of their intellectual and physical labour during civil and political rights movements and protests like the #FeesMustFall protests.
During the #FMF protests, the much-documented account of women protecting mostly male student activists from unnecessary, unwarranted harm from the police and private security by using their bodies as shields for them, more specifically during the well documented #NakedProtest in October 2016 using their breasts as shields for the said activists against violence from the police at Wits. This shows the ways in which naked protests have been used as an empowering tool to challenge men and authorities in violent contexts.
In the same breath it shows how police respond positively to this form of activism albeit short-lived because indeed their violent attack ceases for a while.
This is like when white students would be roped in to stand in as shields for black student activists from the police and indeed the police would stop their vitriolic attack on the student activists because at that moment, whiteness and social currency bought the protection and time for black student activists to catch a break from the police and private security.
There are countless accounts in history where women’s bodies have been used in fights against that or the other injustice like the the 2002 naked peace protest in Liberia, the 1990 naked protest in Soweto in South Africa and 2020 Polish naked protest for abortion rights and countless more. This shows one side the importance of women and their role in activism, of course they are not limited to the use of their bodies in said fights. They will be known and remembered as bodies of resistance.
It therefore becomes ever so concerning when the same female identifying, gender non-conforming etc. people, are not afforded the same comradery by the comrades that they risked and largely sacrificed their very bodies for do not stand with them when issues and conversations of gender-based violence against women on campus are brought up. This from rape on campus to transactional sex that lecturers demand from the vulnerable desperate female and queer students on campus.
Black women, trans women and queer persons who are also poor are consistently silenced in society. Issues affecting their safety, race and economic status and access to adequate health, and quality education are often seen as unimportant in big movements and are met with sentiments labelling them as hysterical and ‘dividing the movement’, ‘diluting the message’ when they bring up issues affecting them in civil and political rights protests and movements.
However you want to look at it, #FeesMustFall was about much more than fees.
An intersection of issues including but not limited to gender neutral bathrooms, the renaming of popular significant buildings in universities, addressing the high suicide rates at the time at universities, ensuring that abuse against women and queer persons was adequately addressed by university structures put in place to address them, as well as outsourcing of the ground staff of the university.
It should come as no surprise that many of these other issues were issues brought up by and relentlessly fought for, while also fighting and protesting for fees, by black women and queer persons. They ensured that their politics of intersectionality is put on the spotlight, refusing to be silenced and ensuring their visibility where so often they are made to feel invisible.
The point I am trying to drive home here is that blackness will always be intersectional. This is even more true because one will always influence the other. The existence and comfort of patriarchy in society is only maintained through its oppression and silencing of women and queer people.
By black women and queer persons continuing to make patriarchs uncomfortable, the feminist movement will always be relevant. Issues cannot be separated as clinically as patriarchy would like us to assume and it is through the strength and leadership of women in the movement working tirelessly in mobilising and advocating for voices of the often silenced and side-lined that enables us to continue our efforts of dismantling patriarchal ideals.
Kukhanya Mthimkulu is a law graduate soon to be attorney from Wits working work with the Gender Justice team at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS). Kukhanya is a Gender Justice and all round socio-economic and political rights activist.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of The Daily Vox.