Both Beauvoir and Bourdieu investigate the invisible domination of woman in a modern Western society – France – where modernity is layered with older orders of patriarchy going back to feudalism and before. Gender domination has been distilled over centuries and becomes for Bourdieu the prime instance of symbolic violence, which is ‘a gentle violence, imperceptible and invisible even to its victims, exerted for the most part through the purely symbolic channels of communication and cognition’ (Bourdieu, 2001 : 2). As Beauvoir puts it, this is an oppression where the oppressed ‘has no grasp, even in thought, on the reality around her. It is opaque to her eyes’ (Beauvoir, 1989 : 598).
What would Beauvoir or Bourdieu make of gender domination in South Africa, where ‘gentle’ and ‘invisible’ symbolic violence is joined by what can only be described as a campaign of private, explicit and atrocious physical violence against women? What would they make of the glaring disjunction between the new symbolic order arising out of the transition to democracy, which sets out explicitly to defend women against discrimination and empower them in all spheres – public and private – through policies, legislation and state institutions, and the competing symbolic orders that gain from society the vitality with which they continue to subjugate women?
These extraordinary disjunctions and juxtapositions between old and new, stasis and change, legislation and implementation, formal and informal, official rhetoric and daily practice, and between fractured and competing moralities, and all the contradictions, hypocrisies, clashes, enmities, alliances, polemics and fluctuations of mood – hope, anger, despair, triumph, cynicism, mirth – that accompany them, are precisely what characterise our society, providing formidable challenges to any attempt at Bourdieusian analysis of social order.
The rape trial of Jacob Zuma, at the time deputy president of the ANC, epitomised in the most public way possible the competing moralities and notions of patriarchal order in South Africa. Zuma's defence rested on a performance of himself as a traditional Zulu man deeply embedded in cultural notions of sexuality – themselves publicly contested. Outside the court, he danced and sang his trademark machine gun song before crowds of supporters, who threatened violence against the complainant. On the other side of the road, a coalition of gender activists and feminists demonstrated their support for the complainant.