“I do not wish for women to have power over men, but over themselves “ Mary Wollstonecraft.
This has always been my favourite quote about the intersections of feminism and patriarchy: simple, straightforward, assertive, unarguable. And feminism is all of these descriptors; forget the societal ridiculousness you may hear people talking about when the “F(eminism) Bomb” is dropped. Nobody actually ever burnt their bras (but hey bra underwire gets pretty painful some days!), and it’s not about excluding men from public and privates spheres or even from conversation. (Speaking of bras and patriarchy I saw a sassy quote online– “Damn boy, are you a bra? Because you make me uncomfortable but society has brainwashed me into thinking I need you.” HA!) Should females and males and anyone else all have human rights? Yes. Should one sex have more privilege than each other in every single aspect of life? No. That’s all I feel the need to say about the theology of feminism, because I’m just so “over it” having the validity of feminism being challenged when it’s one of the most important social forces for every single person to get on board with.
It’s often that I find myself struggling too much (such a Zambian thing to say for most questions- “too much”) with the daily pressure and pervasiveness of patriarchy to be able to put it into an eloquent post. Living in Zambia has been a really great opportunity for being independent, so although I have pretty high amount of contact with those back home, there’s so so many situations I’ve encountered and thoughts I’ve pondered that I’ve really simply had to sit and think through on my own. And this is a goal I had set myself for this time away, so I am very grateful for this newfound level of assurance and self-sufficiency. But this is an issue on which when I stay quiet about it for too long, it feels like I will implode or explode. There’s been a few full-out sobbing phone calls to my parents about the injustices of the world, but over time the heart has built up some protective mechanisms that allow manoeuvring through the day without full-on consistent heartache.
I fully understand that patriarchy is everywhere, in every culture, in every corner of the world. But there are varying degrees, and my personal experience here feels crippling at times; new encounters triggering old fears and experiences. Never have I experienced such outward and explicit forms of patriarchy as I do in this new life: not in Tanzania rurally or urban, not in the jungles or dirt streets of Central America, the beaches and ruins of Asia, or the cobblestone mazes of Europe. Of course unwanted and aggressive male attention has emerged in all of these locations, words and limbs springing up and lunging as I walk through foreign streets, but never to this extent. Part of the current personal sensitivity is the greater awareness as I age- I am intentionally carving out a life for myself that priorities respect for myself and my body, and I assertively hold others to those standards. Part of this is race: as a white-skinned person I stick out sorely, so much of the attention I receive is rooted in racial differences and then extrapolated by gender. And part of this is simply the duration of time living in a place that is ultimately foreign, where every day you’re trying to make sense of things new, and deciding what you can live with versus what feels too unfamiliar to ever get used to.
I wrote a lengthy report during my time here at the gender-based NGO I am interning at; arguably the most impactful report of my life, regarding the process women go through to report sexual assault in Zambia. Or realistically, an eye-opening account on how very few women and girls get any form of judicial, medical, and psychosocial services post assault. The global forces of shame, familiarity with the perpetrator, fear over reporting, and victim blaming are huge deterrents. Combined with a country where they are trying desperately to provide services, but lacking the resources or human power especially in rural areas, it means a staggering amount of females are sexually assaulted every day and nothing is done. Some days I am just trying to keep afloat through the heartache of reading horrific documents and staggering data on the way women are treated, still. Patriarchal assaults on women worldwide take all forms: physical, sexual, verbal, psychological, economic, social, and internalized. And spending days and overnights volunteering at the crisis shelter for girls who have experienced rape and defilement means that these statistics and reports unfortunately have faces and names. Sitting in the court house with one of the most incredible little girls I’ve ever met as she trembles like an autumn leaf with her hood up hiding her face from her horrific rapist means that we bear witness to the many layers of trauma, connected by the tight squeeze of a handhold.
One example that is commonplace in our Lusaka life is street harassment- “street harassment” describes unwanted interactions in public spaces between strangers and make the harassee feel annoyed, angry, humiliated, or scared. Because it happens between strangers in a public place at present means there is less recourse. In a US study 99% of the respondents said they had been harassed at least a few times. Over 65% said they were harassed on at least a monthly basis. Why does this issue matter? Street harassment is a human rights violation and a form of gender violence. It causes many harassed persons, especially women, to feel less safe in public places and limit their time there. It can also cause people emotional and psychological harm. One thing I’ve been increasingly frustrated about is that “seemingly innocent street harassment” is not just words. It cannot be disregarded as simply verbal effluent but with no tangible outcome- the changing of sides of the street, clutching of mace or a weapon, looking over a shoulder, rerouting your direction entirely… it sounds overdramatic but this is a daily experience of women worldwide who have to change their behaviour in order to react to perceived and real threats of gender based violence. Due to everyday low-lying safety issues in Lusaka and increasingly so around our election-lead up (overall Zambia is incredibly peaceful as a nation), I rarely walk home alone without my roomie, but when I it feels like holding your breath for the 45 minutes: it’s harder to ignore taunts and comments when you’re not in stride and good conversation with another. We’ve been physically harassed, sworn at, groped, sexualized in uncountable ways, stalked, had objects thrown at us, chased, leered at, hissed/whistled/yelled at, and been called so many objectified/degrading words that its not even worth repeating. Fine, overall we’re probably safe, overall Zambians are friendly people, and overall most of the comments are one-off’s and we can continue walking without being followed, but on my dark days the list of negative interactions so far can be a lot. My main lesson is that a lot of it is simply cultural in terms of extroversion- as Canadians we are so used to being to ourselves quietly, that a lot of the shock is coming from different ways of interacting in Zambian culture. In addition to this cultural influence, it builds confusion for us because we don’t know how to react- back home I would be outspokenly assertive and aggressive but heare, silence often doesn’t feel safe, meaning that standing up and speaking out feels even less so.
