Monthly Archives: October 2014

Missing: The Great Daughters of Afrika

The revolution and women’s liberation go together.

We don’t talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity,

or because of a surge of human compassion.

It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution.

Women hold up the other half of the sky. 

Thomas Sankara, Pan-Africanist

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Got into a small exchange the other day with the lovely person who handles the Steve Biko Foundation twitter account. Now, I greatly appreciate the work they do to keep the legacy of the South African anti-apartheid icon alive, and that of many others who have worked toward the liberation of black people in Africa and across the world. Biko reminds us of their ideas, contributions; and to be proud of being African. Encourages us to not tire from doing the work.

Last week was 27 years since the murder of Thomas Sankara, one-time President of Burkina Faso; ‘Africa’s Che Guevara’. The leader of the ’80s Burkinabe people-centred revolution not only challenged the global capitalist system, his feminist work is remarkable even for today; banning misogynistic practices like female genital mutilation and polygamy, which are still rampant world-over, improving conditions for women in the labour market, and boosting reproductive health options. His firm stand on how Africa’s progress is inextricably tied to women’s liberation is itself revolutionary. For that alone, he is worth celebrating.

And so on the morning of this anniversary, a Biko tweet flashed by:

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Curiosity forgot the man and his ‘uprightness’ for a moment, to ask:

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Fifty-two weeks a year, celebrations of one man then the next pop up. That day Fela Kuti was also filling my timeline. All the great men of Africa, great men of the American civil rights movement; Sons of the Soil. And I am grateful for what they did. But for Mother Africa’s sake, were there really no women involved in steering black consciousness forward?

To which they kindly responded:

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The response was refreshing. I was prepared for some defensive retort about derailing and stuff. And while I  agreed with their sentiment, couldn’t help noting “…Afrikan leaders were not alone…”; a Freudian slip in line with the idea that men are the default African revolutionaries. That said, except perhaps for those in the academe, tracing any of the wisdom and tales of the contributions of our foremothers who toiled alongside men like Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkurumah, and Patrice Lumumba is quite exhausting for the rest of us. One would love to learn more of the revolutionary work done by Africans like Graca Machel, not about her marriages. But it is not for Biko Foundation alone to collect and share this work.

This challenge isn’t unique to African women. Universally, women’s intellectual, activist, and work in diverse fields of endeavor is largely hidden from view. Western women have been ‘luckier’ in maintaining and retrieving writings and records. But the work of the Great Daughters of Afrika remains largely unknown; deceptively implying by erasure their historical absence in continental and global anti-colonialism, anti-racism and feminist movement.

As children, the ‘village’ of mothers who raised us often provided our earliest exposure to the power of sisterhood and all the good and great that a woman could be. There were also the TV women, whom my mother pointed out with pride – like close friends: Winnie Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and for not good reasons, Imelda Marcos. Quite oblivious to their politics. First-forward years later, away from home: Winnie and Margaret were considered top villains by all my peers. Indira was somewhat forgotten even if her legacy is still strong in India; powerfully carried forward by her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi.

Writing on women in power, Naomi Wolf discusses whether this is real power or the women are just figureheads; or if it is only a phase wherein men are temporarily handing over the reins of leadership for women to clean up the mess men created. After hailing the Merkels, Kirshners, Livnis, and Rousseffs of this world, Wolf segues to: “The last three decades have yielded a cadre of women leaders even where women otherwise lag far behind in terms of opportunity.” That murky corner is where you find Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, and Joyce Banda, recent ex-President of Malawi. She throws in Park Geun-hye, President of South Korea – a woman from the one continent where women have for decades held top office.

Evidently, the narrative persists that African (and Asian) women have only recently arrived at the table of leadership. This is intellectual dishonesty, in line with Audre Lorde’s critique of Mary Daly’s work – about how the voices of African women, their history and perspectives, are generally excluded from writings about women, and if at all included, focus on negatives and/or are fashioned to reinforce negative stereotypes about  Africans. Correcting this misrepresentation is a hell of work. Sadly, it is a reality that is pervasive.

Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela, who I still consider a great Daughter of Afrika, is now known in the west for the death of Stompie and for neck-lacing. I do not condone murder. And neither do I believe that her ex-husband was, in his life and activism, the saint that is portrayed in the mainstream; the image celebrated even in countries where he was once considered a terrorist.

