The M&G has launched the 2013 Book of South African Women, celebrating women across diverse fields doing remarkable things. Here’s what it’s all about.
It may be that nothing brings out a man’s emotional side quite like helping a woman buy a car.
A few months ago I lost Maggie, my trusty chariot of several years. She was a big-hearted Suzuki Jimny that could never go above 60kph, but had enough 4-wheel drive muscle to pull cars three times her weight out of bogs. I named her Maggie, like Thatcher, a solid name for a tough can-do broad. Even the rainy-season potholes of Dar were no deterrent to her. While thousands driving lesser cars got stranded in the suburbs at the slightest tropical downpour, Maggie would confidently navigate the dangerous rapids at Shopper’s Plaza bridge, not to mention the deceptively deep Lake Millenium towers – both on important tarmac roads connecting to the city.
But she’s gone now. While I know that nothing will ever feel as perfect as her gearshift cupped in my hand or the way her engine growled on cool mornings like a smoker waking up, I can’t help trying to look for a car that has some of her spirit. Good news came recently – one of my taximen had found another fiesty little Suzuki that I might be interested in.
Let me explain a little bit about the real taximen of Dar es Salaam. They are amazing. In the course of a couple of years, you can build relationships of trust usually only enjoyed between a client and her lawyer or a patient and her doctor. They’re the guys who will pick your kids up from school, buy your utilities when you run out, deposit cash at the bank and never charge your Mama when she sends them on an emergency trip because they know to bring the bill to you.
Nothing is beyond them, not a 3am am pick-up at Julius Nyerere International nor a hunt for an affordable apartment in the mixed neighborhoods off the Old and New Bagamoyo roads. I put out the word about a month ago that I was in the market for a new ride. My taximen understood what kind of car might pass muster as a replacement so when Tony called me about a potential candidate, I knew I was in safe hands.
Little did I realise how much my knights in shining motor vehicles would invest in the quest! Or how dramatic they can be. As I took the potential purchase for a test drive it was impossible not to smile at the guys – two taximen and a mechanic – who came along. They preened over my familiarity with a manual transmission. You’d think I had performed cardiac surgery.
Yet within hours of kicking the tyres of this potential purchase I had to counsel Tony, who was having a meltdown about hidden costs. The next day I had to calm down Mwinyi who could barely speak through his tears because he couldn’t get hold of me for two hours in morning to warn me about the hazards of a V6 engine. I was in a meeting for goodness sake! If these men weren’t so damn cute with their concern, this would be a very vexing situation.
What does a feminist like me do with such chivalry, when I have always considered it the other side of the chauvinism coin? I don’t know what kind of women they hang out with – all the best drivers I know are hardcore stick-shift women who drive like girls and thus keep their beloved cars roadworthy and unscratched for decades. I usually take my cue from these capable dames, but in this situation it just seemed churlish not to let my taximen lead the way. Hysteria included.
Because no matter how hard I tried to detect any condescension or outright patronising I just couldn’t. Mwinyi taught me everything I know about preventing salt-air corrosion in the car body, the regular replacement of spark plugs, fan belts and oil seals. They are inordinately proud of my independent lifestyle – especially the part where I can drive a stick shift. Haji and Saidi debate politics with me and have helped me out of more than one tight spot in life. If getting a little unhinged in their zeal to help me secure a new car is part of the deal, what’s a bit of craziness between friends?
It is not just the taximen in Dar who are crunchy on the outside and squishy on the inside, which is secretly one of my favourite Swahili Coast quirks. I’m not crazy, I do like a man who is in touch with his inner mother hen. But when you actually have to deal with that from your male support group? Eish. It can be overwhelming. I don’t know if the sale will go through, the owner is a tough but fair businesswoman and we’re facing off over the last couple of hundred thousand shillings. Wish me luck. No seriously, wish me luck. The mental health of my friends is hanging in the balance, bless their sweet and sensitive souls.
Randa, a 22-year-old from Cairo, has been dressing as a teenage boy throughout most of her country’s so-far disastrous two-year “transition” to democracy. The medical student thinks it is the only way to avoid sexual assault on the streets during a period of unprecedented abuse.
