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19 March 2020 | Story Opinion article by Prof Hussein Solomon | Photo Supplied
Hussein Soloman
Prof Hussein Solomon, Senior Professor: Political Studies and Goverance

The world celebrated International Women’s Day on 8th March 2020. Such symbolic days, however, seem to have little effect on the actual status of women in the world as a recent United Nations report notes. Despite strides towards greater gender equality, the world body notes there is not a single country which has achieved gender equality. Moreover, 90 percent of men and women hold some bias against females. The statistics are alarming: 50 percent of men thought they had more rights to a job than women, and a third of respondents in 75 countries felt it was acceptable for men to hit women. In China, 55 percent of respondents felt that men make better political figures. Even in what used to be regarded as the bastion of liberal democracy, the USA, 39 percent agreed with the statement that men make better political leaders than women.

Participation of women in the labour force

Disappointing as these figures are, there is hope if one considers how patriarchy is being overcome in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. It is here where patriarchy first developed between 3100 B.C and 600 B.C. It is also the region which has experienced the least gender progress in the world. The figures are incontrovertible. Given the widely held view that women belong in the domestic sphere focusing on keeping house and child-rearing, there are low rates of participation of women in the labour force. Only 24 percent of women in the MENA region are employed, whilst the figure for their male counterparts is 77 percent.  Moreover, according to a report of the International Labour Organization, young women with higher education have a slim chance of entering employment than their less-educated male counterparts. This has negative consequences for the household economy and the economy at large, and it perpetuates greater dependence male family members (husbands, fathers, brothers) -patriarchy, built as it is on vertical power relations, is further entrenched.

The absence of women in positions of power is glaring in the MENA region, as is their absence in governance which is made possible by patriarchal attitudes.  According to the Arab Barometer the majority of respondents believe in limiting the role of women in society. Within the home, 60 percent believe that the husband should be the final decision maker in matters impacting the family. Moreover, only a third of the Arab public believe that women are as effective as men in public leadership roles.

Resisting marginalisation

Whilst the marginalization and oppression of women is a sad truism of MENA countries, this should not be the norm. Patriarchy was constructed and can be deconstructed. The challenge for feminists then is to actively resist their marginalization in conjunction with other progressive players and to utilize the tectonic changes underway in the Middle East – from the penetration of the internet, to making common cause with progressive forces in society to open up the democratic space. Democratic space in this sense does not only mean the fight for the ballot but also emancipation in every sense – including freedom from patriarchy. There is reason to believe that some of this is beginning to happen in the region.  Consider, for instance, how Morocco’s rural women in an effort to access land from conservative tribal authorities, formed action committees called Sulaliyyates. These challenged tribal authorities and women’s subordination in the family and the work place.

There is reason to believe that women’s experiences in mobilizing against authoritarian regimes in the region have resulted in a new consciousness on their part. They see the connection between their own oppression and the need for emancipation of the broader society. When women took to the streets against Al-Bashir in Sudan it was their awareness of how fuel shortages and inflation brought on by corrupt and inefficient governance were increasing household food security. Following the July 2019 agreement between the military junta and the alliance of opposition parties, there was an effort to force women back into the home to play their “traditional” roles. However, women have remained politically engaged and mobilised – decrying everything from the persistence of sexual harassment to demanding the prosecutions of those involved in wrong-doing from the Bashir era.

Social justice and gender equality

Women activists are also pushing back on the streets of Tehran, Ankara and Algiers. In Tehran, women’s’ grassroot movements are calling on Islamic Republic to fulfil their promises of social justice and gender equality. Their resistance to patriarchy has taken the form of disobedience, refusal, and subversion. Initially their activism sought to reform the rule of the mullahs within the prevailing system spurred on by a reformist president – President Khatami - who demonstrated greater receptivity to gender equality. In the past two years women’s groups in Iran increasingly called for the end of Iran’s post-1979 system of governance as they view such theocracy as antithetical to the cause of gender emancipation. In Ankara, feminists have taken on domestic violence by forming the Purple Roof Women’s Shelter Foundation in an effort to collectively fight abuse in the family.

