Gender Essentialism (Part III)

When is it not in women’s best interest to embrace the motherhood frame to propel forward female protests? The problem with this essentialism in resistance is that it may compromise an ideological tenant for a pragmatic one. By definition, essentializing must simplify the experiences and forms of knowledge of participants in resistance, and thus inevitably omit those that are outliers. It is tempting to suspend a commitment to including individual needs if it means substantively furthering a cause beneficial to the subaltern group as a whole; it may serve as a means to an end.  Tangible gains for social movements through the use of strategic essentialism may not outweigh the ideological costs of its use.

It can be problematic for a social movement to use this maternal identity as the basis for political authority, as it excludes those who are not mothers and confines participants to the mothering role.  As Tripp, Casimiro, Kwesiga, and Mungwa (2009) describe it, “their roles may limit them to [only] that of mother. It also associates women’s participation with what many consider a natural role rather than agency and choice. It may prevent women from entering into politics on an equal basis with men if the focus is on their roles as mothers”. Additionally, such a tendency simplifies the variation in women’s lives.

In the Delta context, for example, the role of chiefs’ wives in resistance is very different from that of non-elite female farmers. Elite wives must navigate a different social terrain, in which their husbands may be using them to influence the actions of women in the community or, conversely, in which they may be able to exercise an unusual amount of autonomy. The princess of * told me, “My grandfather was founder of * [so] no, I cannot really go to protest, but I can tie my wrapper and turn it upside down to protest when I want in my house”.  Farmers, on the other hand, may act with more freedom since they are not royalty or, conversely, their positions may mean they don’t have the resources or social capital to behave as autonomously as an elite woman.  So, not only must one eschew gender essentialism and cultural essentialism but also socioeconomic or any other essentialism that discounts the variations in the ways that women experience society based on their economic, educational, or marital status.

One of the disadvantages of mothering as a frame can be found in a paradox: being mothers can justify women’s presence but, once they are engaged, then it constricts their actions within the movement. As an illustration, a majority of the two dozen female protesters I spoke with at Occupy Nigeria reported that their husband or a male organizer had directed them to come.  None of them had made their own signs or banners. They all said that they would not return to protest for another day. They didn’t take up the bullhorn as often, nor did they chant very loudly, and they marched together in back of the procession behind the men. If women were not choosing to protest on their own, or were not exercising autonomy during protest, then it presents a paradox: Motherhood is their justification for public engagement, yet that same gender construct constrains their independent participation within that space of engagement. So, in all, the maternal frame offers the contradiction of empowering women to demonstrate while also possibly limiting their chance for success.

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Gender Essentialism (Part II)

Mother protesting in Jos, Nigeria

Mothers protesting in Jos, Nigeria

Women across sub-Saharan Africa, not just the Niger Delta, have used the motherhood trope in both formal and informal mobilizations, engaging in what Molyneux (1985) has termed “combative motherhood” to justify and frame their resistance. Formerly apolitical mamas from rural Kenya marched through Nairobi and then disrobed to demand the release of their sons from political imprisonment, acting on principles of care and justice and strategically employed motherhood. Ivorian women marched through Abidjan to speak out against the violence of the Gbagbo regime and, later, to force peace talks in order to end the civil war there in 2011. Aya Virginie Toure, the leader of the “One Thousand Women March” in 2011, remarked that they were just marching as their mothers had done when their fathers had been imprisoned under colonial rule, and that mothers make the best last resort in resistance (Bannister, 2011). In Nigeria, Maryam Babangida’s Better Life for Rural Women and Maryam Abacha’s Family Economic Advancement Program placed women within the role of wife and mother, thus arguing that government policies aimed at helping women should focus on their ability to financially provide for their families. In the Niger Delta protests, women’s main grievance was that companies had not offered enough employment to the women’s sons. During my observations of protests, women also regularly chanted that they couldn’t afford to provide “chop,” i.e. food, to their children and that their babies were sick because of environmental damage.

