As a part of Human Rights Week 2015, Rhodes University hosted an informative panel discussion
about gender norms in society. The guest speaker at this panel was the Director of the Gender
Equity Unit at the University of the Western Cape, Mary Hames, Zintle Dolweni reports.
Hames not only has a Masters of philosophy in South African Political Studies, she is also currently
pursuing her doctorate in Women and Gender studies. Her interests includes women’s and sexual
rights and she has written about and spoken on these subjects through various platforms.
Also present on the panel, was Desiree Wicks, who is the manager at Rhodes University’s Student
Bureau and the warden of Adelaide Thambo House, one of the University’s residences. The talk was
organized by Noxolo Nhlapho from the Rhodes University Office of Equity and Institutional
The initial premise of the talk, was to discuss the idea of gendered residences, but it branched out
into the overall issue of transformation. Hames attributed this to the fact that many important
conversations regarding transformation have been occurring in the media, relating to both Rhodes
University and the University of Cape Town. At the beginning of her speech, Hames jokingly
announced that she set out to provoke. She wanted participants to walk away from the discussion
and ask themselves some very important questions about gender, race and class within institutions.
Hames identifies herself as a “feminist intellectual activist” and believes that due to her history and
experience within gender studies, she is able to provide a broad perspective on issues affecting
women in institutions such as universities. She asked participants to question the notion of higher
education as a space, and why it is that women struggle to find a place in this space. She believes
that such spaces were not created with women in mind. For example, why is it that there are no
maternity laws for female students? “Young women are expected to postpone their reproductive
rights, because these spaces we occupy are controlled by white, heterosexual, able bodied men, and
we are all expected to conform to their world view,” she said.
The open discussion section raised important issues, specifically pertaining to Rhodes University. A
lecturer from the science faculty expressed her concern about how certain departments, staff and the
university as a whole seem to be reluctant to engage in certain issues, particularly those surrounding
gender and transformation within her faculty. She believed that discussions such as these should be
mandatory for not only students, but staff as well, as in her experience, important issues such as this
are never addressed due to a lack of cooperation from the deans and heads of departments.
Another issue that was discussed was that of homophobia within residences and dining halls, and
how it seemed that house committee members and sub-wardens were not adequately trained to
address such issues. A concern was raised with Wicks by a young lesbian student who had endured
taunting from people in her dining hall as well as homophobic attitudes from the girls in her res.
She shared how these issues were beginning to affect her academics, and she strongly believes that
the university needs to do more to better prepare sub-wardens to deal with these concerns.
The overall consensus from those present at the discussion was that conversations of this manner
should occur on a regular basis, and should not be attended only by those who are ‘interested’. “We
should all question our philosophies that we hold so dear and ask how they influence our
prejudice,” noted one speaker. As a closing statement, Hames ended with a simple quote by Audre
Lorde: “Because I am a woman, because I am black, because I am myself, a black woman warrior
doing my work, come to ask you, are you doing yours?”