Meanwhile, in Algiers, women have been at the forefront of the protest movement against the establishment or what Algerians term a “Le Pouvoir” – the cabal of generals, businessmen and politicians of the ruling party which govern this North African country. For 19-year old Miriam Saoud, it was seeing the back of this political elite that impoverished ordinary Algerians through their corrupt practices. For 22-year old political science student Amina Djouadi, it was about real political representation for male and female citizens. Whilst the presence of this younger generation of women makes sense given the fact that half of Algeria’s population is below thirty years of age, who bear the brunt of unemployment - older women have also been on the Algerian streets. Elderly Nissa Imad was also on the streets protesting. All five of her children are unemployed. Explaining her presence against the barricades she defiantly states, “I am here for the young, for our kids. There’s nothing for the young generations. No jobs and no houses. They can’t get married. We want this whole system to go”. It is clear from the narratives of these women that they see the connection between their daily lived experiences of disempowerment and marginalization, and the broader structural causes, and therefore are actively seeking the end of the patriarchal and oppressive political and economic order.

Changing attitudes

Despite the MENA region having the largest gender gap of all regions in the world, there is hope too. Attitudes are changing and becoming less patriarchal - the Arab Barometer starkly demonstrates this, where 75 percent in the MENA region support women’s access to tertiary education, 84 percent believe that women should be allowed to work in the labour force, whilst 62 percent believe that women should be allowed into political office. What accounts for these progressive attitudes? First, there seems to be a generational divide with younger people (which comprise the majority in the MENA region) holding less patriarchal views. Second, with access to tertiary education, those holding post-secondary qualifications are less discriminatory in their attitudes than those without post-school qualifications. The momentum for a post-patriarchal MENA region is therefore increasing.

This article was written by Prof Hussein Solomon, Senior Professor: Political Studies and Goverance 

News Archive

During 2011: Highlights at the UFS

2011 was a phenomenal year in the life of the University of the Free State and the memorable moments will be engraved in the history of this proud institution.

World Universities Forum honours the UFS

The UFS was awarded the World Universities Forum (WUF) Award for Best Practice in Higher Education during 2010.The Best Practice Award recognises the most significant practices of the year around the world. The university’s implementation of a number of interlocking innovations to transform the institution is recognised with the award.

These innovations include: campus-wide racial integration for students; reinvigoration of the academic culture; nurturing of the most promising young scholars by means of the Vice-Chancellor's Prestige Young Scholars Programme; sending 71 first-year students to top American universities to assist with their development into non-racial campus leaders; the revision of the undergraduate curriculum to promote a cross-disciplinary approach to key societal problems; raising the entry requirements; the facilitation of open access to campus leadership through sessions with the Vice-Chancellor and Rector; extension of this spirit of dialogue internationally through the inauguration of its International Advisory Council consisting of key thinkers and practitioners; the identification of 20 of the most dysfunctional high schools in the Free State and the building of relationships with those schools.

This university-school partnership is based on a strict contract of reciprocal commitments to increase the chances of black children attending university. The WUF applauded this as the most innovative step.

New branding for our 107-year old institution

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Our university turned a fresh new page with the launch of a new brand that will take the institution on its path to new horizons.

Two primary brands were adopted – an evolved academic crest and a new marketing brand for the institution’s offerings and services. The very foundation of the UFS is built on a dynamic learning environment where academic excellence and the development of leadership qualities. The new brand seeks to adapt to the changing needs of society, without sacrificing its rich history and heritage.

The rebranding process involved one of the most expansive and intensive process of consultations with staff, alumni, Senate, Council and other stakeholders.

The new brand is anchored in the university’s renewed motto “In Veritate Sapientiae Lux” (In Truth is the Light of Wisdom), which has been evolved to embrace the diversity of the community at the university without losing its essence.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu receives an honorary doctorate

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One of the great sons of Africa, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, received an honorary doctor of Theology and opened the International Institute for Studies in Race, Reconciliation and Social Justice on the Bloemfontein Campus at the beginning of 2011.

