3 January 2013

Tanzania: Of Bride Price, Sex Appeal and Women Resisting Pauperism

BOTH men and women giving views tend to link the question of creating or maintaining an ideal social order with the enforcement of controls over rebellious forces.

Towards this end, some people giving views did not approve of protests or demonstrations even if legitimate because in their view such events disrupted social harmony (inahatarisha utulivu). Of course the fear has to be contextualised in light of recent fracases involving rival political parties at public meetings and the disproportionate use of force by the police to quell such protests.

What is remarkable in all of this is that there is a generation or a segment of the population in Tanzania who believes that change will come without struggle, that victory will come to pass without articulating minimum claims and pressurising duty bearers to concede on the same. It is very disconcerting that in a process that is supposed to usher in reforms that an overwhelming percentage of views suggest defending the status-quo not challenging it.

Nowhere is this as evident as in the desire to keep women and the powerless in check. Most recently in Swaziland laws have been passed to control how women dress while one state in India passed laws to limit women's access to mobile phones. In practically all meetings attended the control over women's bodies was not only expressed in terms of limiting their reproductive autonomy but also in terms of checking their sexuality in the area of dress.

In Mbeya and particularly near the Malawi border many people disapproved of women wearing trousers and wanted the supreme law of the land to ban the same. Elsewhere, people denounced the wearing of mini-skirts because they did not want women to flaunt their sexuality. Men and women alike associated the wearing of such attire to rapes, as if violating the bodily integrity of a woman or child could be explained away and blamed on improper dress.

Instead people called for respectful dress as if women deemed to be in appropriate dress are accorded respect solely because of being dressed in a respectful manner. If this was the case then the many women attending meetings would not be marginalized by their very communities as if they did not exist or their opinions did not count. Alas this type of reasoning was beyond the scope of analysis of the majority of people giving views who resorted to simplistic analogies and scapegoating to advance their arguments.

Of course women's dress is political and has always been. Lately in Europe there have been moves to ban Muslim women who choose to dress 'modestly' especially by covering themselves with an outer garment be it a scarf, shawl, cloak and the like from public spaces arguing that such dress is against European secular values. The clamp down begun in schools and in France and Germany has ended up in public institutions as well as in public places where women deemed to dress 'inappropriately' by European standards would be committing an offence.

This discussion has now come to Tanzania. While it is not a new discussion since the case of schoolgirls wearing head covering to school marked the presidency of President Mwinyi leading him to issue a circular allowing Muslim girls to attend schools wearing head scarves should their parents required them to do so.

Perhaps President Mwinyi was intent on assuring universal access to primary education to all children, especially girls and thereby maintain the progress that was made of almost 100 percent access after it became apparent that some teachers sent girls wearing head scarves home. However, those calling against such identification think it promotes sectarianism and not national unity where plural identities are seen to be unpatriotic.

Regardless of the argument for or against women's dress it is important to emphasize that the discussion remains fixated on women and their sexual appeal where women are not viewed as individuals; as citizens of a free nation but as sex objects whose sole objective is to entice weak hearted men. Also, it fails to appreciate that how women dress may be an identity marker.

Those choosing to wear African prints, for example, may want to reaffirm their African roots while those women wearing European attires may want to communicate their modernity. Similarly dress that signifies a particular religious affiliation may indicate devoutness or it may communicate a rejection against a dominant order. But because women are still viewed in paternalistic terms such analysis or discussions are not part of the local narrative among women or men giving views; nor among those receiving such views.

And, because the legal framework also views women in moral terms, it will be a humongous task to convince the powers that be to dare challenge perspectives that are not just outdated but also fundamentally discriminatory. For most male contributors marriage legitimized male privilege and it is an institution through which women were kept subordinated. Men did not approve of any state or other interference in the privileges they enjoyed.

For example, many questioned why they had to pay mahari (bride price) and wanted women to do the same. Some linked mahari to the prerogative men had over their women, including daughters. One father in Mbogwe District was audacious enough to suggest that his married daughters did not have a right to h i s property. He could not envision a situation where he may not have sons and only have daughters putting his property at risk of being inherited by people who may not be his immediate kin.

Nor could he envision a situation closer to the reality of young men migrating way from their ancestral homes and making a life elsewhere while the sister who remains behind actually contributes to the family property. In the mind of this contributor, girls are not permanent members of the family and thus do not deserve to be provided for by the man who brought them to the world.

It is, therefore,striking that women and men could not associate this lack of recognizing their citizenship in the family and in the family wealth with the pathetic state women found themselves especially when widowed or orphaned. Women consistently demanded for the right to own land and the right to matrimonial property upon dissolution of a marriage either by divorce or death. But some women felt it was more proper to ask the government to look after old women, widows and divorcees (wajane, vikongwenayatimawatunzwe) instead of asking for a recognition of their due in the family wealth.

In fact, women censured themselves from making bold demands that would unequivocally demand for the renegotiation of the matrimonial relationship limiting their comments on resolutions that would 'accommodate' the status quo. Such a posture means that women position themselves as dependants and not as partners in the matrimonial relationship. It also assumes that women are lesser beings not worthy to own anything as a birth right.

Their only salvation is sporadic goodwill acts by Samaritans or powers that be, an existence that is unsustainable and highly suspect even under the 1977 Constitution.

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