After years of listening to the same rhetoric by a lot of men, government officials and indeed some of my fellow women, that gender is a borrowed word, that gender equality is a Western notion that misguided Africans have imported, copied and pasted into African settings; and consequently that the same gender equality will never work in an African set up, I have decided to write back insisting upon the very opposite that gender equality HAS to work, especially so, in African settings.
Patriarchy as a way of doing things has been so deeply entrenched in most African settings – in our norms, values and customs – that trying to separate it from our humanness and culture is not only unfathomable for most, but also a deeply unsettling and unwelcome ‘impossibility’: a very difficult process. And this is mainly for two reasons:
i. Like any other establishment, the systems and structures of patriarchy have worked for centuries for a particular group of society – men – which has benefitted immensely from having privileged positions since time immemorial. Men in most sub-Saharan African cultures, are born elevated already in the societal hierarchy. Not only does society value men and boy children, society also finds ways of blaming the woman if she bears only female children like this writer’s mother had done. This writer comes from a family of five girls and one little boy, the last born, and of the five girls one is of another mother, yet in this blatant infidelity my father was still cushioned by society with the excuse that he was looking for a male child out of wedlock. So somehow this was acceptable because one is to have a male child at all expense.
When our mother finally achieved this ‘feat’ of bearing a male child, the rhetoric we got to endure was, ”hah, you will all be clapping to your brother and showing him respect soon”; and, “he is now the head of the family, you will all be coming to consult him,” and yet still, “Sooner or later he will be beating all of you up!” I remember my father telling this little brother of ours that, “don’t cry like a girl” with utter shock as I had witnessed my father shedding tears more than once, and it wasn’t even at a funeral! Indeed this is what little boys are told quite a lot as they grow up, to man up, whatever this means, in the media, at home, in churches and in school. Such a gender imbalanced set up, commits two major serious crimes. It thwarts girls and women’s dreams and aspirations as they grow up being told that they are lesser than their male counterparts and secondly it makes young boys grow up with such a burden of expectations that they are supposed to fulfil, of which amongst them is an ill-conceived and misdirected ‘machoness’.
ii. The second reason why patriarchy has been particularly difficult to dismantle in African societies is because it has managed to be as deeply entrenched as it is by using women as its guardian. In the same way that slavery in the Americas used other slaves whom they elevated above other slaves, (like butlers, stewards and housekeepers) to keep the whole machinery of slavery well oiled and functional; the butlers of this era would make sure other slaves knew their place and thwarted the heads that would threaten to lift even before they reached the white slave master’s attention. In this same way, patriarchy has used women, older women mostly, to be its guardian and keep its systems functioning. To sustain itself, patriarchy uses women to suppress and oppress other women.
When a young bride is married in the Shona culture in Zimbabwe, she has to go through a series of traditional rituals that welcome her into the family. It is the other women from her new husband’s family who actively take part in welcoming her into the family. It is the aunts, the mother in law and other interested female relatives who make sure she does the jobs and tasks a woman is expected to know how to do. Women in church, tell younger women what is and what is not appropriate to wear in church. Even at work, older female employees would put it upon themselves to tell the younger women in their work place that some of their dressing and behaviour was inappropriate. These are just examples of how we women are used to keep patriarchy, in its place. These older women feel they are doing men and society a favour by keeping girls and younger women in straightjacket.
A country’s worth lies in the position and condition of their women, so dear sub-Saharan African countries, ask yourself what is your worth. When you select a cabinet of ministers with only 3 female ministers in it, ask your yourself what is your worth Zimbabwe. When you pass a law that legalises polygamy in your country, ask yourself what is your worth Kenya. And when you pass a law that purports to protect women from abuse by telling them what not to wear, ask yourself what is your worth Uganda. Gender equality in Africa can work, it just needs to be given the chance, support and commitment.