In my conversations with children and young people at Kijana Kwanza (and some colleagues) some of the challenges around gender equality quickly become apparent. It is not unusual for people to make broad generalisations such as how domestic tasks are a woman’s work or that it is the duty of a married woman to comply with all the instructions given to her by her husband. Yet when you delve deeper, provide alternative scenarios where it is clearly beneficial that a woman takes on another kind of role, they are dismissed with the statement: “This is our culture.” In my opinion, this is probably the most dangerous answer to any question on social justice.
A few nights ago, I decided to volunteer for the pre-dinner speech, which is when our students must wait at the table salivating over their food, as they face yet another ritual of a student making some incomprehensible rendition of some lines from their civics textbook to a disinterested, hungry audience. I was determined to buck the trend.
I started – in the simplest and slowest English I could utter – by highlighting my concerns:
“In the last few days I have heard from our fellow students (this is me, using idiomatic African English) that some of the jobs we do at home are for girls.”
Christian looked at me uncomfortably and attempted to feign ignorance. He knew that this was a reference to his outburst the previous day when he was disciplined for leaving the house without permission and given the unenviable task of washing all the saucepans.
“Do you think that washing dishes is only a woman’s job? How come when it is time to eat the boys push aside the girls to pick up the largest plates of food, yet when it comes to washing those very plates, they are the first to run away? Let me be clear to you all. If you want to eat, you must share the responsibility for cooking and cleaning.”
My audience had perked for the first time in the history of pre-dinner speeches at Kijana Kwanza, although I am not sure whether they were convinced. But if religion has taught me anything, it is the power of rhetoric.
“Remember… Hakuna Yesu bila Mariamu. Hakuna Mtume Muhammad bila mama yake Amina.” (There is no Jesus without Mary. There is no Prophet Muhammad without her mother Amina).
Amongst the boys, there were some agitated looks at the realisation that their cultural norms may not conform to God’s plan.
“You say that girls are weak. But then you expect women to cook and clean for you all day. If you are strong, why cannot you do the work yourself!”
I focused my attention on to the boys.
“Do you know how much pain a woman feels when she gives birth? Do you think you could manage the pain of pushing a baby out of your body? We are weak compared to women.
Think of all the mothers in this world. When you were a baby and you were crying during the night, was it your father or was it your mother who woke up to comfort you?”
I was making a cultural assumption on parenting, but my audience considered it quite normal that this was a mother’s job. My intention was to emphasise the respect that a mother, and by extension all woman, deserve, rather than challenge her role. That was a battle for another day.
“In school, if a boy makes a girl pregnant what will he do? Will he stand by the girl and care for her during pregnancy or will he run away?”
Again the question needed no answer. In Tanzania, the boy could only possibly run away.
“And when the girl gives birth, will the boy give the girl money for the child? Or will he leave the girl to look after the baby alone?”
None of these repetitive questions needed answers. Culturally, there was only one possible answer.
“How many of you boys can give birth to the Saviour of the World (I wasn’t quite sure which religion I was referring to, but the vague terminology allowed my mixed audience of Christians and Muslims to feel that this was a direct reference to them)? How many of you will give birth to the Father of the Nation?” I thought I should add a few words of patriotism since the recent Presidential Elections had fired nationalistic fervour amongst Tanzanians.
I continued, pumped by the nods of agreement.
“A woman is more powerful than a man in many ways. So next time you think that a woman is weak, or that her position in society is lower than yours, or that she is responsible for serving your needs, remember…”
I paused for a moment, to add some drama to my conclusion.
“Hakuna Yesu bila Mariamu. Hakuna Mtume Muhammad bila mama yake Amina.” (There is no Jesus without Mary. There is no Prophet Muhammad without her mother Amina).
And with those words, I sat down, to a round of applause.
My argument was, on so many levels, flawed. And in some ways, I also perpetuated some of the stereotypes that actually cause gender inequality. But for the time, the place and the culture, this was the only intervention that I felt would at least break down some of the most extreme attitudes that must be curtailed.