Aya Virginia Toure, leader of the Thousand Women March

Aya Virginia Toure, Ivorian leader of the “One Thousand Women March”

This essentialization of female identity (see previous post) can be a benefit for protesting women in that it draws upon the one ability that men can never have—bearing children. Discursive exploitation of motherhood can give women an edge as they attempt to enter male-dominated political space. It can reify their collective identity as they attempt to come together in resistance and can help bridge cross-ethnic or cross-religious boundaries. It can place a burden on power holders to respect protesting women enough to listen. For example, Congolese women convened inattentive male negotiators to see a play depicting the suffering the civil war had caused the country’s children, “humbling” the men into returning to the negotiating table. Essentialization of motherhood may also be embraced because it appears to be an indigenous frame of resistance in a way that the contemporary human rights paradigm, often viewed as Western, is not.

Additionally, embracing this gender construct protects female protesters from the repressive violence that men experience. The maternal frame adopted by groups demanding information on the disappearances of loved ones in El Salvador, Argentina, and Guatemala protected them from the extreme violent repression that was prevalent against dissidents in those countries in the 1970s and 1980s. Likewise, the Federation of South African Women used their motherhood as a shield from violence during their work with the anti-pass campaigns of the 1950s.

Nigerian women have voiced the belief that soldiers are less likely to fire upon or use violence against women, especially mamas.  An interviewee said that in the Niger Delta, “Army and police will start beating and shooting people. It is only the women that they will not do that to, but the men they will beat and some will die”. They have demonstrated that by bringing children to sit-ins, holding green leaves, wearing their wrappers upside-down, and baring their breasts, they use their motherhood as both a conduit for their demonstrations and as a shield through which they may protect themselves from violence. This protection then extends to men who are engaged in gender-mixed demonstrations, which is a significant reason that elite men in the Niger Delta have encouraged women’s participation in resistance. Celestine Akpobari, a local NGO Director, described how, during Saro-Wiwa’s movement, “[FOWA] women began to stay at the front of demonstrations because of the belief that the military wouldn’t shoot women” (2/9/2012).

Although the motherhood identity may seem to empower women towards greater political engagement, it can also be a constricting force as well, as described in Gender Essentialism (Part III).

Demonstrators protest in Warri, Nigeria in 2005. The protesters demonstrated against what they claim to be the shooting death of activists and demanded that ChevronTexaco implement the July 17, 2002 Memorandum of Understanding and threatened to carry out more protest on ChevronTexaco oil facilities if their demands are not met.

Demonstrators protest in Warri, Nigeria in 2005. The protesters demonstrated against what they claim to be the shooting death of activists and demanded that ChevronTexaco implement the July 17, 2002 Memorandum of Understanding and threatened to carry out more protest on ChevronTexaco oil facilities if their demands are not met.

Gender Essentialism (Part I)

An encyclopedia entry of mine, “gender essentialism,” was just published in the Encyclopedia of Diversity and Social Justice (2015) by Rowman & Littlefield. The entry stemmed from my research on the motherhood trope common in African women’s protests. During Occupy Nigeria in January 2012, women’s reverberating chants were always about needing jobs to provide for their children, or how they needed oil spills cleaned up so they could grow food for their children.  They regularly framed their resistance in terms of their role as mothers, thus essentializing their gender and their role in the resistance. Here is the text of the encyclopedia entry to offer further background:

Gender essentialism is the view that people have inherent and immutable personal characteristics based on their sex, and that these characteristics give rise to gender-specific experiences. This notion is often linked with the “difference” model of feminism (contrast with the “equality” or “social constructivist” model), both of which posit that fundamental dissimilarities between men and women explain their material and social differences.  Some gender essentialists may argue that women are naturally more peaceful, nurturing, communicative, and moral than men, thereby affecting their personal relationships and careers. Other essentialists focus on women’s shared social conditions rather than their attributes, and emphasize their marginalization within the economy and family unit, e.g. the gender wage gap. More specifically, some essentialists find that women’s childbearing alone fundamentally defines their social role and status.

Gender essentialism has been espoused by those who wish to undergird and explain role differentials among men and women, as well as by gender-equality activists wishing to create solidarity among women. The latter claim that certain generalizations can be made about “womanhood,” “motherhood,” and “the family,” and that these serve to further global standards for the status of women. Gayatri Spivak unintentionally began a movement towards “strategic essentialism” when she speculated that marginalized groups may find it advantageous to temporarily act as if their identities are stable and homogenous in order to achieve their political goals.

