20 December 2012

Tanzania: Negotiating a Mutually Beneficial Contract for All Interest Groups

Many times when I call for greater scrutiny over the gendered implications of specific policies or institutional practices some of my colleagues and foes roll their eyes.

In fact, I have been accused of making a mountain over gender issues looking for a needle in the haystack even when it does not exist. However, it is not the absence of manifest rules that are discriminatory that proves the presence or intention of bias or prejudice. What people need to recognize is that discrimination is often subtle and can be guised as something that is neutral.

Equally, it lies in the subconscious, an outcome of years of learned behavior i.e. socialization. Perhaps here lies the greatest challenge since it demands that we unlearn what we consider as normal though it may not be the right thing to do by any standard. But at this instance I will make my case for greater gender scrutiny with regards how all major social and national issues are approached by linking this discussion with how citizens across the country where the Constitution Review Commission has managed to collect views perceive their world. It is clear to me that many use gender specific terms to describe or assert different entitlements or immunities.

A case in point is the 'bitter question of the union' as perceived by an overwhelming number of people in Pemba. One citizen from Konde expressed Zanzibar's status in the union in these terms, "Rais wetu kafanywa kama mtoto wa kikeambaye bado hajaingia hedhi na hivyo mambo yake kuamuliwa na walii wake au watuwengine!" (Our president has been reduced to a prepubescent girl who needs her guardian or an adult to make decisions on her behalf).

Another citizen also in Pemba went further. To him it is not just a young girl who does not have authority over her affairs but also a wife. Thus, to him, Zanzibar and specifically the president of Zanzibar has been reduced to a wife and the consequences of this is great for women since, "Mke akishatiwa ndani(yaaniakishaolewa) mamlaka yote anayo mume" (Once married, all authority of over a married woman rests with her husband).

It is heartening for me to see that people are quite aware that power relations in the family are not equal and that women are subjugated to keep them powerless. And that people understand the consequences of such subjugation in any relationship. It is for this reason that in many places we went it was not that women were not encouraged to speak during session but it was evident that women were being kept ignorant of major issues to keep them in submission.

One person, for example, declared his objections over the present form of the union between Zanzibar and Tanganyika, "Wazanzibari tumeolewa hivyo hatuna haki kwenye nyumba" (because Zanzibaris have been married, we are devoid of rights in the home). The power men- be they husbands, fathers, brothersand even sons- wield over women may even stop them from earning a livelihood.

Undoubtedly it is this reason that those women who have spoken out for women's rights in the course of airing their views have emphasized that husbands should not deny or interfere with women's right to earn a living. Thus to understand the opposition against the union in the isles one has to appreciate the implications of a man who feels not only that he is being turned into a woman, a status that is not one evoking power or authority and therefore is not a status that is desirable.

Otherwise one needs to empathize understand how a man whose masculinity is being undermined feels more so in a deeply patriarchal context. One man in Micheweni expressedit thus, «Mke ni wangu na si mtu mke » (It is my wife and not everybody's woman).

This means that it is only a husband who has exclusive rights over his wife to the exclusion of all others. In fact this is the premise of most marriages as contemplated in religious orders, Victorian traditions and colonial versions of customary laws. For this reason those who wanted to maintain some relationship with the mainland also described the same in terms that represent a matrimonial relationship.

One person in Mtemani suggested that, "Mungano uwe wa ndoa tu ambapo anayeoa ndiye awe mwenye na mamlaka" (the union should be like a marriage, the one who marries i.e. the groom, should have all the authority). What has been phenomenal about this assertion for me is that a few years back when the idea of introducing a marriage contract in Zanzibar was floated there was opposition claiming such a practice was un Islamic and undesirable in that it killed the 'good faith' aspect men depended on to contract marriages; a practice that provides women with very few protections in case a marriage breaks down.

Yet, it is the same voices today who want a union premised on a contract but they do not want a contract that binds rather they want a contract that will allow them to act unilaterally if their interests are not served. Thus in the same manner men can give a talak (unilateral divorce) at will without explanation and by so doing severe the marital bond without a care about what such action means to the other party in the relationship.

Conversely, others want a union or marriage that is similar to a mut'a marriage which is a temporary arrangement where a man and woman cohabit like man and wife on terms agreeable to them both but where upon the fulfillment of the contract stipulations is not bound by any issues arising from the relationship in a way a couple contracting a formal marriage would. This tendency to view the world from a prism of gender construct is also observed among womenfolk attending meetings.

Foremost, the overwhelming number of women who came to give views especially in Pemba came carrying babies or young children. Some women would hand their babies to other women as they came up to offer views but many gave views with their babies cuddled on their bosom.

Perhaps because in Pemba both men and women came out in force to air their views they could not leave the young child with anyone at home. Another common tendency among women giving views was to identify with their reproductive roles. Thus when asked what they did for a living most women would answer, "Napika nikipakua' or "Namsubiri bwana arudi kazini" or "Sina kazi hata moja labda ya kulea watoto" (I cook and serve meals; or I stay at home waiting for my husband to return from work; or I have no work other than to look after the children).

Sadly, few women expressed concerns that were specific to their well being or their status as women. In Pemba for example both men and women commented on the union and the Office of the President of Zanzibar. Even when provoked, they rarely, if at all commented about local governments or other sites of governance that are more relevant to their everyday realities. This may be evidence of how the female citizen is viewed to see her place and purpose in society.

Similarly, it may reflect the prevailing citizenship culture where the fate of the nation is not premised on a larger discussion on rights, entitlements and immunities but on institutions and positions that signify power. In such a situation social agents should ponder how they can expand on the larger constitution architecture to develop a social contract that is emancipatory in content and design.

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