Models, Priorities, Pressures of Women Today in Africa: Interview with Marjorie Mbilinyi

The interview seeks to explore and better understand what means to be a woman in Africa today: which models and priorities young women follow; to what extent culture and tradition may either enhance or weaken women's empowerment at home and at work; which priorities women see for development; and what issues feminist movements are reclaiming today in Africa. 

Q. What does it mean today to be a woman in development in Africa?

A. I would like to rephrase your question, and talk about our mission as feminists committed to issues of development and democracy in Africa, our reclaiming the concept of feminism - for the longest time we talked about gender activism and now we talk aloud about the concept of transformative feminism. By 'we' I am referring here to Tanzania Gender Networking Programme, TGNP, and our many partners within the Feminist Activist Coalition, FemAct, and the African Feminist Forum. Transformative feminism - beyond addressing the issue of gender balance and differences between women and men - means addressing globalization, class, race, gender identity, and taking back issues of imperialism as well as capitalism, and discrimination of all kinds.

Q. What do you mean by taking back the concept of imperialism?

A. The structural adjustment period and the neo-liberal ideology that came with it dismissed the discourse of our past that has been lost. People talk about globalization and investment partners, but they do not talk about capitalism, imperialism and exploiters. We want to build a transformative feminist movement that challenges patriarchy and neo-liberalism at all levels.

Q. The attention to women and gender balance has increased in recent years. However, sometimes it seems more emphasized than applied, with the result that the attention to the person behind the gender is diminished or even denied. What is your opinion? Don't you think it may result in a boomerang effect for women?

A. In the chosen area there has been a lot of deep surveys and window dressing on issue of gender equality and equity, but just this meeting is a good indication of how far we still have to go: the first panel included only male speakers although we have many women who can talk about the issues that were on the conference agenda. Many of us believe that women have to be allowed to speak on their own behalf. We are putting a lot more attention into working with grassroots women activists and their organizations and networks so that they get the space - or take the space - to speak on their own behalf. A lot of national activists and national NGOs are trying to raise the issues that reflect the interests and demands of marginalized women among peasantry, workers or informal sector workers. But there is not enough of a strong popular mass movement - a transformative feminist movement - that would have the power to pressurise the government. TGNP is involved in budget analysis every year, but being part of a small group of NGOs, we do not really have power and we will not have power until a critical mass is generated. And this requires organizing and coalition-building at grassroots level which links up to a popular feminist movement, and that means responding to the interests and demands of grassroots women themselves, and following their lead.

Q: Which models and priorities are followed by young African women in their process of emancipation and empowerment?

A. I think we can not generalize about young women. What is it like to be a young woman today in Tanzania? It depends, if you are food sellers on the street, (they are called mama nitilie), workers in a factory, domestic servants whose employers are other wealthy Tanzanian women, sex workers, college educated women, NGO officers, business women:  they are all young women. All of these women may have their own perception of what they are doing but there is a rising will and awareness - if not rage - about the need for change and social transformation now. I think there is subtle change and one important factor may be the impact exercised by middle class intellectuals, young women who are standing up and speaking out. The private commercial sector, interestingly, is where you find more space for young women and young professionals. At the same time, poor women in the informal sector and in the peasantry are also organizing themselves to empower themselves economically, and in the process, they challenge both patriarchy and neo-liberalism. I believe that we need to create the space to listen to the views of young women, to understand what these different groups of young women are trying to change, and to see to what extent they are able to keep at home the same power they seem to have at work. Do they carry that power back home or rather do they face patriarchal structures within their family? What I hear from some young people is that many middle class young women have a terrible situation. Men bring mistresses home, for instance, and expect their wives to serve them meals! And many put up with it, seemingly they fear the scorn of being alone without a husband! It is extremely humiliating. Would a poor peasant woman or an urban trader put up with such nonsense? I don't think so. There is an old saying that poor women are more emancipated because they have nothing to lose. They just tell the man to 'get out' or they walk out with their children; they can find another man or another place to stay. It's complicated. This is not new. Way back in the 1970s and 1980s peasant and working class women were quoted as refusing to remarry after the inevitable first marriage, and talked about marriage as 'male colonisation'. In the 1980s and 1990s as men lost work and their wages and farm incomes declined, women became increasingly involved in paid work as producers and traders, both self-employed and paid workers, and many scoffed at the idea of having husbands  - 'why do I want another child to take care of?'

Q: Is there still a high pressure women get from culture, religion and society? If so, how do they respond to this pressure?

A. Yes, but it is not a static culture. Culture changes and one moment people claim tradition, another moment they totally refuse tradition especially in urban situations. Culture is often used as a strategy, sometime by men, sometime also by women to defend their own interests. There are aspects of traditions which are extremely useful to empower women. For instance, in the North of Tanzania, in Ngorongoro district  I did some work there with pastoralist women women deliberately leverage the system of age grade and rituals of indigenous religion. Men can not stop women from engaging in traditional religion. When women organize themselves to meet under the tree, it is understood it's something tradition related, and men can not interfere. If a man ever tries to stop a woman from attending the ritual meeting, the women have the right to hit the man and fine him a goat - a collective action by a group of women. Yes, women have power and they still exert that power. The idea of powerless women victims in Africa is simply not correct. On the occasion of the recent Gender Festival in Dar es Salaam last September 2009, for example, more than 50 women came from Loliondo (Ngorongoro District) to protest land grabbing: their homes were burnt down and they and their families were forcibly evicted from their land by our government, because of demands from a private hunting company! They marched into the Gender Festival singing and carrying their posters, read out their protest message, and later, went to carry out a sit-in demonstration at the office of the President, State House. In my experience working with pastoralist women in Ngorongoro, as well as grassroots women in many other places in Tanzania - you know the old saying from South Africa, 'when you touch a woman you touch a rock' - I have learned that there are many women who are prepared to stand up and denounce injustice completely, without fear, because they have nothing to lose. There are no benefits from the system they work and live in to discourage them from protesting. Moreover, they are driven by their commitment to their children and grand-children.

Q. Which priority do you see for women and development today in your country? (education, labour rights, reproductive health, access to political power)

A. In the organization where I work - the Tanzania Gender Networking Programme - the priority is now to build a transformative feminist movement. Women need to organize themselves and network. They are already doing it, but much of the organizing is very local, community based, with no linkages with each other. So the challenge now is more about building a movement and providing the space for grassroots women themselves to articulate their own demands.

Q. So it is about strengthening what already exists?

A. Yes, strengthening and facilitating and also providing women with a space, whether it is a public forum or a different kind. Not only that, but helping women to identify spaces which they have a right to enter and seize for themselves. And strengthening their capacity to assess the situation for themselves, analyze the basic causes, and take action for change what we call 'triple A: assess, analyze and act'. For example, towards the end of every year, we attend the general budget support meeting organized by the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs. In the past only donors and government were participating. Then the space opened up slightly to civil society but the participants are mostly national NGOs. Now what we want is to work with grassroots women so that they can attend the next meeting and speak up on their own behalf, just as they do at the Gender Festivals. And while some are meeting within the General Budget Support Review, others are holding alternative sessions and marching on the street.

by Angela Zarro

Marjorie Mbilinyi is a life-time scholar activist and active founder member of several feminist/gender-oriented organizations and networks in Tanzania and Africa, including the Tanzania Gender Networking Programme, where she is currently working. She is retired Professor of Education from the University of Dar es Salaam and has extensive experience in participatory organizing, pedagogy and research at national and community level, linked to feminist advocacy and activism.


Photo: wwarby/flickr