The Institute originated in the Reitz incident of 2008 and embodies the UFS’s determination to be a place where reconciliation, forgiveness and social justice would not only be studied, but where it would also be applied. Students and scholars from across the world can study the theory and practice of building societies across the boundaries of race, as well as religion, gender, disabilities and national origin.

By honouring Dr Tutu, the UFS recognises the contribution he has made in the field of Theology through his teachings and the books he has written. The UFS not only honoured him as a moral and religious leader who has maintained his integrity as a Christian, but also as “a great son of South Africa who has made a huge contribution to peace, reconciliation and justice in South Africa and in the world”.

Reconciliation closes book on the Reitz incident

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The Reitz incident, that has taken the UFS to front pages and news headlines, could come to closure this year with a reconciliation ceremony between the former students and staff members. The parties involved could meet in private and also took part in a public ceremony with many dignitaries witnessing the closure of the incident and repercussions it had.

Messages of apology were read by Prof. Teuns Verschoor, Vice-Rector: Institutional Affairs, on behalf of the UFS, and Mr Danie Grobler, on behalf of the former students. A message of acceptance of the apologies was read by Ms Emmah Koko on behalf of the workers.

Deputy Chairperson of the South Africa Human Rights Commission, Commissioner Pregs Govender, said of this historic event: “The courage and compassion shown by the workers together with the students’ willingness to embrace the spirit of change have enabled a process of justice, transformation and reconciliation that is an inspiring example for South Africa.”

Grade 12s attend first Leadership Summit

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More than 280 learners from all over South Africa and Namibia attended a three-day Leadership Summit on the Bloemfontein Campus in April 2011. The goal of the summit was to enable young leaders to develop their leadership capabilities by looking beyond their normal boundaries.

Prof. Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector, addressed the learners on leadership while Mr Louie de Necker, a training consultant, spoke about conflict resolution. Other highlights included a visit to the Boyden Observatory, picnic suppers, an introduction to residence life, a social evening, and a prize-giving ceremony aimed at learners who distinguished themselves as potential leaders during the three-day visit.

UFS honours great teachers

Our university and Sunday Times have joined hands in identifying 150 of the greatest teachers, who moved, inspired and transformed South Africans during their time at school. The project culminated in the book Great Teachers.

These are the teachers who stood out among their colleagues and made a lasting impact on their learners, inspiring them to excel, long after the mathematical equations and English literature tests are forgotten. The book is a powerful account of inspired and inspiring teachers.

All proceeds from the sales of the book will be used to provide bursaries to student teachers of today, who may become the great teachers for tomorrow’s generation.

Graduations now a celebration

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By changing its format, graduations are now a festival to celebrate years of hard work and dedication of students and lecturers at our university. Some of the changes include the gathering of the procession on the Red Square in front of the Main Building, from where it moves to the Callie Human Centre. The graduation programme is also filled with music and song items with various young speakers addressing and inspiring the audience.

A total of 83 doctorates were conferred this year, making it the highest number in the history of the university.

African Student Affairs Conference a huge success

The first African Student Affairs Conference (ASAC) was hosted by our university. The conference was attended by delegates from universities across the continent and was aimed to place the focus on issues relating to student affairs in an African context.

Delegates shared and exchanged strategies, ideas and resources, and discussed issues related to the work of student-affairs professionals. A delegate from Nigeria said it was an important conference for Africa and it should become a regular event.

Research published in Nature

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A research article on the work by a team under the leadership of Prof. Esta van Heerden, and counterparts in Belgium and the USA, has been published in the distinguished academic journal Nature on Thursday 2 June 2011.

The article – Nematoda from the terrestrial deep subsurface of South Africa – sheds more light on life in the form of a small worm (nematode) living under extreme conditions in deep, hot mines. It was discovered in one of the gold mines in the Free State.

The research can shed some new light on the possibility of life on other planets, previously considered impossible under extreme conditions. It also expands the possibilities into new areas where new organisms may be found.

Postgraduate School is one of a kind

Our Postgraduate School was launched with the aim of bringing research-bases education in line with national priorities and the focus of the UFS Academic Turnaround Strategy of 2010. It spans across our facilities.