But those who care for balance know that her work during the struggle was invaluable, know about the persecution she suffered at the hands of a racist government (which, as a matter of fact, was supported by Margaret and her bestie Reagan), and know that her husband’s legacy wouldn’t be what it is without her work whilst he was on Robben Island. Africans know this, and some South Africans consider her mother of their nation. You sense this in public reaction toward her. She isn’t perfect, but she matters. Thank goddess some people remember.

Similarly, popular representations of the American civil rights movement largely exclude women; overwhelming us with sanitized versions of men like Martin Luther King Jr., with little trace of the blemishes lurking in their shadows. Regardless, we hail them and gloss over the negatives. Which makes you wonder: how many women, Daughters of Afrika here and abroad, have been Winnie’d, so to speak? Even worse, how many have been totally purged from our collective memory? Which Pankhursts do little African girls grow up looking up to?

As we find our way through this abyss of male-celebrating and white-centered written history, we must also come to the acknowledgement that the idea that African men will, guns ablaze, deliver Africa to post-colonial glory is an experiment which has not only failed, but has evidently cost us lives and time. Colonialism is an excuse which has done its time.

It is fifty bloody years long-overdue.

With many African governments characterized by endless corruption scandals and poor service delivery, it is no wonder some are conceding that collaborating with women is a prerequisite for progress. In any society, worst still a corruption-filled one, the structural dominance of men in leadership isn’t only a factor in the high levels of poverty among women, but also means that we don’t have as much to lose when it comes to doing the right thing. African men are deeply entrenched in the gut of the system that has stunted the revolution.

It is about time women’s contributions toward moving the world, Africa forward, were recognised. We need a coalition of equals; beginning in our homes, stretching to the rural-most corners of the continent, and spreading outwards to the wider social and political structures.

As the revolutionary said, women hold up the other half of the sky, alas:

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There’s no Africa rising without the voices of the Daughters of Afrika.

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The Bartered Sex

An op-ed on how payment of bride price turns women into commodities provided welcome respite from the endless sexism in Uganda’s mainstream media. While I generally agree with the writer, payment of bride price in itself isn’t what turns women into commodities. Rather, in a society where women are seen as commodities, bride price is just one of many cultural practices emblematic of a ridiculous notion.

Obviously the need to pay is taxing on men, as it is for anyone buying a good or service. In a hard-pressed economy, the pressures are more constrictive and likely to create discord for those who fail to deliver what is owed, be they women or men. Marital frustrations on the back of bride price debt could partly explain why in a recent UN survey across 37 African countries, Uganda was in the lead with 60% of Ugandan men considering beating their wives a ‘necessary’ aspect of marriage, while a similar percentage of women think themselves deserving of a beating. Neither the air we breathe, nor the food we eat could have led us to this warped level of odious beliefs. Nevertheless, they are evidence of a culture accepting of violence against women. And with practices like bride price, it is the woman received in exchange who pays the ultimate price for this innocent-seeming giving of gifts.

Yet often, culturalized human-to-commodity metamorphosis of females not only manifested in customary exchanges between men, but in the reality of women’s status in society, is brushed off; bride price touted as a good, traditional practice. Some claim it is paid to show appreciation; another equated it to a ‘tip’ offered in addition to payment for a meal. These views are neck-deep in paternalism; further expose the lower rank of women in a male-dominated society, and importantly, fail to deliver a non-sexist reason as to why this gratitude isn’t also shown by women for men. It is there that we find the woman-commodifying ideals celebrated as unique, valuable aspects of African culture.

But there is nothing uniquely Ugandan in the practice of men pimping “giving away” their daughters and sisters to other men in the name of marriage, nor in man-as-prize and woman-as-property ideology. Brides are walked down aisles to their new owners in Kampala, Cambridge, Calcutta, and California. Romanticizing bride price needs to be seen for what it is: a ruse to mask its significance as one of the markers of man’s assumed lordship over woman, in marriage, and in every other socio-political institution for that matter. We should at least be frank about that, if only for the sake of honest discussion.

Our honest selves would acknowledge that the dehumanisation of women permeates myriad settings and cultures wherein the female body is objectified and violated in the day-to-day. Take the recent case in Ireland where a woman impregnated by a rapist was denied access to health-care, specifically, an abortion. As per interpretation of Irish law, the right to life of the foetus took precedence over her needs. In addition to the mental and physical suffering from sexual assault, she was placed under confinement and forced feeding, culminating in delivery. Being female, she had no right to deny the seed of the man who raped her from growing off her body – her trauma now in flesh. Whereas the rapist walked away from his crime, most likely unscathed as many of them do, she carries brutal lifelong reminders.

