By Dr Shakira Choonara

Many of us are jumping for joy at the thought of another public holiday, myself included, but it’s also important to remind ourselves of the significance of national public holidays, the rationale behind them. The South African government has put our annual Heritage Day in place to “celebrate the cultural wealth of our nation, by remembering the cultural heritage of the many cultures that make up the population of South Africa”.

I must admit this is the first Heritage Day I am really taking stock with a gender lens to reflect on what it all really means almost 25 years into our democracy.

I don’t know about you but in some way, at least for me, the terms heritage, culture, religion and, in our South African context even race, are to some extent, in reality, all meshed up and sometimes interchangeable. All of these ideas come together to shape how we are perceived, what we are expected to do/ practice and how we interact with each other and treat each other, either with discrimination or respect.

Added to this mix is gender. Dare I say that Heritage Day itself and activities around it are a tad gender blind? Many of us are not conscious enough of gender on this day, myself included! While there is much to celebrate in the beauty of our diversity, there should also be the space to reflect on harmful cultural and traditional norms which ultimately shape gender norms. It is these gender norms which deepen gender inequality. In laywomen’s terms: who is assigned to do the dishes and cleaning versus working or relaxing and watching the sport?

Having worked in the gender equality space for the past three years, I have realised that not all cultural or traditional norms and practices are worth celebrating – for example early child marriages. In many parts of Africa, early marriages lead to forced sexual relations, early pregnancies and a disruption to girls’ education. We don’t pay much attention to the early marriages (Ukuthwala) here in South Africa. Looking back, both my maternal and paternal grandmothers were child brides and whether anyone will admit it or not, that affected their life trajectories in terms of their education, employment or rather lack of it, and even perhaps never having the space to dream and achieve their dreams.

Heritage also places us in those dreaded boxes that we are supposed to fit into. In my case, because I look “Indian” or was assigned the term “Indian” – never mind that I identify and feel African – there is still an assumption that I can make a samosa, roti or curry. Also, don’t forget the roti you make must be perfectly round, otherwise your overall competency may be in question, even in modern day South Africa. If you buy roti (like me), heaven forbid, what a scandal! If you’re a woman wanting to become a pilot or an engineer, what advice are you given against pursuing those careers? If you don’t have children, are you judged, do you receive advice on how to procreate or are you perhaps even considered to be cursed in your culture?

If we really think about it, all of these boxes, criteria and expectations are set by the meshing of our cultures, traditions and religions. The reality is that most of the harmful norms are only for women and othered genders e.g. transgender and gender-queer people. These norms determine when you should get married, who should do the household chores, who makes decisions, what career you should choose, what you wear, what you can and cannot do.

Of course, all of this is not cast in stone, you can question it and fight against it. Perhaps that’s where we should start this Heritage Day – understanding and standing up against the harmful elements of our heritage.

About the author: Dr Shakira Choonara is an Independent Public Health Practitioner and member of the Quote This Woman+ database.

Picture: President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers the keynote address at 2019 Heritage Day celebration in Upington. Photo: GCIS/Flickr (Creative Commons licence)

  • Views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not necessarily those of Quote This Woman+.