The focus of the school is to produce graduates who are global citizens, research literate and able to reflect ethically on the purpose, process and product of research; to improve throughput rates of postgraduate students; and to make the experience of being a postgraduate at our university one which is stimulating, enjoyable and which contributes to the development of people beyond the limits of their disciplines.

Oprah Winfrey now a Kovsie

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World attention was drawn to our university when an honorary doctorate in Education was conferred on media icon Oprah Winfrey on 24 June 2011 at our Bloemfontein Campus. The graduation was probably the biggest ceremony of its kind in South Africa, with more than 4 500 people attending.

Our university honoured her for her accomplishments and unparalleled work as a global media leader, as well as a philanthropist with vision and foresight in the field of education and development.

Prof. Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of our university, said: “It is a great privilege for us to be the first South African university to honour Ms Winfrey in this way and to be able to recognise a global icon of her stature.”

UFS doctors make history in South Africa

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Two procedures took the UFS to the forefront of the medical world this year.

History was made with the first implant of a special new aortic valve in South Africa. The advantage of this new valve is that it can be implanted percutaneously through a catheter from the groin. This eliminates the need for invasive surgery.

The valve is made from porcine pericardium (tissue derived from pigs) and is mounted on an expandable stent, which is threaded along an artery, until it reaches its desired position. The valve is especially useful in older patients who suffer from aortic valve disease and pose a high surgical risk. It also reduces hospitalisation time.

A rare malignant tumour was also removed in groundbreaking heart surgery. What makes this operation unique, is that the suspicious mass, identified in the heart of a 51-year old man, was rapidly growing into a highly invasive cardiac tumour seen in a small number of patients worldwide.

In the highly complex, 10-hour operation the entire right heart chamber had to be removed and the heart reconstructed.

School of Open Learning adds value

The activities of the new school are driven by a central principle: opening up access to those who have not had the opportunity to study at a higher-education institution due to geographical location, socio-economic circumstances or other factors.

Programmes are delivered through a blended-learning model, which blends contact teaching with distance education.

The school will collaborate with our various faculties, and is managing the continuing education-sponsored endeavours of the Faculty of Education. These include projects for in-service training of teachers in Mathematics, Natural and Physical Sciences, Languages, Literacy, Economic and Management Sciences, Technology and various areas of Management and Leadership.

Second group of young leaders abroad

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A second group of first-year students in the Leadership for Change Programme visited universities in the USA, Europe and Asia. Our university could extent the programme to 150 students, up from 71 in 2010.

These students are seen as a leadership core, not only for their university life, but also in public life outside the university borders.

The main purpose behind the programme is to expose students to positive models of racial integration. Their experiences will go a long way towards changing and enriching the minds of young leaders, who have committed to building a truly non-racial society in South Africa.

Odeion School of Music launched

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Our former Department of Music transformed into the Odeion School of Music. The name Odeion name portrays not only an excellent asset in the Free State, but also nationally and internationally.

The school’s new name bears the respected Odeion brand and a number of successful and respected ensembles operate under this brand. These include the residential Odeion String Quartet, student ensembles, the Junior Odeion String Quartet, the Odeion Sinfonia, and the Odeion Choir.

The formation of the school paths the way for more flexibility to complement its profile with new developments. These include the application of prestigious international experts as artistic fellows, membership to progressive European, jointly-developed degree programmes and curriculum development initiatives, the founding of a chair in Orchestra Conducting, a master’s degree in Arts Management, as well as the incorporation of bio-kinetics in the teaching methodologies of performance practice.

World-class Chemistry facilities opened

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World-class Chemistry facilities, with state-of-the art equipment, opened on the Bloemfontein Campus.

The upgrading of the facilities and addition and replacement of equipment were the single biggest investment at our university in a long time.

Specialised research by the Department of Chemistry includes X-ray crystallography, electrochemistry, synthesis of new molecules, the development of new methods to determine rare elements, water purification, as well as the measurement of energy and temperatures responsible for phase changes in molecules, the development of agents to detect cancer and other defects in the body, and many more.

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