– Bertha Tobias
Young Namibian women are currently picking up the baton of revolutionary social change as it pertains to gender equality in the Land of the Brave. They currently self-determine in ways that our foremothers could have only dreamed for them. Importantly, they are running through the left-over shards of the glass ceiling which has been shattered by the sheroes who came before us.
When I reflect on the collective sociopolitical achievements of young, socially conscious Namibian women, I can’t help but recall a truly dynamic expression by American author and feminist, bell hooks: “when we dare to speak in a liberatory voice, we threaten even those who may initially claim to want our words. In the act of overcoming our fear of speech, of being seen as threatening, in the process of learning to speak as subjects, we participate in the global struggle to end domination.”
It goes without saying that, over the past few months, we have witnessed the power of young women who refuse to accept a reality which dismisses their humanity. We continue to witness the transformation of the socio-political atmosphere in Namibia, as well as the subsequent ushering in of a new era. One in which young, socially conscious women have brought a folding chair to the table when one wasn’t given to them. Every day, in different ways, young Namibian women challenge, resist and fight for a Namibia which sees them; a Namibia which is just a little bit kinder to them. This writing is a fight in itself.
In my own personal never-ending battle, I replenish through personal, rich dialogue. In line with this practice, I remember a conversation in which I asked a friend of mine: “but what is the point of it all? Will it ever get better? Does it all matter? Did any of this matter to begin with?” Disappointingly, her answer was that we probably won’t be alive to witness the change in our lifetimes… but it is coming. That was enough for me. And I like to believe that that is the spirit which continues to inspire the action we witness from young women who consistently initiate conversation and action.
Some of the most crucial conversations we have had as a country have successfully tugged at some very sensitive national heart chords. One such conversation, initiated by young Namibian women, forced us all to interrogate the operational rationality of our reproductive health services, or the lack thereof. In July of 2020, young Namibian women took to the streets to demand access to safe abortions. This collective action by young women speaks to their conviction to treat their agency and bodily autonomy as non-negotiables.
Similarly, the Slut Shame Walk, also organized by young black women, is a prime example of what happens when women exercise proactivity in affirming and reclaiming their dignity. Young Namibian women continue to defy the kind of respectability which is meant to gag, silence and humiliate them. Interventions such as the Slut Shame Walk, Missing Persons Unit, Power Pad Girls, Y-Fem and the like are all vibrant, dynamic and crucial civil society organizations powered by the relentless work of young Namibian women.
In the same way, in October of 2020, Namibia saw one of the largest protests we have ever witnessed as a nation -– led by young women! Hundreds of young Namibians gathered at the Zoopark in the centre of the country’s capital. Over a series of three days, young Namibians gathered at strategically symbolic locations such as the Ministry of Justice, the Windhoek Central Police Station, the University of Namibia’s main campus, as well as one of the biggest shopping malls in the country, Wernhil Park. The technical details of the #ShutItAllDown protests are well-documented and available on the internet. What is most significant about these protests is that they were organized and led by young women. A demographic largely composed of proactive, conscious millennial women continuously tests Namibia’s readiness for difficult, albeit important, conversations.
In February 2021, #ShutItAllDown was awarded $5000 by the African Union Office of the Youth Envoy, for highlighting and injecting urgency into the conversation on gender-based violence in Namibia. However, the significance of the award goes beyond the financial support. It is a symbolic affirmation of the importance of the work being done by young Namibian women.
Perhaps the most creatively interesting occurrence to witness at the #ShutItAllDown protests was the dancing to one of 2020’s most acclaimed songs, “WAP” by American rappers Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. Yet again, young Namibian women were intentional about demonstrating that their bodies are their own. The controversy surrounding twerking during protests and playing explicit music is exactly the kind of disruption which causes a discomfort which is intense enough to catapult us all into conversation.
Fortunately, controversial and important conversations did not end with #ShutItAllDown. Most recently, in April 2021, challenging dialogue about women’s autonomy has taken centre stage again in the form of ‘Slut Night’, a controversial event organised by the National Youth Council as part of the 14th National Youth Week activities. The misogyny-laced backlash against the prospect of a ‘Slut Night’ was met with an equally proportionate degree of rage by young women who expressed their frustration with politely waiting for the acknowledgement of their agency. Some of the sentiments used to justify the backlash against ‘Slut Night’ were that “Namibia is not ready.”
There are many cultural beliefs which are challenged by the persistent and tireless activism of young Namibian women, perhaps the biggest being that women need permission to exist as full human beings. This era of Namibian socio-culture is an interesting one, not only because young women are realizing the fullness of their capacity, but also because it demonstrates a core, seemingly counterintuitive aspect of culture: its capacity to change. Admittedly, cultural changes, by virtue of their ushering in of newness, can be disorienting for us all. But to that we say: exactly. That’s the point.
Young Namibian women have individually and collectively decided that they can no longer afford to wait for eventual readiness. A society which has culturally engineered the subjugation and degradation of women will not magically and spontaneously develop the readiness to address said subjugation. In recognition of that insight, young Namibian women are not deterred. The relegation and humiliation to which our foremothers were subjected seems to have ended with millennials.
The conversation and change has been ushered in, whether we like it or not. The message is loud and clear, anyone who is uncomfortable with the idea of women reclaiming their dignity is free to disengage, but the show will go on! We are, indeed, our ancestors’ wildest dreams!
Image credit: Nghidimondjila Hashikutuva
Bertha Tobias is a 20 year old International Relations and Leadership Studies second year student. She currently serves as Namibia’s Youth Charter Country Representative for the Office of the African Union Youth Envoy. A fellow of the Apolitical Academy, she has served on the frontlines of #ShutItAllDown, a Namibian national protest movement against sexual violence with an estimated combined social and non-social reach of 11 million. She is an Allan Gray beneficiary who has served as a consultant for United World College International Office. Her labour of love is serving as #BeFree Ambassador under the Office of the First Lady of the Republic of Namibia. Most recently, she has been appointed Vice President of the Claremont McKenna College Class of 2024.