Last month, a group of circa 40 women gathered in Banjul, Gambia for a transformational feminist leadership workshop organised by Women Living Under Muslim Law (WLUML). I was one of the trainers at the weeklong workshop; my sessions were about using communication for feminist advocacy.
During the week we discussed, among other things, culturally justified violence against women; the rise of political Islam; women’s participation in law and constitution building and, of course, political leadership. I returned to London from Banjul feeling encouraged and invigorated by the workshop. The feminist activists, both the trainers and participants, left no doubt in my mind that African women are rocking the boat in the 21st century! To be an African feminist today is to be part of a powerful, determined and sisterly force.
Yet while the WLUML workshop was an example that there is no shortage of courage among potential women political leaders in Africa, is women’s political participation in Africa truly rising as many suggest? Sure, it certainly seems the time of the African woman leader if ever there was one. There’s Rwanda, for instance, where an incredible 64% of MPs are women, and generally Africa has made good use of quotas for women in parliament. There are three female heads of state in Africa (Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, Joyce Banda and Catherine Samba-Panza) and the AU chair, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, is a woman.
Yet as study upon study shows, women remain at a huge disadvantage compared to men, not only in leadership but in all the institutions that create leaders. There’s a wide gender gap in education, the workplace, traditional institutions, income and in the private sphere. Women face both structural obstacles and capacity barriers to participating in political life. They do not enter political life either as leaders or even as voters to the extent that men do. Furthermore – imagine this – support for women as political leaders has actually decreased from 2005 to 2012 in the majority of countries surveyed in a recent study by Afrobarometer and only nine African parliaments have reached the 30% benchmark of women in parliaments.
To add salt to the injury, in 2012, an in-depth global analysis of gender equality showed that women in Sub-Saharan Africa faced the highest level of discrimination in the world. Whether to do with issues in the private sphere such as domestic violence, marital rights, inheritance and FGM, or, in the public sphere such as lack of access to healthcare, public space and political power, women in African countries were found to be confronting major challenges with gender inequality. Add to this that legislature is becoming increasingly blended with religion in many societies, which has a negative effect on women’s lives. Some examples are the stoning of women in Nigeria, bill on indecent dressing in Uganda and FGM still not being illegal in many countries.
It is not my intention to devalue the significant gains women leaders have made across the continent. (And nor is this problem “African” alone.) But while positive developments deserve to be celebrated, I’m cautious that we are feeling too triumphant while there is an ongoing revivalism of old, incredibly patriarchal, traditional values and a backlash against women’s rights that makes it difficult for them to participate in leadership. What do you think about this issue? Is women’s political participation rising or are African societies perhaps becoming even more patriarchal than before?
Tina Ewokolo says
I think the questions you raise are important. As politically and socially active women its useful to compare and check the prevailing trends, but I also know that there are underlying changes that we can point to that are reassuring. The way our societies are organized, there are forces for and against women and its a continuous series of large and small wins and losses; important is, that there are people conscious of what is at stake who continue to push, without of course being complacent. So I think, we can't test the temperature of a dish at one point in time and space and use it to judge the whole meal over all time.
Thanks for the comment. Appreciate the positive but nevertheless balanced outlook. And I agree, there is a push, has always been and it will always continue. I’m just somewhat cautious with the too triumphant sentiments as they have a tendency to curb anger, and we are going to need anger about the status quo to demand change. Regarding religion, I’m not sure many countries in Africa are strictly non-islamic? And also Christian fundamentalism is equally destabilising for women’s rights… That’s an important intervention about how capitalism and the subsequent individualism impact women. Indeed, much of women’s empowerment work occurs in this space, and economic empowerment is undoubtedly significant in terms of leadership if not the only type of empowerment needed…
Tina Ewokolo says
There are around 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa which apply elements of Islamic law but I take your point that there can be influence of Islam without having an Islamic state. Still, for me Christian fundamentalism (actually I see all religions as forces for conservatism) is something which has the same principles but not the cultural/institutional penetration of Islam. So, I expect to be able to get away from an oppressive evangelical family by studying, getting a job etc and not to be prevented from doing this by the church. But perhaps you have another way to look at that.
Agree with you. One thing I’d add is that there is a class related issue intertwined with all this. Well to do Christians are becoming more secular like their western counterparts.
Tina Ewokolo says
Its a question of privilege as well as money. There are forms of privilege which combine for certain women, ethnicity, clan, which are to do with connections to the powerful, with networks, as well as wealth, a certain kind of education, where very often in the generation of women born in the 1930's these girls were educated in Christian schools and their values were influenced and they went on to work in government administrative positions, in the classic positions for women: education, nursing and rural development. We have to be careful when we make the link between western materialism and rolling back patriarchy because of what happened with feminism in Europe and the US when white women acquired male privilege at the cost of black women. Its quite possible that privileged African women and men simply leave behind the rest or indeed thrive at the cost. Broadening privileges will be the great thing to do.