The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence that culminated with the celebration of the International Human Rights Day on December 10 sparked a string of debates.
One was global and about whether women should have their own section in planes. The other has been local and about core aspects of gusaba (betrothal ceremony), particularly as it relates to dowry and whether it still has a place in today’s Rwandan society.
Both debates are related in as much as they touch on gender-based violence, as well as being about social space and dignity.
The one about the planes is perhaps more dramatic. It is couched in an opinion last month in the South China Morning Post titled “Manspreading on a plane: In the age of #MeToo, even the armrest is a gender politics issue”.
In the piece, columnist Kate Whitehead “[dreams] of a future in which there are women-only seating sections on planes.”
She used the armrest between seats as a metaphor for a boundary that should remain neutral but that men arrogate (manspreading) almost as a right breaching the seatmate’s space.
As she put it, “Unless you are prepared to press your arm against the man’s, which will allow you to feel the rise and fall of his breath and is, I feel, too intimate a connection with a stranger – then you have lost two inches of your seat.”
As amplified in global media, it presented a subtle way of describing incidences of sexual and gender-based violence that include groping and unwanted sexual advances that many women experience.
The New Zealand Herald, for instance, reported how Whitehead’s dream was already a reality. It recalled how, following disturbing incidents where women were groped on planes, two Indian airlines – Air India and Vistara – have introduced policies to keep female passengers safe.
Particularly, Air India, India’s national carrier, introduced female-only rows in 2017 following two incidents in a month of men allegedly groping cabin staff or other passengers.
While the move to create safer spaces for women on flights might be only seen in India currently, the New Zealand Herald suggested, the practice could spread to other countries in the future.
One might imagine such a policy being introduced in Africa.
While there appear not to be any media reports of such acts as groping in planes, sexual harassment is not unknown in our public spaces, including in public buses.
A baseline study by UN Women in Rwanda showed that 30 per cent of men have sexually harassed women in the spaces.
And, while 23 per cent of women had been victims of sexual harassment, according to the study, 43 per cent had witnessed at least one incident taking place.
These not only evoke Whitehead’s breached space but the #MeToo campaign, though it has manifested a bit differently in Africa.
A headline in a recent AFP news analysis aptly captures it: “Stigma, blame means African women wary to say #MeToo”.
It explains how patriarchal societies and religious and traditional views on the role of women means even complaining about domestic violence is an uphill battle, let alone bringing down abusive men in power a la #MeToo.
Rwanda offers an example, though it is the same elsewhere in the region. While some local women somewhat came out, the grievance attracting some of the most local attention was the anonymous post by the popular @my250tweets.
It published names and photos of some men claimed to have perpetrated sexual violence on women.
However, in the intentional anonymity, @my250tweets, a collective twitter handle part of the larger #RwOT, presented what amounted to unsubstantiated sexual violence allegations that prompted the national police to urge “rape victims to report to them rather than merely take accusations to social networks.”
Against this background, therefore, one would like to think that the women-led debates on dowry are sort of a #MeToo moment – a way of widening space to more openly thrash out the issues.
The debate has been about whether the giving of cows (either in terms of money or their bovine equivalent) for betrothal, demeans and, or disempowers women as chattels or goods belonging to men.
This immediately brings to mind the unconscionable encroachment in Whitehead’s example, implying how men often inflict all manner of violence on women in their sense of entitlement in our patriarchal conditioning.
Yet, as a norm, the idea of dowry, also supported by many women, can only be representational in the broader discourse and complexities in the notion of patriarchy.
Note that scholars in gender studies assert the concept of patriarchy is no longer in wide use. They remind us that once “debated in endless articles, conferences and books, many theorists now regard ‘patriarchy’ as too blunt and monolithic to capture the nuances of oppression”.
For this reason, dowry as an aspect of perceived oppression, but viewed against its traditional but still relevant symbolic value in social cohesion bringing families together, the debate must continue.
Thus it is illuminating because, whether dowry is a tool of oppression to fight against or a valuable social artefact to embrace, it remains a live cultural rights issue in its contention demanding balance is struck to suit modern times.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.