Tanzania’s president is a woman who has never made claims to embracing the politics of feminism — whatever you might imagine feminism to be. This is prudent of President Samia Suluhu. I want you to keep that in mind, knowing that we have never put a woman on the ballot who made it further than the late Anna Ngirwa on the ACT ticket the last time we had a General Election.
Tanzania has some progressive tendencies, but our most deeply held form of discrimination is stubborn. This is reflected in our formal and informal politics. Of the 300-plus members of Parliament, women have never made up even 40 percent by vote — and this in a country where women are the majority.
This is some of the context in which I want to discuss the case of Halima Mdee and her party, Chadema, and their getting thrown out. For a second time I support their insubordination, for feminist reasons.
Ugh, “why feminism?” is such a common question. I don’t know how I haven’t come up with a pat answer yet. Perhaps I am still trying to make it “okay” to open a conversation about systemic gendered inequality, especially with men who have a gift for feeling “victimised” by what is largely a gender equality movement.
This time I will cut to the chase and say: because it is akin to what our fathers went through, the indignities that led them to resist and to fight, knowing they were not a lesser than their colonial ‘masters,’ that made them demand self-government and sovereignty.
I have been lucky to collect the stories of some old men, about what they really felt like when racism aggressed them. Old African men in whose voices you can still hear the anger and resentment of dehumanisation.
Their slight might have been physical danger, or professional disdain or a loss of property, a suppression of culture — all of which resonate in young Tanzanian men today who grew up in an independent nation.
We have our schisms, some of them barely controlled, but if you want to arouse the ire of a young Tanzanian man tell them they are no better than the monkeys the colonials used to call us and tell them they are only fit to be treated as such: sub-human.
This, they can relate to. And yet, collectively when we look across the aisle at the women of this country, we develop a convenient blind spot about this analogy that I am making, this comparison between racism and sexism. Both are dehumanising. Combating either one is a human rights issue. It is about personhood, autonomy, respect, choices, freedoms and dignity. And power.
I was lucky to get a chance to visit a handful of other African countries a while ago to do some research on how they govern themselves. We differ so much in how we manage ourselves even if the surface structures are the same: “democratic.”
In one I was surprised that for much of local government, leaders had to have an advisor, a counterpart of sorts from the other gender.
In another, they had experimented with parliamentary quotas for women — what in Tanzania we call special seats — a practice that guarantees 33 percent representation.
But it was a system that was ending for having so-called failed: not even one or two generations into the work of gender emancipation, they were getting ready to admit “defeat.”
And in Tanzania I have had all the time one could wish for listening to how our parliament thinks about, legislates for and treats women and girls, youth and those living with a disability.
The general public and the public sector have complained about the quota system; I cannot tell you the number of unflattering nicknames we come up with for the selected MPs. Within that time, as multiparty democracy took root and Chadema came to establish itself as the natural counterpart in our predictable binary political system, women have been part of that story.
It is not my job to contribute to the erasure of that fact.
About the 19 Chadema women who accepted their special seats after their party declared the 2020 General Election to be unfair — good for them. Politically those were tough times when the spaces of participation were closing, but they kept their space open.
In the time they have been there, insubordinate, they have built a respectably powerful women’s wing, perhaps the only true women’s wing there is. But where they really got my support is when they refused to leave a 19 person gap in parliament and cede what little ground their party, specifically their women, have won. In a battle for your rights, for life, for principles that look beyond the unjust rules of the patriarchy, never give away a single inch of power. Even if it was negotiated.
I am a woman, which makes me a second-class citizen in my country in many ways even accounting for my privilege. One can learn to live with it, perhaps.
But feminism, especially Black feminism, has a long tradition of saying: don’t obey. From the underground railroad to fighting apartheid to small everyday acts of defiance right here at home.
Let Chadema throw the book at them, using legalism and anger, and perhaps even fear. It will cost us all in this time of backlash from the patriarchy against having a woman leading us.
But it was worth it. Because the cost of obedience? Is sometimes too high.
Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]