All posts for the month March, 2012

Applying a feminist framework to the problems experienced by transgender women in Africa.

Published March 13, 2012 by transfeminists

Good Day friends and followers, donors, allies, colleagues and family

Hope you are all doing well and that you dont overwork yourself in the hectic circumstances of the non-profit sector. Friends, as you will remember, last week we had started unpacking transgender feminism as a concept. Following that article, this week we look at why it has become necessary to frame the problems experienced by transgender women within a feminist framework. We also ventured into the concept of femininity and how this concept can often end up caging us since many of us have this narrow frame of reference of what is feminine and what is masculine, overlooking the fluidity of gender. Here is our article and opinion piece for this week, straight from the coordinator’s pen. Enjoy!!!!

By Leigh Ann van der Merwe

Leigh Ann is the co-ordinator for S.H.E, which is not only the affirmation of the female pronoun by which transgender women identify themselves, it is also an acronym for the social, health and empowerment coalition for transgender women in Africa. It is an informal organisation working with already existing transgender and feminist organisations in order to create unity and harmony amongst the two movements and also to create visibility of transgender women within feminist circles.

Much like the emerging transgender movement in Africa, the feminist movement grew from the struggles of women who yearned for liberation and emancipation from oppression. Gender is the common theme between the feminist and transgender movements. It is being used as a tool to oppress and curtail the freedom of these marginalised groups of people.

Transgender and cisgender women alike experience similar problems. The toughest audience to convince about the reasons for having a transgender feminist movement in Africa, is actually transgender women themselves. The biggest debate at the moment is whether transgender women should be considered women and consequently, do they qualify to be feminists? This is a really political space that in my opinion, on which consensus will be reached with a whole lot of dialogue, debate and patience. The one thing that trans feminists should not do is to negotiate with radical feminists around the concepts of masculinity and femininity. The feminist movement is centred on the principle that capability stretch beyond biology. So it is really hypocritical of radical, vehement  and transphobic feminists like Janice Raymond, Sheila Jeffries and Mary Daly to play the anatomical (as in biology) and chromosomal card. That is just wrong.

The following is an extract of an electronic conversation between transgender women in the South-Eastern African region. This captures the ideology of womanhood, femininity and feminism. This conversation puts forward the idea of basic womanhood while it also explores what is acceptable and what is not. The conversation is set off by a link put on the listserve by a transgender woman from an African state:

Sammy:”There is a lot more to being a woman than dressing up and trying to attract men. Maybe they (transgender women) are insecure so feel they have to over compensate but that just makes them seem even more manly”.

Leona:”I do agree, somewhat, that for many a transsexual women, the need to fit in and become ‘the woman’ can sometimes become so much that they over do it. I just think it’s something that needs to be talked about”.

Sammy:”By the way its this ‘overdoing’ that resulted to the animosity that existed (and still exist) between a section of the trans community and a section of the feminist community. The overdoing it reinforced the very foundation of stereotypical behaviour and prejudice that women were fighting”.

Samantha:”I agree Sammy about the overdoing that led to tension between the trans and the feminist sector. And what is really stupid is that trans and cis-gender women experience common problems and as Leona said, this could be talked out. I really agree that there needs to be more dialogue between these sectors”.

Sammy:”Yes, Samantha. I agree with you. I think us, Trans women should not behave awkwardly because it send a bad message about women in general. We should be normal and stop the flamboyant behaviour I see among some peeps because for these peeps they are just acting or making fun of women. Then we swing along and we come out ridiculous and fake. We need to convince the feminists we are not what they think we are”.

Bonitta:”ha! Transexual Women overdressing something to think about”.

Sammy:”Cis-gender women confuse us with shemales, crossdressers and effeminate gay men with their irritating flamboyant behaviour both in the real world and in movies we end up suffering for it on top of this behaviour diluting our legitimacy”.

In a final email, Samantha says:” I don’t know why there is the overdoing of make-up and dress sense for transgender women but my theory is that a lot of it has to do with the way in which they were socialized. Generally, ALL women are prompted to follow a certain protocol when they become of age. I too, Sammy have made the mistake of toooo much make-up, skinny outfits and skinny, glittery clothes but soon realised that those are not the things that define me or my femininity. I am urging trans women to look beyond foundation, eye-shadow and mascara and start internalising the struggle that is facing transgender women on this continent”.

This conversation reflects many differing opinions on what is necessary and what is not. More than anything, it draws a distinction between what is feminine and what is necessary. While some feel that transgender women have every right to express their gender by the most feminine gestures, others feel it is these gestures that anger cis-gender feminists and adds to why transgender women are seen as ridiculing femininity.  Gender is a fluid concept and nothing is absolute for transgender women who transition and want to express their gender identities in sex-positive ways, be it through make-up, through glittery outfits, through extravagant gestures. There should not be a list of what is and what is not feminine. Who decides on such a list anyway?

Whichever way the conversation goes, one thing is very clear. Transgender women are just that at the end of the day: WOMEN! It is with this in mind that I call all diverse groups of women, trans women, cis-gender women, women of colour, disabled women, refugee women to the table to witness the plight of transgender women and all other minority female groups. Trans women and feminists need each other in this struggle fighting patriarchy in Africa. As a transgender woman of colour who grew up in rural South Africa, no one can claim that I ever had male privilege and no one can claim that I still hold male privilege because I have not been socialized as a male person. I grew up believing I was a woman and did feminine things. I fought harder in the feminist struggle than I fought the transgender battle so it makes no sense to me that feminists would not welcome me to the table as a (trans) WOMAN.