If there’s any part of you that assumes women will be treated better if they cover their bodies with clothing, your argument is not valid: every day I desperately drape any extra layers onto myself before walking home to cover every square inch of pale skin from my ankles to my collarbone and down to both wrists. This has been something I have reflected on a lot through our time here in Zambia: even though women deserve to wear whatever they want and never be treated poorly because of it, there is still an omnipresent idea worldwide that less clothing means more attention, and visa versa. This is also deeply related to issues of sexual assault and serious violence- in Canada I can’t count the amount of times that educated, engaging, kind men have still brought up the arguments of women being at high risk for sexual assault by dressing “slutty” and attracting the male attention, when I thought that they were above victim blaming. Being a racial minority (albeit still a privileged race) attracts a high amount of attention to begin with, and being a woman is another layer of unwanted attention. It’s like trying to swim against a current of patriarchy- whenever I have moments or days where my walking through public spaces goes okay, the harassment inevitably always returns with full force. Yes, not all men, I understand this. But patriarchy is worldwide, and it is stronger in some places like Zambia. It’s this constant force that feels like it’s sitting on your chest every day, you learn to breathe with the weight of it and make change where you can. Harassment and gender based violence is not about sexual interest, it’s about power. I wish that men could read things like this and not take the defence overall- we need you so desperately to join the fight for human rights, to set an example for others, to engage fellow men in conversations, to be our equal partners. For me, Zambia life has been a great opportunity for me to force myself to reach out to supportive, feminist, trustworthy, caring men in my life in order to stay grounded; a few extra kwacha on WhatsApp phone bills is a welcome trade off for the connections I am able to maintain across thousands of kilometers with incredible men I am lucky enough to know and befriend.
One of the lesson plans: “Benefits of Women’s Participation in Decision Making”
In a recent work field trip to the rural areas of Central Province the animator staff of our organization taught a five day workshop that drew 22 participants from remote rural areas in thedistrict, with over 50% participation being female attendees (Zambians teaching Zambians, as it should be- I simply attended). Although some of the men and women had been previously sensitized about gender, these workshops were able to provide another layer of information and empowerment to them. All of the attendees were unfamiliar with the details of international and national regulations that protect the livelihoods and rights of women, such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the Land Act (which protects against super prevalent land grabbing when a women is widowed the family comes of the deceased and steals everything), the Termination of Pregnancy Act (legal abortion under specific medical criteria), the Marriage Act, and the Gender Equity and Equality Bill. Cue me choking back the tears of pride as one women declares that she has the right to say NO to sex with her husband if she is not feeling like having sex at the moment, for whatever reason, she doesn’t need to justify why or placate her husbands sexual needs. Amen, my dear. Unfortunately (for now) almost every other man and woman disagreed with her, saying that it is a wife’s duty to provide sex whenever a man wants no matter what- she has been bought for bride price so is his for the taking. Conversations were had about what “violations” means and what are the types of gender-based violence they see in their lives and/or communities. But this is why the workshops are occurring- sensitization and awareness raising for sustainable development. Other debates arose too about women’s access to land, abortion rights, whether marital rape is “real”, whether its a woman’s duty to provide children, whether women can enjoy sex for pleasure, and whether bride price is still a good practise. The point is that these are being discussed openly between men and women, which is important for mapping the way forward. There were moments of happiness because of high energy and empowerment, but there were also some really tough moments for me as a silent observer where I passionately disagreed with some of the problematic issues commonplace for women, but knew it was needed for me to completely keep my mouth shut. It is the hope of Women for Change that the workshops will help the attendees see gender as a cross cutting issue,
and to advocate for their human rights in their daily life as well as in an informed manner on Election Day. By using a train-the-trainer model, we put responsibility into the attendees to return to their home areas with the promise of sharing their newfound information and excitement with others, so that the knowledge continues to grow and spread.
Let’s hear from some of the most badass feminists out there to challenge the mind and raise us up in action, out of this ocean of patriarchy:
- Atwood, Margaret, Writing the Male Character (1982) (reprinted in Second Words: Selected Critical Prose from a Hagey Lecture on February 9, 1982, at the University of Waterloo)
“Why do men feel threatened by women?” I asked a male friend of mine. So this male friend of mine, who does by the way exist, conveniently entered into the following dialogue. “I mean,” I said, “men are bigger, most of the time, they can run faster, strangle better, and they have on the average a lot more money and power.” “They’re afraid women will laugh at them,” he said, “Undercut their world view.” Then I asked some women students in a quickie poetry seminar I was giving, “Why do women feel threatened by men?” “They’re afraid of being killed,” they said.
“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute”
And some laughs finnallyyyy after such a hard post (apologies for being a Debby Downer):
- Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman
“We need to reclaim the word ‘feminism’. We need the word ‘feminism’ back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29% of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42% of British women – I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?”
One of the workshop attendees shares her story of female leadership in the church.