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Women’s exclusion from public spaces, and particularly the political realm, is systematic. It is structural in nature and is intensified by attitudes, cultures, norms and practices that seek to explain rather than address their exclusion from positions of power.

As Zanzibar gears up for a rerun of presidential, legislative and local councils elections that were annulled in October 2015, I can’t help but react to comments attributed to the Regional Commissioner (RC) of Mwanza, Magessa Mulongo on March 8 while commemorating International Women’s Day.

As is common among the political fraternity, and the larger patriarchal fold, Mr. Mulongo engaged in the familiar bromide to explain women’s low numbers in representative structures - elected or nominated. Mr. Mulongo chastised women for being each other’s worst enemy. He accused women of envying instead of aiding each other’s progress and for engaging in ‘pull her down’ (PHD) antics. In his mind were it not for women’s bitchy behaviour towards one another in the political sphere, women would be ahead.

Felicia Mabusa Suttle, a black female talk show host in South Africa raised much controversy when she spoke about the PHD Syndrome, albeit in the corporate context, but very much in the same light as Mr. Mulongo. A number of women were quick to question the myth that is perpetuated as something accidental. Dr. Renate Volpe, for example, points out that such notions are a political strategy to divide and rule; to create doubt between parties so as to destroy trust. The term PHD is more familiar in South African and the United States, contexts where women of colour have had to rise above sexism as well as the added scourge of racism. It is, however, a term that has also been applied to distance the female voter from the female contestant.

Is this loathing women have for other women innate, such that women across time and throughout the world despise fellow women? If Mr. Mulongo’s assertions hold true, then we need to interrogate why women’s under representation in the public sphere, especially in leadership positions, is a global phenomenon. How is it that all over the world, women continue to face obstacles to be voted into or appointed to representative structures even where there are laws or policies meant to enable the same?

Such generalised assertions coming from a high-ranking public figure are, to say the least, careless. The assertions are not based on any type of research. I challenge such shallow justifications with the following facts. Tanzania’s current vice president was not just thrust into prominence by loving male compatriots overnight. Almost three decades ago she was supported by fellow women who had the acumen and audacity to sponsor her training and open doors that would propel her into leadership roles and positions from the ground up.

Likewise, the former UN Deputy Secretary General and former Foreign Affairs and Justice Minister for Tanzania, Dr. Asha Rose Migiro, has been associated with many women professional and political outfits before her appointments. In fact these associations provided her with much needed political capital. Coincidentally, she conducted one of the few local studies on female political figures in the then ruling Tanganyika African Nationalist Union (TANU) and its women’s wing Umoja wa Wanawake (UWT). In fact Dr. Migiro’s rise to politics is credited with UWT creating a constituency within their special seats category for women in higher learning institutions, a move that enabled the party to attract highly qualified women who otherwise might have been hesitant to join active party politics.

Where is the she hate?

Mr. Mulongo’s assertions which are supported by women like Ms. Mabusa Suttle make me wonder if this despise for one’s own sex is only true of women? If so, is it only valid in matters related to positions of influence or power since women pull through for one another in social roles?

The absurdity of generalised notions regarding women’s low performance in certain sectors detracts even from the obvious. I wonder, for example, what success stories of devoted love we have witnessed between male politicians in Africa such that what is purported to be unique to women holds true. I, for instance, do not see Museveni gushing with affection for his former rebel cohorts Kiiza Besigye and Amama Mbambazi or how will Mulongo explain the countless times Besigye has been harassed or manhandled by his war buddy?

Even in Kenya there is no love between Uhuru Kenyatta and his big brother Raila Odinga. And this is the epidemic affecting Rwanda and Burundi. Suffice to say that in these two later countries the contempt leaders show their opponents is ruthless. It is for this reason that a number of East Africans are apprehensive about the newest member of the EAC, South Sudan. Since her independence in 2011, South Sudan has debuted on a shaky start with the two main protagonists in the post-independence dispensation, President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his sometime Deputy, Riek Machar, engaged in what can only be described as ‘a marriage of (in)convenience’. Countless lives have been lost since the two fell out. So far attempts to broker a truce between the two have not materialised, polarising instead of unifying a fragile nation.

I therefore fail to grasp the logic of Mr. Mulongo: I wonder, for instance, if Mr. Mulongo thinks that it is okay for men to fight it out for the leadership because it is the male thing to do while a less rigorous standard should apply for women who are expected to be tame about competitive politics. If this is the case, I don’t see how any woman will make it to the top especially in an era where politics are dominated by mafia-style operatives and electoral processes have become expensive and deadly.

Women’s exclusion from public spaces, and particularly the political realm, is systematic. It is structural in nature and is intensified by attitudes, cultures, norms and practices that seek to explain rather than address their exclusion from positions of power. In fact, countless studies have confirmed that in those countries where there have been significant increases in numbers of women in leadership positions, such as witnessed in Rwanda, South Africa, or Uganda affirmative action measures, such as quotas, operating in tandem with existing electoral systems have made a difference.

This year’s commemoration of International Women’s Day coincided with the annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) held in New York. Instead of hiding behind old bromides it will make more sense if the likes of Mulongo engaged men and women in processes that promote substantive equality between the sexes. For starters, Tanzania should abandon terminologies such as “wanawake wakiwezeshwa wanaweza” (If empowered, women are able) flaunted during political campaigns because they normalise male exclusive privilege in the public space (whether they are able or not) while they regularise women’s exclusion.

Democracy is about men and women. Gender equality is essential to building a democratic culture because it acknowledges the inherent dignity and humanity of every citizen, male and female, on the basis of full equality. Men have benefitted from automatic entitlement from the womb to the grave in different spheres. It is, therefore, disingenuous to denounce those who have been oppressed rather than speaking up for them whilst standing from a position of privilege! A discussion on tokenism should begin here.

* Salma Maoulidi is a public intellectual and social activist with roots in the women's and civil society movement in the region and globally inspired by the promise of freeing human potentials.



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