Monthly Archives: September 2014

Taking one for the Team

Great news from the national netball team, She Cranes, who qualified for next year’s Netball World Cup in Sydney, Australia. It is the first time Uganda has reached the finals since 1979; netball being one of a handful of sports which have made it to elite level – having won the Six Nations Cup in Singapore last year. Interestingly, the ‘national sport’ (football) has never smelled a whiff of success beyond East Africa.

Any Ugandan with an ounce of feeling for the motherland, with its dramatic history and everyday microaggressions, is proud of such representation on the world stage. But if you are remotely vested in issues related to local sports, then you know that this achievement is remarkable beyond the obvious. You know that any victories celebrated by Ugandans are largely thanks to the effort and passion of individual sportswomen/men, with minimal contribution from the government.

Our representatives endure unfathomable humiliations in the pursuit of their dreams and to raise our flag. Lack of adequate sports facilities is one thing, understandable rather unfortunately, considering that we grapple with critical infrastructure such as hospitals and classrooms. Yet even basics like equipment, footwear, uniforms, and even drinking water are a luxury often footed by the enthusiastic youth. We heard of these shenanigans at the London Olympics where the team lacked shoes, contrary to word that “officials” had received them from the official kit sponsor. Similar drama played out at the recent Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. It is when welcoming medal-clad victors at the airport or parliament, and at events organised by international bodies, that government gets most actively involved.

Amongst the She Cranes, members are likely to be full-time employees or students, job-seekers, mothers, caregivers, wives; holders of different permutations of responsibilities away from the field. That they were able to qualify without losing a single game (leaving Zambia, Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia, and Zimbabwe in their wake), despite being encumbered with logistical issues, is pretty impressive. These women are champions regardless of the medal count next August.

Now they begin the arduous task of mobilizing for airfare, accommodation etc. And that’s beside fitness and skill preparation. This was top of agenda last week at a dinner organised in their honour, and to launch Project Sydney 2015 – the committee coordinating activities leading up to the games. The ladies seemed jubilant and energized and optimistic. I felt the same reading the news story. But only until where the team manager begs that in the months ahead, spouses “leave her girls alone” so that none will miss the tournament – alluding to pregnancy.

Which took me back…

One of the major ‘setbacks’ in Uganda’s recent sports history features Dorcus Inzikuru and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The Gazelle of Arua, as she’s fondly known, had done us proud bagging steeplechase gold at both the 2005 World Athletics Championship in Helsinki, and the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games. It was highly anticipated she would deliver a medal in China. Alas, Inzi delivered a baby. Was also unable to pull off the feat. The wrath of the nation’s armchair track-stars flooded like venom. Many using the opportunity to bash women, proclaiming  us a thoroughly unreliable lot. To this day some are still pissed about it.

Ultimately, it is a personal matter. Just because a woman is in sports doesn’t mean that we, officials and the cheerleading public, have any right of say or ownership over her body. If she wants to have a baby when she wants it, to hell with Beijing or Sydney.

This applies to women in all areas of commitment really.

No woman owes anyone, nation – spouse – clan, the use of her body or any of its parts.

Sadly, the She Cranes manager’s plea, while it may have (partly) been in jest, goes painfully deep into the reality of women’s autonomy over their bodies in our society. That men have to be “begged” to take one for the team and respect their wives’ desire not to conceive within a given period reveals insights that are extremely problematic at multiple levels. At the lowest, it shows that despite all the hype, men have the final say over women’s bodies; underscoring the powerlessness of women on decisions of sex and reproduction.

The issue isn’t unique to the sports world. Years back I worked on a pitch for a client in the reproductive health sector. We analyzed studies on usage and attitudes toward contraception in rural and urban Uganda. Findings showed that many women don’t use birth control; not that they don’t want or need it, but because they are forbidden. They stealthily seek information and treatments behind the backs of controlling husbands; some suffering physical violence as a deterrent.

This disregard for a woman’s real consent (the absence of it), even in the marital bed, is simply called rape. But apparently, preventing a man from forced sex with his wife is un-African.

Is rape African culture?

In a country where according to recorded cases, 492 women die per month (16 daily) due to complications in pregnancy or childbirth, why don’t women have a say on an issue that puts their lives at risk of disease and death? Why are women dehumanised to this extent; in this Africa where we brag incessantly about heritage and values? Who’s values, anyway?

Is it any wonder that our communities are rife with sexual violence? Or that wife-beating is considered an expression of love? And child marriage defensible?

