I have recently facilitated a series of workshops with feminists, religious leaders, writers and activists to search out and map the forces that prevent women and men from sharing common ground. Using an integral framework we looked at the obstacles that prevent women and men coming together in commonality and the shifts that need to occur.
Much of the analysis was indicative of the human condition, but I also try here to highlight what could be considered Tanzanian specific. The phrase ‘still waters run deep’ is absolutely true of Tanzania. There is little overt conflict; in fact our national narrative is about peace and how we have held onto calm in the face of ethnic and political chaos in surrounding countries. But, under that facade currents of shame, resentment and violence rage. One in ten females and approximately one in seven males in Tanzania have experienced sexual violence prior to the age of eighteen. During these meetings women shared testimonies of their own experience of sexual violence. Men shared that they felt caged and confined to set of norms that they don’t believe in. People feel the pressure of keeping up a socially accepted front. This workshop explored what is behind the front; what perpetuates and sustains the inability of women and men to come together in their shared humanity. Below is both the analysis that came from the conversations with the various groups, and my own interpretation about patterns and areas of future exploration.
Culturally, women are perceived to be the property of men, and so have little control of their bodies, minds or lives. Their identities and roles are constructed by social norms that label women as unreliable gossips who should not be included in decision making processes because they will betray secretive discussions. Traditions about inheritance, property ownership, sexual relations, marriage, and domestic roles remain powerful. This is in spite of the rapid transition that the Tanzanian context is facing as people become exposed through the media and travel to other forms of social arrangement. Similarly, religion is a powerful and present force that determines what one can or cannot do. Over time these forces have narrowly defined social roles; with women limited to the domestic domain as reproducers and producers, and men to the public sphere as masters of their domain. This is the typical patriarchal system where women have little control over resources or their children, which are both the property of the man of the household.
What struck me as being Tanzanian specific was the sense that few people can say “I don’t care what they think”. Value is placed on deference, respect and conservatism. People may resent traditional role expectations, but typically they submit to them. One participant described it as the act of imposing cages on ourselves. We don’t like the cage, but we lock ourselves in because the alternative unknown world of freedom is too scary. And there is fear about the unknown because so few people have been exposed to alternative ways of constructing their household or community relationships. The national narrative of ‘peace’ has been used to inculcate fear about change. Better the devil you know.
These social norms whereby people resentfully hold on to the status quo and defer to those who hold power are perpetuated by the current political and economic system. Women continue to be systematically marginalised from accessing economic, educational or political space. But, the exclusion that individual women experience can be understood as a microcosm of the exclusion that is felt by men, the elite and ultimately the nation in a neo-liberal world that values the acquisition of power.
In these workshop fora participants often talk of the need for Tanzanians to self organize into a social movements for change. And yet, we are evidently blocked from doing so. This can partly be attributed to the conservatism described above, but there is also a larger argument to be made about power and how perceived powerlessness plays out in the household, domestic political scene and in international fora.
Under Nyerere Tanzanians made a stand and espoused a Pan-African political and economic system that was strongly values based. The failure of Nyerere’s vision to prosper and sustain in the face of 1980′s neo-liberalism was a hit to Tanzania’s self esteem and identity. We have subsequently adopted the tenets of a capitalist system, without fully internalising what it requires of us as individuals nor what it requires institutionally to create the checks and balances that make a capitalist system relatively fair for all, and not just a free for all for the elite. Our commitment to capitalism is ambivalent. The Tanzanian political economic system now can be characterised by a set of espoused values – participation, equity and prosperity for all – and a completely contradictory set of values in action. What we actually see is the exploitation of national resources by an elite, rent-seeking throughout the system whereby individuals cream off the top of any income in addition to their salaries, and a failure to respect the rule of law. So we are torn politically. We vote people into power on an agenda that we know they will not adhere to. We don’t vote for the alternative because we fear the unknown. And as a consequence democracy has only made us feel more powerless.
What do people do when they feel powerless? They project that feeling onto those who have less power than themselves. So the elite of the nation feel that they are supplicants and passive victims in a larger geo-political arrangement where we beg for aid and characterise ourselves as ‘developing’. The elite then exploit what power they have domestically for their own short-term benefit. Elected representatives and technical staff in local Government feel that they are supplicants to central government and cannot initiate change from below. They project that powerlessness onto citizens, with edicts about what can and can’t be done. At a household level men feel unable to live up to their narrowly defined role as masters of their domain; challenged to provide for families and prey to an increasingly accepted norm that you are a successful man if you drink and womanize. And at the bottom of the chain their powerlessness is projected onto women who in turn vent their frustration on children. No wonder Tanzanians can’t self organize when at every level of society we feel that we are the victims of larger, uncontrollable forces.
The cultural and socio political pressures described above impact on individuals at an emotional level. The socially constructed roles narrows the range of emotions that are considered acceptable for people to have and express. Women are expected to feel compassion and humility. Men are expected to feel confident and capable. People are cut off from accessing a wider emotional range and emotional literacy is neither valued nor taught. If we don’t explore ourselves and learn self knowledge it is impossible to know what we believe, what we value and who we are. Repression of a whole range of emotions has a strong shadow side that expresses itself in frustration, anger and jealousy. These are the emotional under-currents that drive people’s behaviour.
In development practice, the education system and in media coverage people’s inner worlds is largely ignored. From a development perspective, there is a tendency to think that social change will occur if we analyse and engage with the political economic system and sensitise people to take up new information. This is the observable, objective domain of human life. What is more murky, but arguably more powerful is people’s inner worlds. No matter how much information people have they will not change their behaviour if they don’t believe that they are capable of behaving differently.
And finally these emotional, cultural and political economic forces manifest in the behaviour of individuals. In this domain individual’s behaviours mimic social stereotypes. Women act as passive victims and men as dominant perpetrators. Those women who behave counter to the norm and become successful, have their characters assassinated; often by other women. “You slept to the top”, “You stole to get there”, “You’re only there because of your husband / father”. Women seem to find successful women a threat.
Success threatens us all because it holds a mirror up and demands that we ask ourselves what we are doing with our lives. In the household a family who share the chores demands that other women and men reflect, even if momentarily, on their own arrangements. In the political space the success of a women demands that other women reflect, albeit briefly, on their own stance of submission. In a society that has systematically shut down the space for such reflection and self-scrutiny the behaviour of people who have countered passivity is truly a demand on others to self-scrutiny.
I would argue that the one lesson from this process of analyzing what stops women and men from sharing common ground is the need to get back to self-scrutiny. We need to create space, and make it safe, for individuals to reflect on themselves. What do they believe? What do they stand for? And how do they want to bring themselves to play in this world? Passivity can only start to shift in an alternative trajectory if we collectively start to engage with our inner worlds.