Randa (afraid of giving her full name) goes for the vaguely preppie American look of tracksuit bottoms, polo shirt, baseball cap and trainers when she joins a demonstration. It means she can blend in with vast numbers of men and run away if anyone sees through her disguise. They seldom do: the anonymity of the crowd combined with the chaos and confusion of disorganised rallies serves her well, and besides, most of the main protests take place after dusk. Glasses and a slight build make her look particularly unthreatening.
“As a young woman who is politically minded, I am an obvious target for the cowards, but not as a weak-looking boy,” Randa said this weekend, just after statistics in a new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report pointed to an “epidemic of sexual violence”. Attacks including particularly sadistic rapes have become commonplace in a city that during the Arab Spring was seen as the focal point of enlightenment and progress. Well over 100 women have been seriously attacked since the end of June, usually in a manner that is as arbitrary as it is cruel. One woman required surgery after a “sharp object” was forced into her.
“The only thing that the attackers are interested in is that the target is a woman,” said Randa. “It does not matter if she is young or old, or what her background might be – if you are female you are viewed as someone who is worthy of punishment – these violations transcend politics. They represent innate prejudice and hatred. The real problem is that they are getting worse, and more frequent.”
It would be naive to overlook the drastic increase in crime since Hosni Mubarak, the dictator, was forced out of power in February 2011. Some 51 people were murdered in Cairo on Monday morning alone, during demonstrations against the removal by military force of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president. Yet there is something particularly disturbing about the rise in taharoch el jinssi – Arabic for sexual harassment – especially as it involves men of all ages and backgrounds. The incidents laid out by HRW are only the very worst ones. Name-calling and random groping are now the norm, to the extent that they are unlikely to be reported. The really harrowing data is offered by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, who say that 99.3% of Egyptian women have suffered some form of sexual harassment.
Women are advised to travel in groups, to carry personal alarms, to make sure that friends and family know where they are at all times and – as in the case of Randa – even to disguise themselves.
Lara Logan, the South African CBS television reporter, brought the issue to worldwide public attention. She was subjected to an assault on 11 February 2011 – the very day that Mubarak was deposed. It lasted around 25 minutes and involved up to 300 men who had been celebrating victory in Tahrir Square itself. After her attack, Logan returned to the US and spent four days in hospital. None of her tormentors was ever brought to justice. The majority of the crimes outlined in the HRW report also remain unpunished.
Highlighting how these kind of sexual assaults are now relatively normal, survivor Hania Moheed told HRW in a videoed interview: “They made a very tight circle around me, they started moving their hands all over my body, they touched every inch of my body, they violated every inch of my body.”
The reality is that many Egyptian men blame women for bringing attacks upon themselves with their conduct in public. Ahmad Mahmoud Abdullah, a radical Islamic preacher, suggested women protesting in Tahrir Square “have no shame and want to be raped”. In February 2012, members of the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper house of Parliament, also blamed women for the assaults being carried out on them in Tahrir Square. One member, Adel Afifi, said: “Women contribute 100% to their rape because they put themselves in that position [to be raped].”
Such comments reflect an arch-conservative belief that women should stay at home with their families rather than engage in the political process – a view that was given official sanction following the election of Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, as head of state.
Some have tried to legitimise male “guardianship” by equating gender equality with anti-religious liberalism. Mubarak was a friend to the imperialist US and it was Suzanne Mubarak, the detested and now deposed first lady, who pushed for pro-women legislation, including a wife’s right to sue for divorce and a quota system favouring female election candidates. As the Muslim Brotherhood moved to reverse such measures, these policies became firmly associated with the rejected dictatorship.
Whichever government ends up administering the fledgling post-revolutionary state of Egypt over the next few months, it is unlikely that controlling the abuse of women will be a priority.
Instead vigilante groups such as Tahrir Bodyguard and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH) offer to discourage attackers, usually through strength of numbers but if necessary by using sticks and belts. It is a rough and potentially inflammatory form of deterrence, but in a country where almost everybody is becoming a victim of some kind, it is pretty much all women can hope for.
