I ATTENDED my first ever women’s conference in 1993 at Stirling University in Scotland. Thanks to my work as an aerobics instructor at an organisation for minority women, I was invited to sing at this event and to play the congas.
I was about 21 at the time and a second year student in medical biochemistry at the University of Glasgow. I was very much into women’s issues and fortunate enough to have made friends with young African women of diverse backgrounds who were very passionate about issues that affected African women, and women in general.
We’d had discussions about women and their place in the various societies we came out of. And very quickly, it became clear to all of us that no matter where in Africa we came from (Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, South Africa, Botswana, Cameroon, Uganda and Kenya), there were basic issues pertaining to the status of women that we had in common.
Our conversations were around issues of gender equity and we shared stories from our own personal experiences and those of people we knew. We discussed domestic violence and the fact that girls were less valued in the societies we came from than were boys. We managed to distill our womanist ideas into language that was common to us. We discussed traditions that held women down, affected their health negatively or kept them from advancing economically and socially.
The learning curve
We described the pressures women felt under the weight of conformity and articulated the fear of ostracism that accompanied trying to be different, or trying to buck tradition. It was in this context that I learned about female genital cutting and the fact that girls were often married off at 12-13 years of age around different parts of Africa.
I learned then that there were places in the world where women were not permitted to drive cars and that many were forced to walk around covered in black free-flowing robes from head to toe. I learned, to my horror, that the price for reporting that one had been raped as a woman was often death because rape brought dishonor to the woman’s family and she therefore had to be sacrificed; the victim was the problem, not the rapist.
I shared openly about certain religious sects in Zimbabwe where young girls were not permitted to go to school and were often married off to men old enough to be their grandfathers, men who had perhaps10 or more wives.
We shared books and I was introduced to the world of African writers through my Kenyan friend, Garnette Oluoch Olunya. She was a PhD student in African literature at Glasgow University and taught an evening African literature class which I attended along with my other African sisters.
Women before our time had spoken this same language
I was amazed to find that there were women, older than ourselves, who had been articulating African women’s issues in their stories. Tsitsi Dangarembga , Ama Ata Aidoo, Mariama Ba, Buchi Emechetta all wrote around African women struggling, resisting; determined to have a voice. We sucked our teeth as we dissected our favourite female characters trying to elucidate the qualities that made them stand out and the fearless nature of their interactions within societies that meted out harsh punishment and cold reproach to women who were not malleable.
Participants at the first Her Zimbabwe meeting.
We sucked our teeth again in exasperation at the cruel, mean and selfish men who tortured our heroines and we applauded the kind gentle men who, from our perspective, knew how to treat women right.
And so it was within this context that my friends and I attended this international women’s conference, eager and excited to learn for the first time that there was such a thing as a woman’s movement that had survived the test of time all the way from the suffragettes, whose persistence against all odds and all manner of persecution resulted in women being given the vote in Great Britain in 1918 with the passing of the Representation of the People Act.
However, before this happened women had had to fight and at times, fight dirty. In her autobiography, one of the founder members of the movement, Emmeline Pankhurst wrote,
“this was the beginning of a campaign the like of which was never known in England, or for that matter in any other country…..we interrupted a great many meetings……and we were violently thrown out and insulted. Often we were painfully bruised and hurt.”
The suffragettes burned the houses of members of parliament and blew up a portion of the house of then British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. They were thrown into prison and maligned in their communities, but they were relentless under the spectacular leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia.
In the United States, the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. After two days of discussion and debate, 68 women and 32 men signed a Declaration of Sentiments, which outlined the grievances of women in America and set the agenda for the women’s rights movement. A set of 12 resolutions was adopted, calling for equal treatment of women and men under the law and voting rights for women.
The four-day conference I attended at Stirling consisted of a delegation of about 500 women; many of whom were well-known public figures, politicians, journalists, film makers, writers, university lecturers, doctors, scientists and engineers. I felt quite dizzy at the sight of women of all shapes, size and nationalities and looked forward to attending the sessions throughout the days.
The missing face of African feminism
But as I looked through the programme of events, trying to find some sessions on issues that I could identify with, I was disappointed to find none, as were my African sisters, I later discovered. This was the awakening to the fact that my feminism, my view of women’s issues, was very different from the concerns of women in the West.
I found that apart from the fact that we were all women struggling, our cause – or the reason for our struggle – was not the same. For instance, I failed to understand how an international women’s conference could not have even one session on the problem of female infanticide in India, or the trafficking of young girls from countries like Nigeria to Italy, Belgium and other European countries for prostitution. In my naivety, I failed to understand why women the world over were not up in arms over the genital cutting of girls in several countries on the African continent.
While I realised that it was an issue, I did not think that ensuring gay and lesbian night clubs had user-friendly facilities for disabled patrons was a more pressing issue than the fact that young girls were forced into marriage, thereby curtailing any opportunity for education and putting them at risk for the complications that accompany early child bearing.
During this time In Glasgow, I was not aware of a feminist movement at home; when I had left in 1990, I had not been aware of any organised feminist movement in Zimbabwe.
I therefore developed my own ideas of what it meant to be a feminist and these ideas still stand today: as long as there are communities in the world in which women’s rights to choose how they want to live their lives are curtailed, there is a need for organised struggle against this kind of oppression. And as long as there are parts of the world where women have no say over their reproductive capacity (meaning they have no choice as to whether or not to bear children, how many children they want to have and whether to carry a pregnancy to term) I will lend my voice to the many voices agitating for this right to choose.
As long as girls are not given the same opportunities as boys to get an education, or to advance themselves in whatever way they chose to, I will be in the fray, fighting and agitating for social change. As long as pregnant girls and women are expelled from schools and colleges, while the boys and men responsible for the pregnancies are permitted to continue with their studies, I will continue to speak out.