Fairly recently, at a gathering of like-minded people, a young woman from the Gambia raised this beautiful question, and I paraphrase: “How does one become an outspoken activist in a culture where women do not have a voice, and are not expected to be public figures?”
Her raising this issue threw me back to yet another seminar where an obviously frustrated development practitioner asked, and I paraphrase again: “What do you do when you have provided a platform for disempowered groups, like women, and they refuse to use it?” Which then threw me back all the way to all the various gender-empowerment conventions and trainings and endless conversations about feminism that are hard to avoid if you work in the field of Making the World A Better Place.
The short answer is that there is hardly an easy answer to that question, even if we live in an age where public ideas and conversations are required to shrink themselves to fit 140 characters or less.
It is hard to say exactly when it happened, but feminism is now probably one of the unsexiest causes to champion, the kind of term that only middle-aged women in square-heeled comfortable shoes toss around with confidence. This is a shame, really, because although pessimism is highly fashionable right now, from an optimistic perspective things are looking hopeful for women, at least in Tanzania.
For every woman who walks away from a microphone thrust in her face by a well-meaning development worker who needs to make her “empowerment” quotas for the quarterly donor report, there is a woman running towards the limelight strictly on her own terms. And some of them are dragging their sisters and brothers along with them towards this better future.
In the past month alone, I have been exposed to so many women of power in traditionally male spheres that it is becoming a little bit difficult to claim that the situation is dire in the eternal battle for gender parity. While we are certainly nowhere near to providing all women with the opportunity to live a life of freedom and dignity, the fog of oestrogen is quietly growing in the various corridors of power.
It goes without saying that those women who do emerge from the fold are considered exceptional, and in many ways they are. However, most really effective feminists and game-changers are entirely unexceptional garden-variety folks who have found the courage to do one or two things differently, without asking for recognition for it.
Everyday heroes, like parents who walk their kids to school in rural areas so that their girls can get through their educations unmolested by predators, or quiet philanthropists who are paying for the further educations of young women they have never even met.
The managers who refuse to accept anything less than the best from their female colleagues and so give them a chance to shine. This is effective feminism.
My President, Jakaya Kikwete, once said that it was his ambition to leave behind a parliament with a larger number of women in it than when he first came into office. Unfortunately we have tried parliamentary affirmative action, and the results are disappointing.
Tanganyika turns 50 this year, yet all those decades of Special Seats Members of Parliament have failed to yield sufficient maternity wards in hospitals, prosecutions for rapists and child-molesters, equal pay for equal work... the list of grievances is long. Electricity rationing is tedious, yes, but let me tell you: Giving birth on a concrete floor is an entirely different level of inconvenience.
On to the good news. We are living in an age where everyone within the reach of an electronic device is being bombarded with the culture of celebrity and instant gratification. Yes, it can be annoying, but if you couple the rise of individualism with the growth of ICT, then the situation takes on an entirely new face.
The groundwork has been laid to support an environment where any woman who has the time, dedication and courage to do so can quite literally cut out the Middle Man. Empowerment need no longer be a mediated experience: One woman, one smartphone, one potential self-liberator.
Feminism is an eight-letter word with a four-letter attitude. It is a cause that is familiar with extended guerrilla warfare in the rough wilderness of inflexible traditions. Social media is the AK47 of the present, at whose point many have demanded better treatment.
To quote the King of Funk, James Brown (RIP): “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing. Open up the door, and I’ll get it myself.” Huh.