Nabila Ramdani for the Guardian
Dating back four generations it has been customary for Shona women in Zimbabwe to get down on their knees or at the very least curtsey when serving their husbands a meal. This custom is prevalent in Shona households. Kneeling is a sign of humility and respect. Some women in my family embraced this practice from the early 70s – they still do. However, the more educated and westernised women do not follow this custom, which has patriarchal overtones linked to the subjection of women.
Shona women are forced into submission by patriarchs in many Shona families where the man is regarded as the head of the household. When I was ten years old my paternal grandmother warned me: “You better learn how to cook and clean because if you get married and can’t perform your duties as a wife, you’ll be brought back to the family.” To be returned to your family for not being submissive, for not kneeling, for having a voice, would heap disgrace on them. Worse, when a girl is returned/divorced, her mother is often blamed for not raising her properly.
I have an African male friend who’s been living in New York for 15 years. He still believes it’s important for his wife to kneel when handing him his food. “It’s being respectful and following her culture,” he said. I was shocked. How do the sexes evolve with such hindrances? One would think a highly educated man who has been living in a western society would adapt to his environment.
I recently interviewed Shona women for research on my upcoming book that documents the lives of women in Harare. Many of them spoke frankly about their marital problems, problems that sprouted from subjection, a lack of independence and their husbands’ refusal to accept them as equals in their marriage.
One woman had divorced a Shona man after living in Canada with him for ten years. He expected her to cook after a ten-hour work day. When she suggested getting a housekeeper, her husband accused her of being “indoctrinated” by western culture. He threatened to “get” another woman from Zimbabwe. A few months later she discovered he was making plans to acquire an obedient wife from home.
Rudo, who got married fresh out of high school, had big dreams about her career but her husband didn’t share them. “I wanted to become a pharmacist or a doctor. My rich husband kept promising to send me to university. It’s been eight years and nothing. I am not a doctor, I’m just a housewife. All I can do is dream, raise my two children and regret marrying this man.”
Angie, a newly married woman from an impoverished background, goes down on her knees for her husband but feels bad because this is something she would only like to do while praying. “There is nothing I can do. In our culture the man is like God, I guess. If I don’t kneel while serving him then that makes me a disobedient and rude wife.”
Helen is the owner of a high-end clothing boutique. She and her husband are well off, but “miserably married”.
“I make my own money and my husband is into mining gold. He pays all the bills and even gives me a healthy allowance but he openly has a mistress. He’ll send me a text saying he is not spending the night at home,” she confided. “I can’t leave because I’d be an embarrassment to my family.When I took my complaints to my mother, she told me to be a good subservient wife and not speak up because his father was the same way. She added that when these Shona men reach a certain age they’ll start respecting you as a woman.”
This kind of advice from women to other women, although shocking, is not unusual. I got some myself when I was dating a 27-year-old Shona man last year. A successful businesswoman in her 30s told me to never air my views and opinions to a man because he will feel disrespected and challenged. “A good African woman knows her place and keeps quiet no matter how much anguish she may be festering,” she said. I did try to take her advice but I couldn’t sell my soul to the devil known as the “subjection of women”. I believe in mutual respect and communication.
I ended my relationship with him because he thought it was normal to subject me to societal norms I had not been accustomed to. When I opposed his views he called me “an uncultured disrespectful woman”. According to him, a woman should never say what she really thinks if it opposes her man’s views. “Do as I say without questioning me,” he would often tell me.
I was born in Europe, grew up in Africa but left for North America just after my eighteenth birthday. Kneeling for a man is part of my culture, but I refuse to. I could certainly kneel for the patriarchs in my family but not for a partner. Respect comes in many forms but kneeling for a partner takes away from the emancipation of women.
The act of kneeling when serving a man food is symbolic of respect but it also symbolises putting down a gender. If a woman decides to kneel and curtsey for her partner out of her own volition then I commend her because that’s her choice. I support actions that are based on love/choice because they have more sincerity than culturally set norms.
I’d like nothing more than for African men and women to be on an equal footing. As the generations pass, there will be a cultural evolution but I doubt I will live to see the day a Shona man kneels for his wife while serving her food.
Mandy Nembs is a writer who enjoys exploring her African heritage. She was born in England, grew up in Zimbabwe and lived in Canada for nine years where she attained a BA from Concordia University. She is currently based in New York.
