Professor Narnia Bohler-Muller On Feminism & Using The law For Gender Justice

By: Edinah Masanga

Professor Narnia Bohler-Muller is a remarkable example of female power and how pivotal education is in helping women occupy positions of power and influence. She is one of the few women who has gone as far as being shortlisted for the position of Public Protector in South Africa.

Walk me through who is Professor Narnia Bohler-Muller?

I studied law, obtaining my BJuris LLB LLM at the University of Port Elizabeth and graduated with an LLD at the University of Pretoria in 2006. The topic of my doctorate was on gender equality entitled “Developing a New Jurisprudence of Gender Equality in South Africa”. My focus was on how the law and the courts pay attention to the voices and stories of women, with a strong emphasis on developing an ethic of care from a feminist perspective, which I tried to couple with the African value of Ubuntu/ Botho. Since then I have become less of an idealist, especially since working in the policy arena. It’s a tough space to be in and care is not something people practice much or even think about. But I remain a gender activist and try to change the environment in which I work, making it less intimidating, less macho. That is harder than it sounds.

Women are often side-lined or trivialized, so I make sure that other women are afforded the space to speak and be listened to. This has forced me to become more assertive, a “bitch” as some would say.

And as I am trying to make space for others, especially women, I have to defend my own space. And look after me.

By creating space for other women, one could say you are mentoring them by example?

I love mentoring other women as I was mentored by a remarkable woman myself. She was committed to the empowerment of women and saw something in me to nurture and cherish. She wasn’t like much though because she was tough, but for a Black African woman to rise to the ranks of a CEO would require quite a level of toughness. That is, unfortunately, the nature of the beast.

At the moment I’m advocating for gender rights to be fully recognized in the Indian Ocean Rim Association, of which I am Academic Vice-Chair.

You touched on the challenges of being a woman in workspaces but I wanna know where do you draw your inspiration from?

I am inspired by actions, not necessarily individuals. Great writers, scholars, musicians, actors, philosophers inspire me - people who make the world a more interesting place. And those who dare to challenge convention and speak truth to power – like you! (referring to the interviewer Edinah Masanga)

Tell me more about challenges or obstacles that you face personally

I face the same obstacles as most working women do. Your value is not judged in the same way as that of a man. You have to prove yourself every day, day in day out. It becomes tiring to “prove” your worth rather than be automatically recognized for it.

Often in executive meetings, one of my female colleagues or I will come up with an idea. No-one responds. 15 minutes later a male colleague suggests something similar and it’s praised as a great idea. So we have decided as women to consciously affirm one another in meetings. There are also many other obstacles to success, including other women, so we need to fight against that. I have also never shirked away from admitting that I have suffered from depression from childhood.

You are a well-decorated lawyer, so I wanna come to how we can use the law to get gender justice.

I myself am very committed to addressing issues of substantive (or ethical) equality. My writing over the years has focussed on this – the need to address inequality in context. In South Africa, high levels of poverty and inequality plague us and threaten our nation-building project, so we must address these problems head on, within the context of our atrocious history. This means women must take centre stage.

The intersections of race, class, and gender render women more vulnerable to inequality and poverty.

Patriarchy persists – especially in traditional communities - and women’s concerns are not taken seriously enough. So we must not only use the law but also public engagement and participation; awareness raising and so on. In fact, at times the law itself perpetuates stereotypes, such as sexuality, where sex work was not legalized in the Jordan case. The Constitutional Court itself relied on outdated perceptions of gender and sexuality. That is why it is necessary to question the way in which gender inequality is embedded into our very existence and how power relations have not changed much in reality.

Do you think we can use strategic litigation as a means to end domestic violence?

Well, we need to address patriarchy and its consequences in order to properly address domestic and inter-partner violence.

We have fantastic laws – some of the best in the world – such as the Sexual Offences Act, but we have intolerably high levels of violence against women in South Africa, mainly in the home where we are meant to feel and be safe, not to mention violence against lesbians. We must remember that the “personal is political” and that the private sphere should not be a place where women lack power.

Women must be protected within the home as well. But often there is a reliance on a breadwinner and cycles of violence continue unabated. Women must earn their own money, have their own bank accounts, own land and so on. Breaking dependence on men for survival is essential and that can happen if we empower women, both in the public and private spheres. This does not mean we hate men, it just means that we want to be equal in worth and value.

Tell me more about your efforts to use the law for any form of social justice

Amongst my many responsibilities, I completed research consultancy work for the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development on HIV/AIDS, human rights and access to justice; and the Institute for Child Witness Research and Training on gender-based violence and human trafficking. My research interests include international and constitutional law; human rights, democracy, and social justice. I consider one of my biggest achievements to have successfully completed a large multi-year project dealing with the Assessment of the Impact of the Decisions of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Appeal on the transformation of society for the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development. I am pretty passionate about transformation, but am not sure what “radical” means …

I know you mentioned your law doctorate at the beginning but share with us more on your academic and professional achievements

For 16 years I was an academic, first at Vista University and then at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU). During this time I tried to infuse my legal teaching with philosophy and provoke students to also question the law. I loved reading the French feminists such as Irigaray, Kristeva, and Cixous, but sadly now I don’t have the time for such indulgences. In 2011 I moved from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria where I joined Africa Institute of South Africa (AISA) as research director of social sciences. After a year I moved to the HSRC and now I am Executive Director of a research programme called Democracy, Governance and Service delivery (DGSD). I’m also an adjunct Professor of the Nelson Mandela School of Law at the University of Fort Hare and an admitted Advocate of the High Court of South Africa.

Thank you so much, Professor, for taking the time to inspire us. What words of advice would you give to other women?

Don’t care too much about the opinion of others. Do your best and celebrate your achievements. As women, we tend to focus too much on our “failures”.

Confidence brings with it the ability to move on and not to be weighed down by self-doubt. We need the courage to become whole.

For me, being shortlisted for the position of Public Protector in South Africa was an affirmation of my desire to serve my country. The fact that I wasn’t appointed upset me – I felt worthless – but then I realized that this experience made me a much stronger person and that I did not “fail”. I participated. And that’s what matters. Keep striving to make a difference and to take those risks. Some you win, some you lose. It’s not a train smash.


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