What future lies ahead when 50% of the population has no autonomy over their own bodies?

This shit has to end if Uganda is to ever achieve its full potential. For starters, we should stop fooling ourselves ‘celebrating’ women if the status quo is maintained where females are not seen as full human-beings with their own hopes, dreams, and rights as individuals, but as uteri and objects for sexual domination. And for the disposable use of the state.

Even for medals.

 

 

 

 

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On Fake Hair and African Liberation

Recently I came across a comment along the line,

Africa would be better off if the money spent on fake hair was spent on books.

It caught my interest for reasons; as an African, a woman, and someone who finds great pleasure in books. While I agree with the sentiment that spending on resources such as books provides an enduring return, the statement left a bitter taste. There is a fair amount of unflattering commentary about ‘fake hair’ – at one point the subject of a popular song here in Uganda. But is ‘fake hair’ the most trivial expenditure in Africa? Are there no pursuits on which money is vacuously spent by African men to the detriment of their families and communities? Or is it Africa as mythical Eden; the bastion of success only to fall at the arrival of women and their ‘fake hair’?

Seriously though, is money spent by women on face, hair, body ‘wasted’ in a society in which keeping up with the strict ever-evolving requirements of beauty, as fake as they may be, is life as many know it? Where beauty practices are considered (by women and men) a normal aspect of womanhood?

We are bombarded on a daily basis with images of ‘ideal beauty’. For black women on the continent and in the diaspora, concepts based on whiteness as the standard, such as light skin and straight, flowing hair, are in our faces 24/7. Whereas the reality of a vast number of female bodies, those classified ‘typically African’, are largely disapproved of, boxed in the ugly – except in some circumstances, and that’s when on a white woman.

In one of the several online articles explaining why Africans have ‘larger’ lips, a writer begins with the disclaimer: there is nothing racist about this post or the topic.

That caution is necessary because in a western-dominant world where features and cultural expressions categorized as African (of black people) are considered inferior by default, big lips are undesirable.

But hey, they are sexy when on Angelina Jolie.

In the same way that “bold braids” were taken to a “new epic level” by Kendall Jenner.

This month Vogue magazine caught itself at crossroads with women, in particular western black women, after it ran a story proclaiming that We are officially in the era of the big booty’. The article is a roll call of white women – the liberators of booty. Backlash was inevitable due to the fact that international fashion magazines have historically portrayed women’s beauty in mostly white, thin, big-booty-free bodies. The mainstream effectively marginalized the booty’d body, long celebrated in black/African culture. Until now; because some valuable people are embracing their behinds. Yet it remains a thing of caricature for performers like Katy Perry.

And going back in time, we are reminded of the enslavement of Sarah Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman from South Africa. She was transported to England and taken across Europe on display under the stage name Hottentot Venus. It was tagged a freak show starring her body, with special focus on her  buttocks and labia; dehumanized to feed the curiosity of the European eye. As an object of African femininity, considered abnormal (white women being ‘the normal’ according to white supremacist nonsense), her body was prodded and gawked at, in addition to suffering poor upkeep and disease. Sarah died in 1815 at the age of 25. But even in death, the inhumane use of her body prevailed; consumed as a museum exhibit in France. Only after condemnation in South Africa, and at the behest of then-president Nelson Mandela for her remains to be released, did France relent. It was not until 2002 that what was left of Sarah Baartman was repatriated.

Suddenly, now that the gods of vanity have given the green light, women must reconsider the dimensions of their derrières, as cosmetic surgeons sharpen their scalpels ready to mutilate more female bodies, and vendors of butt implants (‘fake butts’?) prepare for a business boom.

Fake hair is one of many must-haves directed at women. Reasons as to why we buy into it include to look good, for convenience, to protect natural hair, confidence issues, and so on. This fuss is inevitable when an otherwise  neutral feature like hair is politicized into a marker of difference between women and men, sexualized into a symbol of beauty among women, and commercialized as a pathway for the individual woman to gain advantage over another. It follows that we are told hair is a woman’s crowning glory. Who determined this?

In the final analysis, beauty practices are taught, policed, and have been normalized in different cultures for women’s survival in a male-dominant world.

And men are the topmost beneficiaries.

Women are under considerable pressure to look good in order to attract men, hold on to men, or get back at men, and other women – over men. We are objectified, subdivided, and pitted against each other by men and fellow women; white/black, light/dark, fat/thin, beautiful/ugly, old/young, fertile/infertile, womanly/not, sexy/not, hot/not. And it is men who benefit from the tension.