As we walked down a street in Grahamstown recently after a long day of learning about the fundamentals of social accountability, I observed my companion tracking the women around us on campus with his eyes. They were flaunting carefully selected fashion-conscious outfits. Bountiful pear shapes were hugged by skinny jeans and stretchy colour-block dresses that swished to the rhythm of their gait. There really are few things more delightful than the sight of a woman flouncing about in an outfit that makes her glow with confidence.
“No wonder the rate of rape is so high in this country,” he said. Just like that, my bubble of enjoyment burst. My own invisible blanket of security shriveled in the cool, sunny air. Danger lurked everywhere and male menace strode right next to me, ruining a pleasant stroll. What had just happened?
A lot of ink has been spilled over the politics of hair for women of African descent. There are basic conventions to follow. Every morning as I wrestle my fierce afro into submission with the help of coconut oil and a Black Power metal-toothed comb, there is no confusion in my mind as to what it will communicate to the world at large. But when it comes to selecting an outfit, I find the social calculations harder to make. The fact that nudity is not an option is vexing enough. Figuring out where the lines of propriety lie in new situations can give me conniptions.
Every day I face the gauntlet of choices about depilating and deodorising and re-odourising and taming my natural curves. Absolutely no detection of my menstrual cycle is allowed in public, hence a battery of products to manage the regular shedding of my uterus lining. Restrictive garments for the bits that move when left loose, and outer garments to conceal whichever parts of me are out of public favor. Shoes heightened to tilt my hips back and thrust my bra-shaped tits forward – often paired with items that, confusingly enough, help me maintain the requisite amount of sexual aloofness. We haven’t even talked accessories yet.
And woe betide me if I get the balance wrong. If my skirt is too short for the social gathering it will say the wrong things about my sexual mores, and if it is too long it will still say the wrong things about my sexual mores. How long a hem does a girl need to attract the attentions of the right kind of guy? Is it three-inch heels for “I’m ready to settle down in a spiritual union if you are” and nine-inch heels for “bring the whiskey, I’ve got the handcuffs and we can take turns playing the naughty police officer”? Or is it other way around? I forget.
But most importantly: what’s the rape signal, exactly? Because I would hate to send a “please attack me, traumatise me, and destroy a part of my soul” signal by mistake when I only meant to say “it’s a little hot today”. Maybe I should have asked my companion on our walk. The weight of male irresponsibility that women’s garments are made to bear is heinous, and it is depressing how the threat of sexual violence is used to enforce the rather restrictive concept of female respectability.
Since I choose to believe that the roots of this “respectability” business are firmly planted in patriarchal fears of the sacred feminine, among other things, I put some effort into avoiding its strictures. My home, Dar-es-Salaam, is cosmopolitan, the beneficiary of centuries of cultural intercourse, and it shows in the range of ways residents choose to dress. There is plenty of secular space to work in, even if we have to make allowances for our Muslim sensibility and our Bantu Christian conservatism.
The default rule in the performance of respectability is that the more you cover, the higher you score. In a city where the humidity rarely drops below sticky and the heat ranges between miserable and suffocating, one must employ a little sense when selecting a daily outfit. It can be hard not to resent the shirtless men cooling off their skin whenever they please, but since most of them work in physically demanding jobs there are visual compensations.
Years of navigating and negotiating Dar’s particular combination of expectations has taught me that it comes down to the nuances of a given environment or, more specifically, the weight that is accorded to the male gaze, even in women-only spaces. Not enough ink has been spilled over the politics of dress for women of African descent, at least none that avoids the profit-seeking of the fashion industry on one hand and the sexists on the other. Figuring out where the lines of propriety lie in new situations might be challenging, but I can’t help but be fascinated by the political aspect of it.
There are benefits to mastery, the primary one being physical safety. I like to think that I have become a seasoned politician in this arena. Although a nudity-embracing society remains the unattainable ideal, I do enjoy a wardrobe that includes neck-to-feet gowns, plunging necklines and a little red string bikini that I am rather fond of – all without incident so far. For the most part all is well with the world except for those times when I stray outside the familiar, and a handy chauvinist reminds me that the lines of propriety have shifted, giving me the horrors in pretty little Grahamstown.