In response to essentialism, anti-essentialists maintain that all aspects of gender are socially constructed. Particular contexts create the class, race, and cultural differences among women’s interests. They charge that essentialism is marred by ahistorical, racist, classist, and heterosexist elements. Postmodern and particularly Black feminists emphasize that every perspective is socially situated, and charge that essentialists fail to see the “intersectionality” of discrimination.  Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, the study of “intersectionality” examines how biological, social, cultural, and economic categories interact on multiple levels in order to create inequality; intersectionality is at odds with gender essentialism. Some Postcolonial/Third World feminists have charged that, in trying to avoid gender essentialism, anti-essentialists have in turn actually engaged in a form of “cultural essentialism,” defining women’s identities and experiences not by their gender but rather by their nationality or culture.”

The encyclopedia can be found on google books.

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Boko Haram In Nigeria Runs Out Of Weapons, Ammunition As Nigerian Army Advances On Sambisa Forest

Boko Haram In Nigeria Runs Out Of Weapons, Ammunition As Nigerian Army Advances On Sambisa Forest.

A Peaceful Handover of the Presidency in Nigeria

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This month’s Presidential election in Nigeria, in which Mammadu Buhari defeated sitting President Good Jonathan, showed the best of what Nigeria can achieve. After his PDP party had been in office 16 years, Jonathan publicly conceded defeat to Buhari, offering to Nigerian a rare peaceful transition of Presidential power.   Much of the world had been anticipating post-election violence in reaction to Buhari’s victory amid allegations of election fraud.

Not to detract from Nigeria’s accomplishment, but there were certainly conditions in place conducive to a non-violent concession of power. First, Nigerians tend to vote along ethnic lines, and Jonathan is an Ijaw, the fourth largest ethnic group in the country, and so there is not a critical mass of Ijaw voters to defend his rule.  Second, Jonathan came to office in the first place because President Yar’Adua died in office, so some felt Jonathan lacked legitimacy as President to begin with (although he won his 2010 election, which included defeating Buhari). Third, Jonathan’s Presidency had upset the agreed upon alternating Presidencies between Christians and Muslims since he filled in for a Muslim President. Some northerners felt it was a Muslim’s turn to be in office. Buhari was already in office for 20 months in the 1980s as a military ruler, so his victory is certainly not a story of a new candidate coming out of nowhere and unseating an elected President peacefully, which would be a fair grander tale. Lastly, Buhari’s victory was clear, as he gained the votes of 21 states over Jonathan’s 15, demonstrating a clear and difficult-to-contest victory. Let’s hope the well wishes last until Buhari takes office on May 29.

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Postponement of Elections Hurts Democracy in Nigeria

Nigerians were supposed to go to the polls on Saturday for their Presidential election. However, the election was postponed by Jonathan’s ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to purportedly focus its attention on defeating Boko Haram. The election is now scheduled for March 28, but an extra six weeks hardly seems to be enough to time to help end religious terrorism in the North. Those critical of the postponement are right to point out that the PDP is just securing more time to rally campaign resources. The party was unprepared for the rise in popularity of the opposing candidate, former 1980’s ruler General Muhammadu Buhari, and his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC).

Former President Obasanjo was incensed enough by the decision that he tore up his PDP membership card in public today. This was a major blow to the party since he has been one of their ardent supporters since the party took power 15 years ago. The PDP itself is now suffering from its misstep, as party leaders are obviously divided.

The largest tragedy of the postponement is that it is a symbolic win for Boko Haram. As an Islamic fundamentalist group, it is opposed to elections and the democratic system as a whole. Following through with the elections would have been the move necessary to show the group that democracies do no kowtow to terrorist threats. It is further troubling because through Nigerian’s postcolonial history of over a dozen military coups, postponement of elections has been part and parcel of leaders’ attempts to maintain power in the face of a potential defeat at the polls. Many of us had hoped that period had ended with the transition to “democracy” in 1999, but Jonathan’s move is a worrisome step back in that direction.

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MILITARY ESCALATION IN THE FAR NORTHEAST OF NIGERIA ; STATUS UPDATES (IV)

Originally posted on Beegeagle's Blog:

A Chinese-built BigFoot MRAP of the Nigerian Army on patrol in the Far Northeast.

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