No such thing as ‘women’s is­sues’

Chronicle (Zimbabwe) - - Feature/analysis - Olu­time­hin Adeg­b­eye

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

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