105 The Ubuhle Women: Feminists Unleashed in South Africa

Autumn Stearns

On the first semi-decent day in April, which also happened to be my 22nd birthday, I attended the “Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence” exhibit at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, NH. The first thought that went through my mind when I heard the Ubuhle women’s story was the chapter “Introduction to Feminist Paradigms” written by Rivkin and Ryan in the Literary Theory textbook.

The Ubuhle women from South Africa sew beads onto humongous cuts of fabric to make murals, of sorts. The end products are called Ndwango. These beads are just like the little tiny beads on bracelets or earrings, they’re minute. The women work on these pieces of art for months and even years at a time, depending on how large or small their pieces of fabric are. The Ubuhle women bead because it is their way of enacting feminism in South Africa. By beading, they create meaningful employment for many women in South Africa so that they can gain financial independence. Many of the Ubuhle women moved to a small farm where tourism is big so that they could sell their beaded works more easily and therefore gain financial independence from their male-counterparts. By gaining this financial freedom, these women become liberated and have a sense of agency and power, unlike before when they had to rely on men.

Because Africa, South Africa in particular, is so far away from us, we rarely think about feminism  or women’s relationship with the patriarchy there because we are more concerned with it here. Rivkin and Ryan stated, “…the subject of feminism was women’s experience under patriarchy, the long tradition of male rule in society which silenced women’s voices, distorted their lives, and treated their concerns as peripheral…such conditions was in some respects not to exist at all” (765). Generally, women’s relationship with the patriarchy isn’t all that great, and it isn’t any different in South Africa. The Ubuhle women fought the patriarchal norm and worked hard to gain their independence so that they would have a voice and so that they would “exist” in the patriarchal world. These women were tired of their voices and concerns going to the way-side, so they decided to group together and do something about it. This is when the beading began.


The Ubuhle women’s stories also relate to Butler’s theory of performing a gender. Butler wrote, “The act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense, an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene…gender is an act which has been rehearsed…this repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially established…” (906). Many of the Ubuhle women talk about their mothers and how their mothers always told them “You must be strong like me,” so the women act strong for their children like their mothers did for them. Many of the women are single mothers because their husbands are nonexistent or died from various diseases, some being HIV/AIDS. All of the women have lost someone near and dear to them, whether that be their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, husbands, or children. But, they have each other as they all call one another “my sister.” They have created and grown a community of women who have all obtained financial independence and who have gained a voice, not only in their society, but all over the world.

This Ndwango is HUGE! It’s from the floor to the ceiling and it takes up a whole wall!


For more information, check out this video and this brochure!


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The Student Theorist: An Open Handbook of Collective College Theory Copyright © 2018 by Autumn Stearns is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book