Ebrahim Moosa – Comment | 22 Safar 1436/15 December 2014

Is it not a supremely ironic commentary on the state of our society that barely days after we conclude a major annual drive to challenge the abuse of women and children in the country, we are called to extend our congratulations to a South African maiden who is now known as ‘Miss World’?

Was it not the purported aim of the highly-publicized 16 Days of Activism Campaign for No Violence Against Women and Children to challenge South Africans to declare a truce on abuse against women and children – and, ultimately, to make it a permanent one?

While the campaign arguably runs only for 16 days each year, it is common knowledge that government seeks to reinforce its objectives by a year-long programme and a national plan to combat abuse.

As recent as last Thursday, the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities cast this vision of ongoing activism into stone, when it launched its 365 Days of Activism campaign in partnership with Crime Line.

“The abuse of women is a problem that knows no colour, no wealth,” said Minister in the Presidency Responsible for Women, Susan Shabangu at the launch. “It is a monster that is eating the moral fibre of society. And we need to take forward the campaign for 365 days. The abuse happens every second, not only during the 16 days.”

Shabangu is entirely correct about the prominence of such abuse and its overall detriment to society.

But what she(and so many others) seem to miss is the true scope of this phenomenon.

By its definition, woman abuse is any use of psychological, physical or sexual force, actual or threatened, to intimidate, humiliate or frighten victims, or to make them feel powerless.

Commonly acknowledged manifestations of the phenomenon include insults, violence, stalking and rape.

An equally prominent occurrence that is however too often overlooked is female objectification.

The act of treating women as instruments of sexual pleasure, thereby making them “sex objects”, considering them as commodities, without regard to their personality or dignity is a lethal culture that is currently going unchallenged in the fight to end violence against women.

Daily we are confronted by sexually oriented depictions of women in advertising and media, women being portrayed as weak or submissive through pornography and men brazenly evaluating or judging women sexually or aesthetically in public spaces and events, such as beauty contests.

Through consistent exposure, our standards are lowered until this kind of behaviour becomes a form of endorsement of violence towards women.

As psychologist Laura McNally writes online, in promotion of a campaign called called Collective Shout, sexual objectification is creating a culture of impunity toward violence against girls and women. She quotes documentary maker Jean Kilbourne as saying turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step toward justifying violence against that person.” The focus in the fight against woman abuse needs to shift, she argues, towards scrutinising the culture and industry that makes sexual objectification so widely accepted and increasingly expected of girls and women. “The myths that uphold sexual objectification need to be confronted and challenged everywhere they occur.”

This is why the loud applause the crowning of a 22-year old medical student as ‘Miss World’ has received at so many levels of South African society is no laughing matter.

“We are very proud that our very own has earned this prestigious title after months of hard work and dedication.” President Zuma said of the South African’s ‘achievement’ at the pageant today. “Ms Strauss has demonstrated the capability of South Africans to shine on the world stage.”

“We are confident that she will fly the South African flag even higher as she performs her new responsibilities. On behalf of all South Africans, we extend our hearty congratulations and wish her the very best in this new role,” he added.

The Lead SA initiative, that seeks to rally South Africans towards “active citizenry and leadership that makes our country better for all”, was equally euphoric.

“Rolene has done the nation proud. We are ending this year on a high note as we
bring the crown home after 40 years. Rolene is only the third South African to walk
away as Miss World”

“We have extraordinary talent and leadership in South Africa. Rolene has shown that
beauty can have a significant purpose. We look forward to her reign as Miss World
and wish her well as an ambassador for South Africa to the rest of the world,” Lead
SA added.

The public frenzy is just too hard to stomach.

So much adulation being poured out for a feat at an event that should not even exist in 2014.

The organisers of Miss World pageants are all too aware of the criticisms that have been leveled against them and hence today seek to package their jamborees as global exhibitions of academic achievements, fitness and service to humanity.

But nobody is that naive to buy such drivel.

As social activist Subhashini Ali argued during a previous pageant, “It’s not an IQ test. Neither is it a charity show. It’s a beauty contest in which these things have been added on as sops.”

The basic premise of the event has remained unchanged since its inception in 1951.

“The contestants are still judged on their looks, compared and measured against other women, as they’re paraded on a stage like dogs at Crufts, while judges scrutinise individual body parts and how well they pose,” comments Lauren Taylor in the Irish Examiner.

“What Miss World tells women, girls and, also very importantly, men and boys, all over the globe,” she continues, is that without a woman’s beauty, these other achievements mean nothing.

Young girls and boys exposed to such displays are taught that women aren’t to be admired or valued unless they fit a specific dress size, bra size and idea of what is beautiful.

They are also subconsciously nudged towards actions that would render them more ‘beautiful’, and hence acceptable to society.

I was recently made aware of the fad of numerous primary grade pupils in South Africa undergoing regular laser therapy to fit into their social clique.

Similarly, Taylor cites a recent BBC documentary that showed the lengths young women are encouraged to go through to become the “Miss” of their particular country (before going on to conquer Miss World).

In South America, many took to the catwalks with plasters over their noses, evidence of very recent, extremely expensive, plastic surgery. One 18-year-old, Maya Nava, had a piece of plastic gauze sawn to her tongue so that it was too painful to eat solids and forced her to survive on blended food to stay slim.

Recognizing such potentially detrimental implications, numerous countries including France and Russia have recently enacted legislation to outlaw such pageants for minors.

But, alas, this frivolity continues to be cheered on in South Africa.

What our policy makers and thought leaders need to understand is that sexual objectification is a crucial piece of the puzzle for tackling violence against girls and women – a fight that our government appears so keen to win.

As McNally advocates, society needs to challenge not only the individuals who commit violent crimes, but also the retailers, the businesses, the industry regulators who profit from a culture of objectification and violence against women. “Criticising individual perpetrators must go hand in hand with challenging the industries that profit from and propagate this culture.”

In all our endeavors, we need to disown the archaic idea that women have to use their looks and body as a means of achieving something.

As Khalid Baig chronicles, in bygone times, society dictated that maidens had to be physically sacrificed for it on a number of pretexts. They were thrown into rivers or lakes (to appease these vital sources of life), buried alive in the foundations of bridges (to make the bridge strong), or just offered as sacrifice to the gods for the protection of the community.

By objectifying women, we just allow these primitive rituals to persist, albeit with a more polished face.

To paraphrase Baig, to circumvent the abhorrent abuse of women,  society today needs to be liberated from the tyranny of modern paganism, just like they needed to be liberated from the tyranny of ancient paganism.