Revisiting the Notion of a Strong Black Woman : We Value Happiness and Sound Mental Health too!

As a black woman I can relate with the rhetoric of a “strong black woman” solely because of how it is perpetuated in media and culture.  We celebrate the resilience and the “first black woman” more than we celebrate a woman who prioritises her happiness, irrespective of what that looks like and is received in society. The strong black woman rhetoric resonates with me because I grew up being told that the chemical burn of a relaxer should be endured, because of the myopic view that strength embodied in endurance. It is still expected, that my grandmother ought to cook everyone’s favourite meal when she gets a visitor, without even inquiring if she is ok with that.

In my native language, there is a proverb we attribute to the “strong black woman” which states:  “mosadi o tshwara thipa ka bogaleng.” Loosely translated, this means the posture of a knife in a strong black woman’s hands, has to be right were the knife cuts, because that is how strong a woman is, or ought to be. If I ever mention how tired I am, how hard things are, the immediate response is always “well, you need to be strong. That is what black women are.” I lived to witness the embodiment of this strength in seeing black women around me struggling to make ends meet, sacrificing their dreams for their families and withstanding storms to be crowned the strong black woman.

In my young adult life, the same monster called “the strong black woman” manifested itself differently. The same rhetoric wearing a different mask, presented itself as an over achiever, breaking corporate glass ceilings and sacrificing happiness and mental health to live up to the “first black woman” notion. The pressure to overachieve and ensuring that no one ever sees you sweat, forms part of what makes up the strong black woman rhetoric. By no means is this to diminish the value of standing in your truth and building intellectual wealth and systems that will benefit and ensure adequate representation of women across all spheres of influence. However, this lethal crown has made the strength of a black woman myopic in perception, and limited it to toiling and enduring.

As we approach women’s month in South Africa, which will be celebrated on the 9th of August, it is imperative to revisit the social constructs that shape what it means to be a woman, particularly a woman of colour, within the South African and global context.

On 9 August 1956, 20,000 women left petitions containing more than 100,000 signatures at prime minister J.G. Strijdom‘s office door. The women stood silently outside his door for 30 minutes and then sang a protest song that was composed in honour of the occasion: “Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo!” (“Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock!”).

National Women’s Day | flickr upload bot | flickr

While we rightfully celebrate National Women’s Day, which commemorates the national march of women in 1956 to petition against legislation that required African people to carry the ‘pass’, we need to reflect on celebrating the “strength” of black woman and what that perpetuates in our modern day society.

In a country with close to 28 million women, who make up 50.5% of the population, South Africa still finds itself facing a plethora of social issues which have been detrimental to the development and well-being of women. On average, 1 in 5 South African women over 18 years old have experienced physical violence. The picture of gender-based attacks varies according to marital status and wealth. 4 in 10 divorced or separated women reported physical violence and 1 in 3 women in the poorest households reported the same. Furthermore, statistics indicate that 26% to 31% of households in the Eastern and Western Cape are headed by women. These figures reflect the continued marginalization and challenges women face in South Africa, despite efforts to counter this, and years after the iconic moment in 1956.

In a society with conditions such as the abovementioned, it has become a norm to celebrate women who go beyond the “ordinary” to capacitate and stretch themselves in breaking glass ceilings, embodying the rhetoric of a “strong black woman” who stood “against all odds”. These women have duly received the badge of honour, namely “the first black woman to..” It is common knowledge that we celebrate any woman who has made it for example as one of the 5% of CEOs in the private sector in Africa who are female compared to 4% globally. This celebration is  more than we would a give to a woman who chooses to become a housewife. The higher the resistance levels and peaked endurance levels of a woman, the more iconic she is considered in today’s society.

The continued endorsement by society of this race-gender schema should be aligned to the needs, evolution, and mental health of black women. Though self-efficacy is a quality regarded as being built through resilience, the burdensome crown does not to take into account the emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion women are faced with. No one talks about the 10% to 15% of women suffer from Postpartum Mood Disorders (PPMDs), including Postpartum Depression (PPD), postpartum anxiety/Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Postpartum Psychosis.

The strong black woman rhetoric does not take into account that South Africa has the 8th highest suicide rate in the World. The discreet relief offered in social groups older women disguise as just “social clubs” or “stokvels” have become havens were women can take time off their busy schedules to deal with just a fragment of their mental health issues. The extended coffee days and bathroom breaks are the only places were the “strong black woman” can rest. The suppressed depression, frustration and pressure experienced are also factors we should celebrate and should be embodied in the rhetoric of a strong black woman.

Resilience isn’t underpinned in piling up expectations and absorbing the pressure in order to fit the notion of a strong black woman. Breaking glass ceilings should never surpass the importance of rest, recuperating, and prioritising happiness.  The pride and pressure presented in the nurture instinct of a woman is a trait to be respected and protected at all costs, and not to be exploited. In retrospect and tracing what celebrating the strength of a woman entails, it is pivotal to also understand the role of rest,  happiness and of a woman prioritising herself over her perceived strength. The journey towards adequate representation, eliminating social ills, and building our society for inclusive and cohesive existence, should not push us towards the breakdown of our mental and emotional well-being, which is to be regulated and prioritised.

Featured image | Michael Coghlan | A Woman’s Strength| Flickr

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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