We are on our toes in service to the visual interests of the supreme sex. Sweating under layers of chemicals. Heels tormenting feet. Restless about what to wear tomorrow. Broke in the process.

Is ‘choosing’ these discomforts that we have somehow learned to bear really choice?

Just because some women claim not to have any problem whatsoever with living under the demands of beauty qualification, that it is a ‘normal’ part of a woman’s life, or an exercise of agency – my choice, doesn’t strip the pressure or desire to look good of its oppressiveness to women as a class.

Women’s freedom to do with their bodies what they want, when they want, is a core tenet of women’s movement toward liberation from the evil that is sexism. But in a male-dominant society where ‘femininity’ is constructed in deference to men, and the pursuit of beauty, and maintenance of it, enforced as ‘rituals’ of womanhood, women are constrained in the options from which to choose. There is an unwritten requirement to choose wisely in order to be found worthy under the male gaze. And there are penalties for non-compliance.

Looking good in accordance with patriarchal dictates of beauty can be, in some situations, the difference between securing employment and being jobless. It is the currency through which many women access shelter, food, and clothing. Add the culturally-prized husband to this list. We need to be honest about the politics of looking good to see the hypocrisy in one-sided, (often) male, criticism of women’s adherence to beauty practices, and the oppressive reality of these demands on women.

Moreover even from a shillings perspective, many of the major beneficiaries in the global industry, from beauty products to media, to hair-dressing to clothes etc, also happen to be men.

On the Forbes list of Top 10 Beauty Brands  only Estée Lauder was established by a woman. In Uganda, these are firms like Movit and Samona – the latter set up by a man, maybe even both. While in Taihe in China, home to hundreds of companies in the billion-dollar business of hair extensions, Fu Quanguao, the man who ‘pioneered the trade in the 1970s’, waxes about the money-maker that is women’s hair issues.

Growing up in the eighties, it was to Loy that my mother and I, as did several others within the neighborhood, made the pilgrimage to have my hair plaited – black African hair, no extensions. Today, walk into a hair salon in Kampala; many of the celebrated fake hair implanters are men. Men who, like Fu, with extensions in tow, are cannibalizing the business of hair plaiting – one of the few professions in Africa for women, by women (predominantly), and through which many African women not only earned a living, but also built community with their sisters. Loy is no longer her vibrant self; the income source from which she raised her children, one of whom had followed in the profession, almost a thing of the past. Her frustrations drove her into the neocolonial hellhole of second-hand clothes hawking.

That men benefit greatly from this beauty stuff is evident without even going into the matter of chest-thumping dudes heaping endless praise on their gorgeous-when-beweaved; directly or indirectly putting pressure on women to keep up with the performance of beauty.

Therefore, in the age of viagra, for men to be the ones constantly picking ‘fake hair’ as this major money-drain, one powerful enough to hold back a continent, is intellectually dishonest. It is akin to blaming a slave for their fate; and for sure many are enslaved by the fashion-beauty complex. Crucially, it ignores the vast wealth lost via theft committed mostly by men at all levels of power across Africa.

It isn’t women’s fake hair rendering our hospitals drugless. It isn’t fake hair causing deaths from hunger and disease. Fake hair isn’t robbing Africa of its natural resources. And it is definitely not fuelling these endless wars. That there is a need for fake hair is unfortunate, but we mustn’t ignore the entire picture.

No group can be liberated if some of its members are trudging along under the heel of oppression – a good chunk of it dished out in the name of ‘preserving’ African culture.

It is easy to focus on fake hair and in effect throw jabs at women whilst ignoring the system which demands conformity to beauty standards. Perhaps a more productive exercise would be to objectively critique all the different systems holding us in a cycle of poverty and perpetual dependence. In doing so, we must examine our own complicity in keeping these ideologies in play. And ultimately, put into action those revolutionary measures which will deliver us, as individuals and society, from the grip of the forces draining us – women and men – of our wellbeing and wealth.

Finding Our Voices

In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions become strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences.

Audre Lorde

 

I’ve been pushing the urge to blog to the back of my mind.

It was inevitable for a couple of reasons.

The first is finding myself in a state of permanent rage over the multitude of injustices which girls and women in Uganda on the continent and globally, have faced historically and still suffer on a daily basis. Hardly a day goes by, not even an hour, without a report: man rapes woman, wife beaten, man kills woman, girl raped by father, soldiers rape women, and so on.

