“Basically, what are we asking for? It’s not about replacing men. But to have our place around the table to bring a perspective that could be different from that brought by men”.
These words of Sahle-Work Zewde – the first female president of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia and the only female Head of State in Africa – challenge our pan-African conscience. What perspective is she talking about, though?
The issue of women’s representation at the highest levels of power in Africa has long been debated. No one can deny factually that women are generally excluded in this realm. The result has been the legitimate and persistent demands for a better representation of women in political decision-making across different levels.
Most people would agree that representation would constitute a necessary first step that would announce a change regarding their undeniable right – and ability – to govern. In other words, representation is neither adequate nor is it a favor that men must offer women.
In Burundi, women are present in virtually every sector of activity, from the economy to education and health, for instance. Women also toil the soil growing crops in their plantations in the rural areas; in the urban areas they are vendors – street or otherwise – and are waitresses in bars and restaurants; women are artists, shopkeepers, doctors and nurses, judges, teachers, etc.
They are in all those high and low positions not due to some benevolence; however, it is because they are an efficient, creative, enthusiastic, and resilient laborious portion of the population. Burundi’s constitution even provides for quotas of 30% minimum representation in political positions. Yet – and this is where the rubber meets the road – they remain the targets of several forms of violence and discrimination.
The political situation marked by a deliquescent leadership does not help to ameliorate this predicament. On the contrary, when the government is not busy encouraging its militia and its other members of its security apparatus to rape women they perceive to be of opposition, they deploy the political elite to legislate the number of hours women and girls are allowed to be on the streets or in bars; in schools, pregnant teenage girls are chased away, which reduces their future prospects and therefore making an already bad situation worse. The fact that such physical and psychological abuse takes place in a country where the ministries of Justice and education are women speaks to the limits of representation.
These women, powerful as they are, operate within a systemic logic. In the logic of such a system, a woman must prove that she has done everything possible to avoid the violence that comes upon her or that she has not provoked it by her attitude, her behavior, or the way she dresses. Such a system insist that the violence upon which it is built is an inevitable phenomenon (boys will be boys) and the violence is reproduced because violence is exactly what makes a man, a real one. And, significantly, any woman who seeks to integrate into it shall be as ruthless and tough as her male counterparts. Actually, she will be more ruthless and tougher in order to prove her worth and validate her selection into privilege.
As @prisonculture put it: “victims/survivors of sexual violence cannot get justice if the vehicle is the current criminal punishment system. That system turns survivors into defenders.” This view hold that the problem is the system that “powerful women” integrate into that is characterized by inbuilt hostility and violence directed towards women – the patriarchal hill that men and the women they coopt are prepared to die on.
Ultimately, while the situation with regard to representation has improved in Burundi, we can safely affirm that better representation alone cannot address the issues women are facing. This is where President Sahle-Work Zewde is pointing us. If we insist on mere representation we see the finger that points but not the direction to which we are pointed: perspective.
In fact, just as a better representation of blacks in government in South Africa has not led to an egalitarian society that values blacks in that country, the blacks who integrate into it serve a system whose priority is to protect the privileges of the white ruling class of the apartheid legacy and for blacks to attempt to survive the violence that results from it.
Similarly, women will have to rethink the concepts of marriage, justice, economy, religion, laws and a whole host of other institutions erected in defense of the privileges of patriarchy and dominated by violence as a mode of obtaining or defending privileges. They must do this before claiming to enjoy the same rights as men. So far, representation – much as it has been excellent at coopting women into violent edifices – hasn’t served this purpose.
This is why President Sahle-Work Zewde’s call is urgent. It is a plea for a different perspective that would not integrate into – or coexist with – that which currently oppresses and to embrace one that transforms our societies, and to erect a new system thought and organization around this new perspective. Zewde is signaling that women are the custodians of this liberatory perspective not only for themselves but for the entire humanity.
Attempts to extinguish feminist voices are multiple and assiduous. A movement that has a noble cause is undermined by those who seek to discredit it from within and without. From within, it is threatened by women who are willing to sacrifice their radical idea of feminism for a place at the patriarchal – capitalist materialism – table.
They have mastered feminist theory and language as a shield against rebuke for this very self-promotion that draws attention to themselves in ways that suggest that feminism is an unprincipled pursuit, its ideals applied according to mood.
They represent the strongest allies of patriarchy. Men who seek to perpetually dominate women point to these fickle women as evidence that feminism is nothing but platitudes and rantings of frustrated women whose only ambition is to make enough noise in order to access the privileges and platforms that patriarchy will allow them to. Consequently, their variant of opportunistic feminism is a formidable tool in the service of patriarchy, which is able to castigate an otherwise noble movement as a principle-less cult. Consequently, they represent a threat from without.
These women who are willing to sacrifice their radical idea of feminism for a place at the patriarchal – capitalist materialism – table are not the people President Sahle-Work Zewde has in mind when she speaks about the need “to have our place around the table to bring a perspective that could be different from that brought by men.”
If Pan-Africanism and feminism seem to be two parallel struggles, it is an abnormal occurrence because pan-Africanism without feminism will remain an empty shell resonating in the concert of nations while having extinguished the voice of more than half of the African population; it will lack the moral basis for denouncing the prejudices and violence stemming from racism while defending those stemming from sexism.
Similarly, an African feminism that is devoid of pan Africanism lacks the moral basis articulated in the foregoing. It is this moral basis that serves as the oasis of resilience against those who seek to usurp and commodify the movement for personal gain.