I have decided it has been sufficiently long since my last feminist rant that I'm now justified in posting another.
For 8 Mars, International Women’s Day, I resolved to float around Solenzo and partake in the various activities while saturating myself in the wonderfully consuming power of Burkinabe women. My mission took me to the church, where my colleagues and friends the nuns live, to the hair salon where my best friend works, to both of Solenzo’s clinics where mothers bring their children for checkups, and, of course, to the Center, where my girls were giddy at the idea of having the day off. Everywhere there was celebration in honor of women.
Now I must admit that I find this holiday a bit peculiar in Burkina Faso. Despite the fact that there are, in most places, no holds barred when it comes to the festivities, everything seems to be held very, very tightly in the hands of men. All things considered, sometimes this day can just seem like a gracious nod in the direction of the kitchen. This idea was reinforced for me when I was invited to a colleague’s house for lunch. When I arrived, his girlfriend was already there, washing fish and vegetables in preparation for a meal that she would be cooking for the next two hours. She gave me a demure nod but didn’t reward me with eye contact.
Over a couple of beers and two hours, my colleague, who is very well educated but very narrow minded in many ways, led me through a discussion of American politics, espionage, military mite, economics and of course, gender equality. With no shyness or apology he described to me why the structure of Burkinabe marriages forbid the woman to be equal to the man in the home, why educating women leads to divorce and why no man would accept a woman that made more money than he did. He explained why men couldn’t be seen washing clothes, cooking for the woman, or doing any other household chores. He explained that if women wanted recognition and respect, they had to work for it like men did. Poetically undermining his point was the young woman tirelessly buzzing around the house, cooking, cleaning, arranging and never stoping to be congratulated for he efforts. Work for it.
I got through most of this conversation with a wry smile on my face and only the occasional spontaneous feminist combustion. Meanwhile, I did everything in my power to bring this young woman into the conversation. I asked for her take on what he was saying but she just smiled and me apologetically, glanced at her boyfriend, and then continued her business. When she served the meal, my colleague criticized her cooking. Slowly I watched him build his view of the world around her like a house-shaped pad-locked cage.
International Women’s day is an incredibly joyful celebration. In Solenzo, there was singing, dancing, women’s soccer matches and even some cross-dressing. For one glorious day out of the year, African women are celebrated for all that they are to the society. For the rest of the year we forget how much of the weight of society they actually bare. And we will go on forgetting until we begin to expand the definition of work to include the endless toil that starts for some women at 4 in the morning and ends never, every day, all year. We will go on forgetting until women are allowed to have the right to their own bodies, a right that men take for granted. We will go on forgetting until we stop telling girls that there is only one way to be a woman, and boys that there is only one way to be a man.
What bothered me most about my conversation with my colleague yesterday was not just that he would dare to spew such backwardness on a day when we are supposed to be celebrating women. What bothered me was the terrifying notion that I am wrong: That standing steadfast in the delicate mix of cultural relativity, there are no pillars labeled ‘universal values.’ Or, that even if such ideological pillars do exist, perhaps equal opportunity for both genders is not one of them. What if he is right? What if the future we are pushing towards in America isn’t one we should be promoting elsewhere in the world? If that is the case, where do we go from here?
I’m not a particularly dogmatic or self-righteous person, and I have traveled enough to know that my values are upside down and backwards in some places. I have given ground on many things since coming here, but this isn’t territory I’m willing to abandon. When my colleague suggested we ban African women from watching western television, it occurred to me that what was really going on was fear. He was terrified by the notion of women gaining more formal power, because where would that leave the men? Marriage had no meaning without the traditional dynamic. His fear is founded. He should be running for the hills. Here come the women, all coked up on empowerment and ready to argue with their husbands about how much money they spend on alcohol and how many children they want to have. And just to scare him a little more, this month I’ll be posting photos and profiles of the most incredible women I’ve met here, women who, with or without a man, are shaping African feminism with their own hands.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.