Every year, South Africa sets aside this day to pay homage to its fathers. Despite the day’s absorption into the capitalist machinery of consumerism, Fathers’ Day provides us with an opportunity to reimagine the role of fathers and father figures within our homes and communities – particularly when it comes to deconstructing patriarchy and rape culture. This calls upon us to move away from the status quo by accepting two propositions: the first being that fatherhood (parenting in general actually) goes beyond merely providing material support and protection to children, and the second being that fatherhood masculinities are not irreconcilable with feminism. To my mind, the task of reimagining fatherhood needs to take place along three planes: the fathers’ sense of self, the father’s relationship with their parenting partner and the father’s presence in the development of the child’s sense of self and sense of the world.
In the first instance, the gateway for fathers and father figures taking up their legitimate space in addressing rape culture is by starting with their individual sense of self as bodies existing within a macro system organised disproportionally along the lines of race, sexuality, class and gender. In terms of gender, fathers as male presenting bodies need to understand the significance and urgency of reimagining obsolete gender constructs. They need to be active in reading, listening and learning about how patriarchy has privileged their bodies and psyches and how it has made unacceptable thinking and behaviour conceived in misogyny, sexism and rape culture normative. They need to take responsibility for their complacence in the system and expressly commit themselves to doing better. This process of self-reflection and unlearning also requires fathers and father figures to lobby and organise their fellows to follow suit.
In delegitimising patriarchy, fathers and father figures must strive to maintain an exemplary relationship with their parenting partners. Building a healthy and egalitarian relationship with their parenting partners means rejecting the biased gendered division of power when parenting and adopting an approach that is in the best interest of all the parties, especially that of the child. It also translates into fathers willingly sharing power with their parenting partners, by maintaining consultation, critical self-reflection, respect and trust. However, this commitment to gender equity cannot end within the boundaries of parenting; it must be reflected in how fathers engage other gendered bodies outside of parenting. Put differently, the father’s relationship with the other parents must reflect his relationship with other people outside that space, whether it be sexual partners, colleagues, siblings and even their children. Fathers must reject patriarchal parenting constructs of fathers being protectors and providers and mothers nurturers and caretakers. It should be an overarching desire of fathers to provide material support, physical protection and emotional care to their children.
But perhaps the most important area for South African fathers to apply a critical feminism perspective today is demarcating the place that they ought to occupy in the development of their child’s sense of the self and worldview. Feminism and fatherhood must intersect in order to create safe and healthy spaces for children to construct their own identities and relationships with persons harbouring other identities. Children should be allowed the space to explore the full spectrum of gender expression. The spaces that fathers create for their children must facilitate their children acquiring a grasp of the intersection of oppression along the lines of inter alia gender, race, class, sexual orientation and age. Sex can no longer be a taboo subject, which fathers avoid speaking about. Fathers must be there to guide girl and boy child alike, about the pleasures of having sex as well of its possible consequences. Implicit in this conversation is that the boundaries of sexual engagements must be discussed as something unequivocally demarcated with an emphasis on consent, safety and equal power.
Communities have a collective responsibility in building spaces in which we can all exist. Fathers form part of our communities and therefore are not exempted from this responsibility. Moreover, this responsibility of fatherhood transcends relationships with their offspring and extends to all youth within the community. Rape Crisis prioritises facilitating spaces which enable our communities to be active agents in collectively turning the tide on sexual violence by dismantling patriarchy and rape culture. We call on all father figures to take their place in these spaces and to contribute to making change in their homes and in their communities.
Sandile studies law and media studies at UCT and is a passionate advocate for gender rights and intersectional issues of race, class and gender. Sandile also joined Rape Crisis’s communications team this year.