Women Don’t Owe You A Smile Mr Editor

By Pinky Khoabane

JUST when we thought we’d heard all the racist and sexist remarks hurled at Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) Dr Nkosazana Dhlamin-Zuma, out came the age old sexist reprimand that she doesn’t smile enough. Enough for who or for what? 

For Dlamini-Zuma this criticism that she doesn’t smile is not only sexist but also resides in racist culture. Black women have been subjected to a long history of institutional racism that demands that they not only smile, but that they must also be light-skinned, be thin and have straight hair. Franz Fanon wrote at length about how white people have historically felt entitled to see black people smiling in order to perpetuate the myth that white oppression is not hurtful, damaging or dangerous. Racist culture has also projected black women as angry and the demand for them to smile is not only based in sexism but in racism as well. 

I suppose all had been said about Dlamini-Zuma – from being called a monkey, ugly and old – when this editor of a newspaper that was propped up by apartheid’s ill-gotten money – had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to add onto the insults. The racists had out-done him and the other sexist remarks had all been taken. And so, well….let’s go for “reputable” research on the woman’s smile. 

In lambasting Dlamini-Zuma’s supporters for rallying around her for what are blatant racist and sexist attacks – yes attacks – this male columnist had to go find “research, that is yet to be published in an academic journal” and which has been undertaken by “a reputable research institute”. This brilliant piece of work according to Mr Editor, “compared the number of times she smiled with the number of times former ANC spokesperson Carl Niehaus told the truth”. 

Unsurprisingly, we never get to learn the essence of the study apart from the fact that it counted the number of times Dlamini-Zuma smiles. 

He says: “If ever there was a politician with the hide of a rhino, it is Dlamini-Zuma, and smiling is not something that comes naturally to her.” Can you ever imagine the smile of a male politician or any man for that matter, being up for discussion let alone being a subject of a “reputable” study of research?

The expectation that women must smile is one in a long list of extremely annoying sexist comments and behaviours made towards women – smile, be quiet, only speak when spoken to, close your legs when sitting, walk-up straight, and perhaps the worst version of this being complete strangers thinking they have the automatic licence to touch your breasts. 

These are demands on women made by strangers. Men whistling at you, stroking your breasts, telling you to smile and others telling you how pretty you are or how beautiful your smile is and why you should smile more often. 

In the workplace, women who are serious and stone faced are perceived to be cold, unfeeling, angry, threatening and it could be career limiting. On the other hand, a man with the same composure is seen as strong, determined and confident. He’s a leader. 

Women have to change their routine to avoid being the target of male harassment – they have to smile more to get approval from men; wear clothes which won’t lead men to rape them; they have to change their walking routes and their pace to avoid male harassment. 

Western society has always been obsessed with a woman’s smile. In the past, a woman who smiled a lot was perceived as sinful, degrading women, treacherous. A woman who laughed a lot was opening her body to sin, to ensnare and to seduce. She was of low class and a slut. 

And with time, women were allowed to smile – they were pictured in advertisements and their smiles could sell products. From being deviants, their smiles became commercial and could sell any product. 

And from an early age, girls began being taught to smile, to be quiet and to speak when spoken to – when the opposite is demanded of boys. Women must be polite, be attentive and be non confrontational. 

Dlamini-Zuma has been blamed for just about all the bungles of government’s response to Covid-19 while President Cyril Ramaphosa was praised for government’s positive response to the pandemic. Until the cigarettes ban, he was the face of government’s response to Covid-19. Even today, research studies show that the public is on his side and not so much for the Minister. 

Dlamini-Zuma does not tick the stereotypical boxes of what constitutes a non-threatening, friendly and agreeable woman. She has been attacked from all angles. While these have come from social media platforms, they have also been allowed to fester in newsrooms and the broader institutions in our society such as the so-called “reputable” research institution which formed the basis of Mr Editor’s diatribe. 

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