Tag Archives: gender

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.

mamas

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.

diversity

Reports | National Reports | Africa | Nigeria | Human Development Reports (HDR) | United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

Reports | National Reports | Africa | Nigeria | Human Development Reports (HDR) | United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Uganda’s Christmas Present.

Uganda’s Christmas Present..

Video

Gay rights in Uganda

Fortunately, the issue of gay rights in Africa, in Uganda specifically, seems to be cropping up more frequently. Uganda has a reputation (with Nigeria following close behind) for being one of the most oppressive and dangerous countries for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Africans. Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill that proposed death for H.I.V.-positive gay men and prison for anyone who didn’t report a known homosexual was aside for now, but politicians are currently drafting a new version. An impetus behind their decision to table it was the brutal murder of famed LGBT rights activist, David Kato, who was bludgeoned after a local tabloid calling for the murder of gays published his name, photo and address. He was head of SMUG, or Sexual Minorities Uganda.

David-Kato-Uganda

His story was covered fairly well in the Ugandan and domestic media, with The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Economist highlighting the crime. There was such much attention that two Americans debuted a documentary about Kato and the Ugandan LGBT, or “kuchu,” struggle called “Call me Kuchu.”

 

Most prominent international non-profits, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Oxfam publicly decried his murder and the Anti-Homosexuality Bill as one would expect. Surprisingly though, while doing research on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations’ Subcommittee on African Affairs, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that helping improve LGBT rights in Uganda is on the agenda for the U.S. Congress in the upcoming year.  Hillary Clinton has made public statements voicing support for improved protections for the LGBT community in Uganda, a pleasant compliment to Obama’s watershed reference to gay rights in his recent Inaugural address. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has immense sway in coloring some aspects of public policy in sub-Sahara, and hopefully their focus on this issue will be an example of positive influence.

Despite such an effort at improving human rights in Uganda, an immense challenge comes from staunch conservatives in the U.S., specifically Evangelical Christians. According to filmmaker Roger Ross Williams and Ugandan religious leaders who support human rights, fundamentalist Christian churches are investing huge sums of money into backing the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, supporting pastors who preach anti-gay sermons, and financing revivals and classes with heteronormative messages.

 

 

In researching human rights in Uganda, I couldn’t help comparing the situation to observations I made in Nigeria about anti-homosexuality legislation (and fundamentalist Christianity imported from the U.S.). The Nigerian Anti-Gay Bill that passed in the fall of 2011 prescribes 14 years imprisonment for convicted homosexuals.  I was less surprised by the legislation than by the widespread support it seemed to enjoy among my neighbors and friends. Truly, I didn’t meet anyone who didn’t seem to advocate it, usually based on totally erroneous ideas about what same-sex relationships are all about.  When I would bring up sex-related rights issues that seemed pressing for me, such as rape and child prostitution, the Nigerians I spoke with felt that homosexuality was far more alarming.  I couldn’t imagine how a consensual relationship between two adults could be troubling, let alone more troubling than child sex trafficking, but for many I spoke with it was.

Sira Syndrome among the Ogonis

During my field research in Ogoniland I came across a cultural practice I haven’t encountered anywhere else in Africa. In some Ogoni communities of Rivers State the oldest or only daughter in a family is not permitted to marry or leave her father’s house, and she is socially (not physically) wedded to her father for life. She produces offspring with one or several male community members, offspring who take her own father’s name and become his heirs. The purpose of this is for her to have as many children as possible so they can work the family’s plot of land. Children are labor, labor generates income, and so fathers’ keeping their daughters at home is an income-generating practice. The tradition is called “Sira” and these daughters are described by some as having “Sira syndrome.”

I have spent some time thinking about the origins of Sira. I briefly hypothesized that perhaps in past generations male mortality rates were so much higher than that of women that there simply were not enough men to go around as legal husbands for single women, which is the historical explanation for the implementation of Islamic polygamy after many Muslim fighters died in religious battles in the 7th century. But if this was the case, why didn’t the practice spread to neighboring communities with a similar sex imbalance? Also, I think it is safe to say most men would like more family income, so why is it a uniquely Ogoni tradition? I haven’t found any answers to this question of how it originated.

Currently, the dynamics of the Sira households with which I am familiar vary. The woman may or may not have say over with which men she procreates, and the woman’s own father may be the one to make the decision. In some instances Siras freely take on one informal “husband” who fathers all or most of her offspring, while in other homes Siras have different fathers for each of her children. It is my understanding that in some communities, men may bring an offering or there can be a ceremony when a Sira “matches,” while in others it is strictly a numbers game in which the greater the sexual partners the greater the chance she will have many labor-producing progeny. Since such courtship is a delicate matter to discuss so I wasn’t able to learn much about how Siras match with their sexual partners.

It did seem fairly clear to me however that the practice is slowing dying out. Like most social changes I observed in Nigeria, rapid urbanization undermines such a tradition. Women moving into the city of Port Harcourt for work would be logistically unable to maintain the institution of Sira, and such a life experience would possibly alter their views of their filial obligations to stay as the social property of their fathers. I have noticed that rural-to-urban migrants also may distance themselves from traditional practices they consider too “bush-like” (their term, not mine). The gender differential in rural Rivers State, in which men have left farms in droves to seek city employment, may also affect how Sira is practiced, as women outnumber men in rural areas. Additionally, some I spoke to described the Sira practice as unchristian, as in, “This village stopped practicing Sira because we are Christians and the Bible says one man and one woman should marry.”

The practice of Sira presents a paradox in which culture is simultaneously a constricting but in a sense almost (but not quite) privileging force. It fundamentally violates the daughters’ right to choose their partners and have autonomy over their bodies. It is an oppressive practice because it infantilizes adult women. Being socially married to their fathers limits their choices, and for students of development theory, choices = development. Having their fathers’ determining their sexual partners violates their dignity, and for students of human rights theory, dignity = human rights. Yet at the same time, being a Sira did not appear, to me anyway, to be considered shameful. Ogonis did not speak of Siras in derogatory terms, nor did Siras complain to me about their status (although a life without many life choices often teaches us to accept our lot). I have met Siras with university degrees, some who work white-collar jobs, and others who have led protests and are politically conscious. Could these particular women have actually experienced more personal freedoms because they did not have a legal husband making demands on them? It also occurred to me that being a Sira could be a partially beneficial status because it is a purely Ogoni practice, so perhaps this status makes such women symbols of their ethnic group’s character, unique bearers of collective identity in their communities. As a self-identified feminist I maintain that the practice is detrimental to the status of women and I look forward to a time when the institution no longer exists; however, I have to admit that there are plenty of women in Africa and across the globe who have freely chosen their husbands and currently live under more subjugating conditions than some of the Siras I encountered.

The lesson for me: The tradition of Sira and similar practices of controlling women’s sexual behavior does not oppress such women on its own, but rather poverty, lack of education, misogyny and patriarchy combine to oppress women, and such practices are actually an effect of such oppression and not a cause.

No weddings for Siras…

Thoughts? I would love to learn more from my Nigerian readers who might be able to add any detail or illuminate any of the questions I asked above.