Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

In the space of a fortnight, Africa lost one Nobel Prize winner, Kenya’s Wangari Maathai and gained two more – Liberia’s Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. But as we celebrate their achievements, we should be mindful that ‘womanhood is not synonymous with sainthood’, cautions Sokari Ekine.

In the short space of just two weeks, Africa lost Nobel Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, who transitioned on 25 September, and gained two more, Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, both of Liberia. For those not altogether familiar with Wangari Maathai’s work, Africa Today hosted a series of ‘first voice discussions’ which included Musimbi Kanyoro of Global Fund for Women and Keguro Macharia of the Concerned Kenyan Writers Collective. As we celebrate the achievements of Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, we should be mindful that womanhood is not synonymous with sainthood. Liberian activist, Korto Williams quoting Stephanie Horton, reminds of the need to ‘interrogate’ women in leadership, which can lead to the silencing of our voices:

‘I lost the fire in my belly; the flame that gave me fire to light the torch to fight for women’s rights and gender equality. It is missing somewhere between what Stephanie Horton refers to as the “psychology of the ovary phenomenon” and the international accolades Liberia receives for electing the first female president in Africa …“We are held captive by the psychology of the ovary phenomenon. Ovaries alone do not confer those ‘maternal’ caring qualities we seem to yearn for. We have deified and elevated female leadership to sainthood in Liberia, even while the most horrific manifestations of sexual gender based violence (SGBV) continues unabated and intensifies. We have been led to believe that women will save us where men have failed. At the same time, there is the complex suggestion that women have to be tempered ‘iron’, presumably hard like men, and must shed those nurturing qualities associated with the feminine in order to operate within a male domain. It's a brilliant political strategy and it works. Having women in power has silenced and intimidated vocal discourse”’ (Stephanie Horton)

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf remains the only African leader to offer to host the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), one of the primary functions of which is increased militarisation of African countries – which has historically led to tyrannies against women. Robtel Pailey, who has worked for four years with Johnson Sirleaf skims over this fact as she highlights the similarities between the two Nobel Prize winners:

‘Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and peace activist Leymah Gbowee, also from Liberia, became the second and third African women to be awarded the Nobel peace prize on 7 October.…Gbowee and Johnson Sirleaf have forever transformed the image of Liberia, from a pariah nation of warlords and gun-slinging, drug-induced prepubescent boys, to a country clawing its way back to civility and normality…Their journeys to this prestigious award, announced just four days ahead of Liberia’s high-stakes presidential and legislative elections – elections that will determine the country’s development trajectory and democratic consolidation – signify Liberia’s journey to consciousness.’

Finally, after five years of postponements, four men were convicted of the murder of Zoliswa Nkonyana. Three others were acquitted of the original nine arrested. This is the first case in South Africa to recognise sexual orientation and lesbians as a motive for murder and violent crimes. Zoliswa, 19, was murdered on 4 February 2006 after being chased by a group of men because of being a lesbian. She was beaten, stabbed and strangled. It has taken five years of constant delays – which meant two of the witnesses were only able to testify years after the murder. In ‘Road to the End of Justice’, The Free Gender group, which has been covering the trial summarised the court hearing and verdicts.

‘The Magistrate reviewed the entire case, including the three “trials within trials” regarding the confession of Accused #4, the DNA evidence taken from blood found on Accused #5′s tekkies, and the police statements made by other accused. The confession and the DNA, which demonstrated that the blood on the shoes belonged to Zoliswa, were found admissible into evidence. However, the police statements made by the other accused were not. The Magistrate stated that on this point that the statements were not admitted because of the “sloppy manner” in which those statements were taken by police.’

