Saturday, 26 July 2014

Rant about African Women Part 1 – Mama Africa

I ranted earlier about the western “exoticiation” of everything “black” and the consequent blindness (including my own) to differences within Africa.
One area where this has manifested itself very clearly is the creation of the stereotype of the “African woman”.  In the western collective imagination a woman from any part of Sub-Saharan Africa is one of two types.  She is either a physically and mentally imposing matriarch, the “Mama Africa”,* or an oversexualised semi-wild creature, who I will call the “Josephine Baker” for short. 
I will rant on this occasion about Mama Africa, and return later to Josephine Baker.
Based on my limited experience of spending in total just over half a year in two Sub-Saharan African countries, I would tentatively suggest that there is some truth to the Mama Africa stereotype.
Taking as a starting point the undeniable fact that due to structural sexism there are not many women who have managed to make their mark on the world stage to begin with, the European ones are likely to be somehow still soft and “feminine”, no matter how “tough” the job, situation or decision.  This is for example how Angela Merkel or Christine Lagarde come across.  Even Margaret Thatcher would fall into this category, as would Finland’s own Tarja Halonen.
This is not the image the impressive African women have.  They are more like Wangari Maathai, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Fatou Bensouda or Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.  It is hard to pinpoint the difference, but these women appear to have an aura that their northern counterparts lack.  It is not just because they are physically more imposing (partially undoubtedly due to their wardrobes – it takes bucketloads of charisma to pull those outfits off, and they always do), but you will have no trouble imagining them taking charge.  Of a situation, of a family, of a country.  European women have to battle much harder to achieve that appearance that instinctively invites confidence.
The other thing is that, on a continent many parts of which suffer from more sexism than most of Europe, it was easy to come up with several examples of such impressive women who have put their stamp on the world.  So with the same or lesser opportunities, African women seem to be better at achieving positions of power.
There has been no shortage of examples of Mama Africas here in Namibia.  I do not want to belittle the problems arising from sexism that this country is still facing (such as high levels of gender-based violence, traditional roles, lack of educational opportunities etc.), but you see powerful women everywhere.  They are on boards of companies and they run government ministries.  Admittedly I have also met women, like a young university student who told us that she hated studying and really just wanted to marry and become a housewife,** who do not fit the stereotype of Mama Africa, but there are enough Mama Africas (to varying degrees of course) for me to notice it.  The first among equals is Libertina Amathila, whose memoir I am currently reading.  She is an inspirational figure for Namibian as well as other ladies.
I have been racking my brain over the past few months to try to understand why this is.  I’d love to be able to export some of that back to Europe, as the sisterhood could and should learn from best practice everywhere.  I don’t want to make any facile and racist assumptions that these women have been molded by their difficult childhoods, since in most cases I know nothing of their childhoods, which may have been overwhelmed by privilege and love.  Probably they have been on very different journeys and would have different stories to tell.  But something about the way capable, bright African women are brought up, or educated, appears to create confident, all-imposing Mama Africas that rock the world.
*I hope nobody takes this as an offensive term, it is certainly intended with the utmost respect.  I got the idea for it recently when reading a book called Mama Namibia by Mari Serebrov.
**In a weird way this young lady exemplified a positive development from a feminist viewpoint.  It really should be for everyone to decide on their own dreams, and (a) this means that wanting to be a housewife is a permissible future plan, and (b) it is a plan that should be available to women in Windhoek just like it is in Geneva.

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