Some time last year, an African woman academic made headlines for all the wrong reasons. In protest to being evicted from her office at a university research institute, she stripped to her underwear in the corridors of the institute’s offices; sagging body parts, stretch marks (in her own words) and all in full view of young supporters.
In conversation with another young professional woman, I expressed my alarm at this behaviour by an educated woman, PhD no less, and in a leadership position. I was completely taken aback by the response. This well-informed, “gender equality activist” by her own confession, claimed that the academician “had no other option; that she was fed up and had to protest in a force majeur kind of way”. The young woman claimed that an extreme action such as stripping was the only way to attract the attention of the authorities at the university and the country’s leadership. I was flabbergasted. I am no believer in the end justifying the means!
What is even more alarming is that this form of protest, which is common in a number of African communities, is steeped in the superstitious belief that “it is a curse”. Such rituals and traditions reinforce beliefs in the inferiority and vulnerability of women. The implication is that the ultimate weapon a woman has remains her body; no matter how it used. In this digital age should women still be willing to “strip for a cause”?
Many of us will be feeling self-righteous, thinking this cannot happen in Rwanda. “The women of Rwanda have been empowered, you say!” Let me share a few stories closer home.
Recently, during a village meeting in a rural community, we were left speechless by the conduct of a young woman. The meeting called by the Sector Executive Secretary was to discuss issues of land demarcation and registration. At the mention of the dispute about the land she was claiming as hers, she shouted at the whole assembly, insulted the local leaders and declared that she would not let anybody do a topographic map of her “presumed” land. She threatened to destroy the camera and beat up anybody who came near her. “Unless you bring the police and tie me up,” she declared. She was so agitated, screaming at the top of her voice. I had visions of grandmothers in another country stripping for a government official in another land case. I could hear murmurs of “gender” in the background. Really!! Is this what we understand as gender equality?
In Rwanda today, there are those who seem to think that women’s empowerment is synonymous with loss of all cultural and social values, manners or good sense. They believe that gender equality means license for women to do anything they want, irrespective of the rights and welfare of their neighbours.
Is this the kind of empowerment we are looking for?
At the other end of the spectrum, we are often victims of our own misguided sense of empowerment. I am often saddened when I see women carrying heavy loads of stones at construction sites; a very common sight these days. It is important that women are not discriminated against on the job market. However, we should bear in mind that men and women are physiologically different, for a purpose. A woman’s body was created to carry pregnancy for nine months and deliver babies. It is meant to adapt to these major changes that are expected to occur in their life time. Studies carried out in communities where women do most of the physical work and carry heavy loads, usually on their shoulders, showed that this has a detrimental effect on their backbones and distort their pelvic floor, resulting in difficult pregnancies and delivery. As much as we must rise above superstition like the Rwandan traditional taboo about women building houses, we should not interpret things so literally.
Gender equality means equality of rights, equality before the law, equality of opportunities in all areas of development, but not an attempt by women to be men or to be involved in activities that are harmful to their wellbeing just because men do it.