Such a horrific conclusion can only be seen as moral and justified in a society where women are valued only to the extent to which their bodies serve men and the wider good. Her right to self-determination was of little to no significance within and outside the law; first the rapist violated her by exercising his (perceived) right to her body, and then her personhood is dismissed for the ‘higher duty’ of woman as womb. Justice may not have been dealt to the rapist. His offspring will get it, the state will see to it. But for sure it will not be afforded to woman for whom, regardless of circumstances, child-bearing is the raison d’être.

The injustice is replicated in laws like the Mozambique one which exonerates a rapist if he marries a woman he raped. That a man’s crime can be written off because a woman’s status has been ‘raised’ to property of the miscreant who violated her (thus awarding him, in retrospect, the right to do so) underlines the position of women in a woman-hating society: commodities whose worth is in the value men can make of them.

Similar dynamics are in force when a man opts to ‘try elsewhere’ for a boy child; essentially taking advantage of his (perceived) male right to find another uterus in which to play reproductive lottery. Such recourse would be considered unbecoming of the wife – who is usually blamed for a couple’s seeming inability to conceive children of a preferred sex. Which is just as well since her duty, with bride price firmly in dad’s tummy, is to fulfill her husband’s physical/biological demands.

This normalization of men’s right to women’s bodies must be seen for its role in many societal ills. According to the World Bank, women between 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war, and malaria. In Uganda, the high incidences of different manifestations of male violence against girls and women indicate a society which views female bodies as objects to be beaten/raped/bought and used for sex; enforced by cultural practices which naturalize inequality between the sexes. That women too can be violent doesn’t negate the fact that gender violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men.

Meanwhile in India, the rule of male over female rages on like a cancer. The long-outlawed dowry system, characterized by a bride’s family ‘gifting’ a prospective groom and his family in exchange for the honor of having him as their son-in-law, still thrives. Dowry institutionalized the hatred of femaleness in that land of ancient goddesses; spawning female infanticide, poor investment in the girl child, rape, bride burning, and death – one woman killed every hour over dowry.

Like dowry, payment of bride price presupposes the inferiority of women to men. It establishes wives at commodity level; subordinate to husbands, and supposedly privileged to be in service to them. It relegates women to the same category as slaves bought to perform field labour, or a heifer added to a kraal for reproductive labour. The analogy may not be representative of the intentions of a 21st century African man when he is paying bride price. But good intentions don’t change the fact that commodities are given in exchange for the reproductive, domestic, sexual and emotional labour expected of a wife.

The individual woman’s favorable view of bride price doesn’t attenuate its legitimation of the commodification of women into human objects that are exchangeable between men in return for material objects.

Men’s favorable view of the practice is expected because it is for their benefit; as fathers who receive goods/animals/money, as husbands who receive wives, and as future fathers expecting a ‘return’ through their own daughters. They also get to retain a position of superiority and ownership over women.

It isn’t surprising, therefore, that men are major advocates for bride price as a “woman-valuing” tradition.

In that tradition, women will remain treated as lesser human-beings for as long as the bedrock of our society, the family, is built upon customs cemented with the bartering of ‘things’ for female life and labour.

Aiming for so-called ‘gender equality’ without striving to dismantle the cultural practices keeping inequality alive maintains the pillars of the mindless belief that to be female is to belong to an inferior caste, and women are, thereby, living commodities existing to be in service to everyone except themselves.

This nonsense must end. Starting with bride price.

 

 

CALL FOR GLOBAL WEEK OF ACTION October 11-18th #BringBackOurGirls NOW and ALIVE!

#BringBackOurGirls

It is outrageous that six months down the line, these girls have not yet been returned home. Men in leadership in Nigeria need to sort this out with their fellow men in Boko Haram!

FEMNET

Bring Back Our Girls Placards_Page_06

October 14, 2014 makes it exactly six (6) months since 276 girls were abducted by the Boko Haram  sect  from their  school  – Government  Secondary  School,  Chibok,  Borno  State, Nigeria. The Boko Haram Sect  leader claimed responsibility for the mass kidnappings in a video where he informed the world that he plans to sell the girls into slavery. Till date, not one girl has been rescued, save for 57 girls who escaped on their own, while 219 girls still remain in captivity.

As the United Nations marks the International Day of the Girl Child on 11th October, we, the #BringBackOurGirls movement and the families of the abducted girls, are calling for a Global Week of  Action from 11th to 18th October 2014, to mobilize everyone around the world to demand for the immediate rescue of our Chibok girls and end this humanitarian tragedy.

It is undeniably apt that this year’s theme…

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