No such thing as ‘women’s issues’
Language shapes how we see the world. The vocabulary that labels the political, legal and social impacts of discriminatory and unjust practices as “women’s issues” serves to keep these issues on the periphery. We need to radically change the conversation by naming and addressing “women’s issues” for what they really are: issues that exist because we live in a man’s world, says Olutimehin Adegbeye.
At the recently concluded Women’s Power Lunch 2016 in Lagos, Nigeria, Dr Joyce Banda, the former president of Malawi, said, “It is time for us to take women’s issues from the periphery to the centre of the discussion.” Like the rest of her remarkable speech, this statement was urgent, clear and actionable. However, the one thing that has remained unclear to me in the days since is: Who is “us”?
In my still quite short career as a feminist writer and agitator, I have attended a few events like the Women’s Power Lunch. Convened by the CEO of the Murtala Muhammed Foundation (MMF), Aisha Oyebode (née Muhammed), the lunch is an annual event hosted by the Women in Development Enterprise Across Africa and is designed to provide a forum for the discussion of the realities of being a woman in political leadership on the continent. Presenting the keynote at this year’s edition, Dr Banda spoke passionately and clearly on “Women in Solidarity; a New Paradigm for Inclusion”, discussing, among other issues, the multiplier effect of collaborative efforts by top-tier political leaders like herself, Graça Machel and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia.
Dr Banda’s speech was enlightening, inspiring and rousing. She presented the scope of the issues faced by women in general and women leaders in particular, painting with broad strokes yet managing not to lose her points in vague generalisations. She shared actions she had taken to attain her achievements and sustain them, and also discussed in detail both the barriers that she had scaled in her own ascent and those she had observed obstructing the success of women on paths different from her own. It was a fantastic exhortation, rallying cry and road map. And it was delivered to a room full of women.
As we waited for the former president of Nigeria, Mr Olusegun Obasanjo, to arrive, Adesuwa Oyenokwe opened the floor by apologising to the “ladies and few gentlemen” in attendance. Of the around 400 people present, the men who were not working as security protocol, technical crew or logistics personnel must have numbered perhaps 20, including the chairman of the MMF, Obasanjo and Justice Banda. The Women’s Power lunch was an event about women, and so, in a manner typical to the social contract, it was understood to be an event for women. Women talking to women about “women’s issues”.
Joyce Banda’s goal to get women’s issues from the periphery to the centre is noble and necessary, but I suspect somewhat unachievable without some sort of radical change in how we approach the conversation. We live in a society that is content to treat issues created by governments run by men, perpetuated via institutions largely controlled by men and enforced by invoking power mostly wielded by men as being the responsibility of women. Women did not create these problems, but because women are the ones affected, women must solve them and the men go on doing what they do.
Language matters, because it determines how we think about the world. A thing that does not exist in language might as well not exist in reality. And the description of the political, legal and social impacts of discriminatory and unjust practices as “women’s issues” is a passive framing that allows us as a society to erase the source and sustenance of the problem. While there is immense value in conversations that enlighten and inspire women to break down barriers, we must also recognise that the barriers do not materialise out of thin air. Even the world’s most high-profile idiot, Donald Trump, knows that for walls to exist, they must first be built.
Women are being told that they can dismantle systems that are tacitly exclusionary to sisters on the outside and actively hostile to sisters on the inside if only they push harder and longer than the men who keep things this way. These tactics are not entirely unsuccessful, as generations of women before us have succeeded after long years of exhausting labour to get a foot in the door, but as a member of the generation that put the “I” in instant gratification, my default response to this logic is, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”
It is getting harder and harder to have faith in a social justice praxis that strives to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. How do we not all realise how utterly absurd it is that we live in countries — in the 21st century! — that have ministries for “gender” (a.k.a. the world-famous “women’s issues”)? The problem is not gender, in much the same way as it is not race, ability, sexual orientation or class; the problem is the hoarding of power, the social sanctioning of domination and the exclusion of whole groups of people. I am tired of being a peripheral talking point, an addendum, the final feel-good element of a raucous boys’ party. I think it’s past time for us to step outside this enervating hamster wheel of ‘female empowerment’ by actively and consistently laying the blame where it belongs: at the feet of The Man.
I am immensely proud to be part of a groundswell of young people who are naming and addressing “women’s issues” for what they really are: issues that exist because we live in a man’s world. If what we want is a prominent place in the conversations that powerful men insist on having outside women’s hearing, we must change the direction of discourse. The reason “women’s issues” remain on the periphery is that women themselves are on the periphery. To get the conversation going at the centre, it might be in our interests to make these problems about the men who create them in the first place. After all, there’s nothing men like to talk about more than themselves, is there? — This Is Africa.
Former Malawi President, Dr Joyce Banda, speaks to a reporter after the recent Women’s Power Lunch 2016 in Lagos, Nigeria