An intriguing topic was brought up recently in the Tanzanian talking rooms: that of the emergence of women in leadership. I confess that I only listened a little bit because our discussions are still patently male-dominated and I have been around long enough to know the range of male opinions about women as leaders in my country.
It is a narrow one, redolent of misogyny with a sprinkling of progressiveness and a struggling streak of feminism, which is surprising because since independence, Tanzania has always had women in government. I think what has exacerbated the situation is the new Speaker of the House, Tulia Ackson, which makes two out of the three branches of government woman-led.
I shudder to think what would happen if our Chief Justice was a woman too. Maybe riots? Certainly more gender violence.
Of course this topic fascinates me. You can’t be a feminist obsessed with how power works and oppresses certain groups without taking a moment to observe what happens when women ascend to positions traditionally seen as masculine.
It amuses me, for example, that when Tanzanians want to be critical, ironic or sarcastic they call President Samia Suluhu by her other title “Chief Hangaya.” And yet, this is the continent of Queen Mothers, or the term I prefer, Mother Elephants. When we want to signal neutrality or even respect we call her Mama which, to be honest, I don’t see as much of an improvement. If ever a term was laden with gendered expectation, “mother” would be it.
I hear that even Angela Merkel — a formidable politician with a long and stellar career — was nicknamed Mutti or Mommy. This pestilent insistence on putting a woman in her “place” is inescapable: the nurturing, warm, caring and compassionate ideal. The Madonna, if you will.
Do these sound like qualities that truly portray what a leader or ruler actually has to be like, especially as a minority, in order to get things done? I think not. Hence my personal focus on the transgressive, on the “bad” side of women in leadership throughout history that I think reflects a true face of power that we so seldom want to acknowledge in women.
I collect little anecdotes. Sweet little Mutti, for example, did not hesitate to call for her mentor Helmut Kohl’s resignation, effectively stabbing him in the back and setting the scene for her own political ascension. Good girl.
My favourite royal, Queen Elizabeth II, is marketed as an adorable little old lady everyone would love to have tea with. She shoots rifles, by the way.
It was harder to find spice about her but I watched a documentary about a photoshoot she did with the legendary Annie Liebovitz, where she lost her temper in the most spectacular if controlled way. It was glorious.
Her Majesty has an edge. Which King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia found out when she picked him up in her Range Rover in 1998 in Balmoral and proceeded to drive him a little fast and dangerous because she has military training. She knew what she was doing: Saudi Arabia only recently “allowed” women to drive but I think she made her point.
Cleopatra is another favourite, even though some of the stories about her sound improbable — like getting herself delivered to Julius Ceasar rolled up in a carpet and employing the same trick with Mark Anthony.
Which is another aspect of women leadership that is considered taboo or dangerous: their sexuality. Of course it is easy to call women leaders “Mother,” effectively hiding or trying to sanctify that aspect of their lives. Best if they are safely married or grandmotherly, isn’t it?
My real favourite English royal is actually Queen Elizabeth herself, daughter of King Henry VIII, who was not exactly Father of the Year material. The lady executed her own sister among other things! When none of her marriage bids really worked, she decided to rebrand as The Virgin Queen, which comes across as suspicious already, but then she threw an absolute fit when her favourite, Sir Walter Raleigh, married in secret. Hmmm...
I could go on forever, history is littered with great stories about great women being a little bit bad or accused of being even worse than they ever were, like Catherine the Great of Russia, who really got hit by the rumour mill. With one caveat: Chinese history does contain a lot of women rulers, sometimes directly and sometimes by proxy, through their male relatives, and some of them come across as legitimately ambiguous characters.
This is 2022. In the past couple of years, we’ve lived through Covid-denying presidents, a former American president who attempted a coup in his own country, countless despots and man-whores without batting an eyelid, implying that “boys will be boys.”
Yet the scrutiny and anxiety that women leaders engender is still very middle-ages, and sometimes dangerous to other women.
I hope this changes especially because I hope to collect anecdotes about the women leadership of Tanzania in a few years to add to my list of juicy told-you-so stories. Let us be done with the Madonna obsession and move forward confidently, remembering that, first and foremost, women are people.
Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]