In the era of widely touted Millennium Development Goals, Uganda is in the lead or close to the top when it comes to incidence of child marriage, sexual abuse of children, teenage pregnancy, sexual harassment and assault (rape is hardly reported; on record is mostly that by LRA insurgents during the war in northern Uganda), intimate partner violence, maternal mortality, and deaths from complications arising from unsafe abortions. The horrors are endless to the point that many have become desensitized to the real suffering, in real time, of real people.

Human-beings. Girls. Women.

The second is frustration with the everyday woman-bashing in the local media in Uganda. You only have to open a page of any of the newspapers on any other given day to find headlines  questioning women’s behavior, attitude, choices, and lifestyles. The critique is endless.

Every Odong, Ssemwezi, Wanzusi, and Kamukama has ‘advice’ for women based on the most unrealistic, dehumanizing expectations and demands for the benefit of men. All this while women are sexually objectified  and our agency undermined in the name of ‘culture’.

I am sick of this matter-of-fact anti-women stance. Sick of male violence against girls and women. Sick of society where women are valued in direct proportion to their living/being in service and subservience to men. Sick of the commodification of women. Sick of institutionalized sexism in the family, in education, religion, politics, and commerce. Sick of the state, legislators, and men of all stature assuming ownership and claiming control over women’s bodies.

Sick of indifference to the plight of girls/women here in Uganda and everywhere.

Perhaps by now the genius that you’re has figured out that my primary and secondary concern is issues pertaining to the interests of female human-beings. Life isn’t a bed of roses for all boys/men, neither are all women oppressed equally, or never perpetrators of violence. Even then, men themselves are responsible for most of the hardship their fellow men face – from playground bullying to war zone atrocities. Whatever the struggles men encounter, they pale in comparison to the gross violence visited upon women [as a class] by men. This is reinforced by structural discrimination and minimal access, if any, to the privileges enjoyed by boys/men in a male-centered society.

Certainly, things are a little ‘better’ for women in some parts of the world – credit to our foresisters who fought for them. After years of struggle, blood and tears, women won the right to vote. Today many of us take voting for granted. However, we must remember the past to truly appreciate women’s historical position in society vis-à-vis our present-day challenges. To secure voting rights, women who didn’t give-in to despair and hopelessness battled on.

We need to evaluate the contribution decades of women’s votes have made to the liberation of women. How are we using our votes and voices to improve our lot in a culture which views women as ‘inferior’ to men? How can women assert our standing as full human-beings in a society brimming with dogma, norms, and the deeply-held beliefs which keep the patriarchy and its inhumane ideals of womanhood in place?

We need to move beyond simply hoping for the time when the global sisterhood will be fully delivered from the shackles of male supremacy. We must work toward the day when women are seen not as objects existing to provide men with sexual, reproductive, and domestic labour, but as we really are; full human-beings in our own right, just as men.

That day may not be near, but it gets closer the more we challenge the oppressive ‘normal’.

I choose not to be complicit in the dis-engagement and individualism of a generation seemingly mindless of the backlash nibbling on the gains of many years of feminist movement. We must continue in the spirit of those who walked this path knowing well that as distant as emancipation may appear to be for women as a class, as ‘different’ as our struggles may be, in our silence we collude with the oppressor.

This blog isn’t about men; hating or bashing them. But neither will it be about glossing over male violence, soothing male egos, or shrinking in acquiescence in response to male aggression. There’s no room at this inn for the delusion that men are inherently or otherwise superior to women. Zero lollipops for all manner of good-guy/bad-guy Olympics. The oppression of women isn’t simply about the actions, inaction, or feelings of individual men and women. It is about the system which to this day permeates all others; therein giving men [as a class] dominion over all at the utmost expense of women.

It will be a place to vent and share thoughts and observations with the understanding that an educated, financially-independent woman living in Kampala can never be ‘free’ if a woman in Yumbe lives under the heel of sexist oppression. Similarly, a middle-class woman in Geneva cannot be free of oppression as a woman, when women in Kapchorwa, here in Uganda, live with excruciating pain from the horror that is female genital mutilation; when women in Pattaya and girls in Cambodia face daily abuse as sex slaves, while others line the streets of red light districts in major cities across the world; and in Kinshasa, Majorca, Pretoria, Sydney, New Delhi, Tokyo, Michigan, and so on, stats keep piling of the girls and women raped &/or killed by men.

Importantly, a space to celebrate women wherever we are in all our marvelous being. And if that brings moments of reflection, a spark of energy to keep us moving – and as we are able to, play our part toward the liberation of women – it will have done more than is hoped for.