Category Archives: Pan africanism

Madam Speaker, stop stigmatizing women to ‘save’ them

Dear Rt. Hon. Speaker of Parliament,

You owe an apology to girls and women in communities which enforce Female Genital Mutilation for your recent comments in Moroto (originally reported in the Wednesday 3rd, December edition of Daily Monitor). Therein, you advised men to shun marrying women who have been cut; referring to them as ‘burdening women’ who are ‘no longer valuable’ as compared to ‘normal’ women, that is, those who (luckily) have not undergone FGM.

Speaker of Parliament in Moroto - anti FGM drive

Speaker of Parliament in Moroto – anti FGM drive

Really, Madam Speaker. As though the humanity of a woman is in whether or not her genitals are mutilated.

While it is essential to de-market the practice of FGM, your wording reeks of [surprisingly] weak, sexist discourse surrounding harmful cultural practices inherent in the historic oppression of girls/women for the benefit of men.

What next, ask men to shun women who suffered rape? Child sexual abuse? Or advise men about the ‘value-less’ women whose families demand bride price. What about women who are battered by their husbands, stripped naked on our streets? And so on.

By the way, in my opinion, you are doing these women a service by keeping men, the class that gains from their has untold suffering, at bay. But I doubt that was your objective.

How long before we stop this victim-blaming and instead go to the root of the culturally-accepted subjugation of girls/women in Ugandan/African society?

Sadly, giving men a pass while penalizing women for being oppressed is not new. But there’s something about it coming from a woman – albeit a highly educated one who wields so much power and influence. Why not use it to  push for an amendment that criminalizes male demand for wives who were cut, while offering protections (even compensation, as had been suggested by some members of the house) for those facing lifelong maladies due to having been cut?

You are the Speaker.

Tell the millions of Ugandan girls who look up to you that their value is not in their marital status; that they needn’t be mutilated in order to appeal to men as viable partners. Challenge the practice of bride price which, closely linked to FGM, reduces girls and women to objects for exchange and ownership in the patriarchal institution of marriage. Continue advocating for income-generating projects so that our sisters in communities which enforce harmful cultural practices like FGM have sustainable pathways to self-reliance.

Show compassion to girls and women who have been cut and remind them of their value as citizens of this country, despite the horror that they’ve lived through for the ‘crime’ of having been born female in a male-centered world. Remind Ugandans about the repercussions of the anti-FGM law that was passed by your parliament a few years ago.

Let’s see your ‘feminist nature’ which was recently lauded by the Kampala Woman MP, Hon. Nabillah Naggayi, as the lifeline that saved Ugandan women earlier this year when you ordered the State Minister for Ethics & Integrity to withdraw his statement – that which sparked off physical/sexualized assaults targeting women on our streets. Incidentally, Hon. Naggayi has mentioned how female MPs are sexually harassed by their male counterparts. It would be obtuse to advise constituencies not to vote for these women [again] because of the sexist objectification they suffer in the course of doing their work. Moreover, if female lawmakers are treated this despicably by men, no guessing the experience of women outside your chambers.

The irony is that this episode occurred during the #16DaysOfActivism when voices around the world were joining together to decry [male] violence against girls and women. While we enjoy significant improvements in the status of women, thanks to trailblazers like you, we must be mindful of the uphill battle facing all Ugandan women in the movement toward liberation from male dominance. And of the massive disconnect between urban and rural women.

Yet I expect that your comments in Moroto will be of no consequence, this being Uganda where time and again, leaders say dehumanizing things about women and members of minorities without any remorse.

Stigmatizing the oppressed in order to ‘save’ them is assuming the role of the oppressor. As is the duplicity in the selective politics of preserving African culture. But I digress.

We can all do better.

 

 

 

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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

 —-

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.

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.

 

 

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.