Whilst the South African courts have made preliminary steps towards recognising sexual orientation as a motive for violent crimes, there are many in the country such as the National House of Traditional Leaders (NHTL) and Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa, who attempt to justify prejudices and discrimination under the banner of culture and tradition. Their aim is to create a two-tier system whereby traditional courts operate outside of the state constitution and to remove the protection given to sexual orientation. Melanie Judge of Queery asks whether it is not possible and right that ‘non-discrimination emerges as a shared cultural value, an honoured tradition, owned by all who live in South Africa?’:

‘The NHTL, and its bedfellow the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa, claims a monopoly on defining “African traditions and values”. In assuming the right to define what constitutes “tradition”, and what not, these “traditionalists” seek to be arbiters of “legitimate” cultural expression. In doing so, they aim to hegemonise particular concepts of “African culture”. According to this cultural script, homosexuality is “unAfrican”. Both queers and other non-conforming genders and sexualities are disavowed within such an exclusionary manufacturing of culture.

‘The traditionalist lobby would wish for a social order that is re-rooted in immutable apartheid and colonialist categorisations of black/white, man/woman, gay/straight. It’s no coincidence that these are the very planes of difference upon which power and privilege have been historically enacted, and which continue to mark the frontiers of current day inclusions and exclusions.’

Zimbabwean blogger, Rumbidzai Dube (Jambanja) has been working as in intern in Cairo for the past six months. Her sister blogger Fungai Machirori is in Harare. Both have experienced sexual abuse in the past week and for Rumbidzai, the sexual abuse was compounded by accompanying racism. Both tell their stories of violations in public and private spaces. Both seek explanations which you many not necessarily agree with, but their conclusions are the same. We have a right not to be sexually abused – not to be leered at, touched or spoken too and treated as sexual objects.

‘The first one slid his hands onto my lap, groping at my thighs and touching my breasts. Lesson Number one- never sit in the front seat of a taxi in Egypt unless you have other people you know with you in the same car. He was a taxi driver. I had not given him permission to touch me. I walked out of a moving taxi. My body is my sanctuary and if I cannot have total control over it then what am I-A tree that bears fruit but cannot eat of it?
‘The second one stalked me. I remember he was smartly dressed in khaki pants and a sky blue shirt, but beneath his neat exterior lay a rotten mind and rotten intentions- to harass me because I am a woman.

‘The third one grabbed my buttocks as I made my way into the subway station. I shouted at him and he ran away. Of course he had to, I was furious to say the least. I used to be feisty but Egypt has turned me into a fierce tigress. That is the only way to deal with a culture that is so pervasive it is almost normal.

‘The fourth, fifth and hundredth all whispered obscenities in my ears as they passed me by. They whistled and passed snide remarks as I passed by. They ‘accidentally’ brushed their hands against my breast and my behind as they passed and when I turned my head to ask they raised their hands to say ‘I did not mean to.’ Of course what they all did not mean was to get caught and be embarrassed for it.

‘The one who drove me to write this story also grabbed my buttocks on the subway on the morning of Tuesday 4 October.’

Fungai’s experience was at home in a shared house – the abuser, one of her flat-mates, started with what appeared to be a friendly exchange but which became increasingly abusive ending with him touching her.

“I have had saviours. And today, I know how to stand up for myself. But what about those 10-year-olds who don’t have adults looking out for them? What about those women who get fondled then beaten then raped then try to speak but get a laugh of ridicule thrown into their faces, or worse still, that wagged finger of blame. It was all your fault.......I am angry beyond imagining, beyond words, beyond anger itself. I am angry because though I stood up for myself, I am still left with that feeling of fear. What if I’ve just fuelled a fire? Did I overreact? Would I feel less awful if I’d have just kept quiet?........Isn’t this why so many of us keep quiet until something “really serious” happens? In our minds, we somehow justify that it was all well-meant and that to say anything would be to blow it all out of hand........Well, I am not playing that game. If I let you touch my waist, then where next will your hands feel comfortable to navigate? Will it be my back, my butt, my breast?! No thank you. Your hands have absolutely no business on any inch of my skin, unless I allow them there. My skin is like fine silk and my body is a queendom.’


* Sokari Ekine blogs at Black Looks.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.