We trust this was a good read and look forward to another information, jam-packed opinion piece next week. Here is wishing you a super week dear friends.

Until next week

Leigh Ann

S.H.E, The social, health and empowerment coalition of transgender women in Africa.


34 B Rotterdam Road, Pefferville, East London, 5209.

Tel: + 27 738110789

Fax: 0862603971








Unpacking transgender feminism

Published March 5, 2012 by transfeminists

Dear friends, colleagues, donors, loved ones, allies……..

It has been a while and we are so happy to add another post to our informative blog. So when I was approached by a trans-friendly feminist offering to write a piece for our blog, I jumped at the opportunity. Our guest writer is Busi Deyi, a feminist, writer, humanitarian, great trans support and just an amazing woman and person. These are Busi’s reflections on the rise of the transgender feminist movement in Africa

There is a mistaken belief that feminism is targeted at men, that these creatures that walk with a phallus dangling between their legs is the enemy and that our efforts, endeavours and war cries must be directed at them. When we see these male specimens we ‘cock’ –pun intended-our mouths and we are ready to fire accurately aimed words and stand up for our ideals as feminists. Patriarchy has come to be symbolised by masculinity- more accurately, the male body, and feminism by femininity. And in between this dichotomy, the transgender community has become a none neutral, neutral ground.  The male body and indeed the male penis has come to represent the patriarchal society that feminists have dedicated their entire existence to fighting but-this is where shit hits the fan- I think their wrong.

Let’s backtrack shall we? Feminism arose from the realization that our destinies were not necessarily connected to the form of our bodies. That one’s identity and indeed ones destiny as to who they were and how they externalised and expressed their identities could be based purely on their own sense of agency, their own sense of who they felt they were internally, beyond societal constraints and assumed roles based on the biological arrangement of their XY-XX chromosomes. Come  back to the rise of transfeminism, the idea of a transgender feminist is oxymoronic and unsettling to a lot of cis-gendered feminists, this is because we have come to associate the male form with patriarchy and literally have come to regard those that are in a male form as part and parcel of the system that has demarcated womyn to the margins of society and stripped them of their ‘subject-hood’ and sense of self-determination and yet we do not see this development in feminist thinking as dangerous-think about it.

To accord a certain symbolic status to the male form we are reverting back to the very status quo our feminist ancestors sought to over throw- that body determines destiny, that somehow who we are is intricately linked to ‘what’ we are biologically . We are inadvertently saying that yes, your body does determine your destiny. That womyn born in males bodies, M-T-F’s, cannot possibly be feminists and understand the feminist struggle. This is perhaps not surprising. The body is the one thing through which we interact with the world. We use the body to express ourselves, to give meaning and identity to our internal ideologies and crisis’s. The body is the one thing that we utilize in love, in protest and identification and an ambiguous body is dangerous, or viewed as dangerous because it does not lend itself to our discriminations and does not fit into our dichotomy of male and female and the assigned patriarchy v feminist to the respective forms.


So, where to from here? Cis-gender feminists cannot legitimately close the doors to transfeminism and transgender womyn cannot legitimately stay away from claiming the title of feminist, why??? Because I believe that the transfeminist movement holds the key that could empower feminists in understanding truly what we have been advocating for when we said our bodies do not determine our destiny. In my own personal view transgender individuals hold the key to a more tolerant and accepting society, if we can break the gender binary that exists currently, if we can show society that we are humans regardless of what is between our legs, who we love and how we love them than we have an opportunity to create a society in which your gender and how we express it is not determined by our biological form.

Someone really smart said something along these lines, “every battle championed by minorities is my battle” and that has been my motto, I have realized that by standing for the rights of other minorities I am in fact indirectly pursuing my own. Transgender feminists represent the polycentric nature of being human.  When the voices of minorities manage to bring about change, the collective consciousness of society is penetrated and this presents an opportunity for us as minority groups to further establish ourselves and loosen the societal constraints that have stifled individual self determination.

Here’s the deal, the feminist movement exists within a larger social movement and each sub-movement is part of a larger system of interdependent pieces defined by their relationship to all other pieces. To think of the feminist movement as independent from other social movements is a fallacy and highly misguided. We need to see feminism as a transformational movement, as feminists we seek to transform society and make it possible for all persons to exercise self determination in determining their destinies. Every victory loosens ever so slightly the societal chains that have prevented change and real reform through social conscientization.

Transgender feminists are not agents of patriarchy or a mockery to feminism, they are a celebration of the central principles that feminists have long sought to have recognized. They are a celebration of the idea that self determination is a principle worth fighting for, that we as feminists in all body forms have become a social movement that can create spaces that enable those that are differently gendered to express their true selves.

Feminists and feminism must always seek to transform not only society and the prejudices and boundaries that have been placed but they must at all times be self critical about how we relate to other minority movements. We must always seek to transform ourselves and be constantly critical of ourselves and our associations with other marginalized groups.

This is a very good piece Busi wrote for us and we thank her for this contribution. Later in the week we will publish our report and reflections of attending the Amanitare Coalition meeting which took place in Cape Town 28 and 29 February. Until then friends………….

Leigh Ann