24 February 2013

Rwanda: Being a Virago Is a Gift, Not a Curse

A lot has been said about women with characteristics similar to those believed to be inherent in men. Such women are referred to as Virago, known in Kinyarwanda as 'Ibishegabo.'

The Rwanda Focus sought to know how other women feel about Ibishegabo. Not surprisingly, there are mixed reactions but the majority said that such women should 'use their 'gift' to make a positive contribution to society'.

According to Wikipedia, Virago is a term used to describe a woman who demonstrates exemplary and heroic qualities. The word comes from Latin 'vir' meaning man.

Historically, it is said the concept for the word Virago dates back to Hellenistic times to designate exceptional women. Then, it was a title of respect and admiration, but over time it became rather negative due to changed cultural norms that now tend to look down upon 'aggressive' women. Indeed, standard dictionaries define Virago as both a woman who has 'unexcellent male characteristics' (a fierce, unpleasant woman who shouts a lot -According to Cambridge advanced learners dictionary) such as being noisy or domineering, as well as a woman of a 'great stature, strength and courage.'

What do Rwandan women say?

According to 42-year old Alvera Mukankusi, such women are husband batterers, who don't even find it strange to sit among men and 'talk on top of their voices.' "We have such women in my village. They always want to sit with men; they never interact with women, and if they do, they do it arrogantly!" Mukankusi, a tailor in Nyabugogo, a Kigali suburb, says.

"But I remember a woman in my village who saved around 15 people during the 1994 genocide. She nearly lost her own life for them. That's heroism! She is not Igishegabo, she is just brave!" Mukankusi, who is married, says.

For Angeline Nyinawagaga, Ibishegabo are normal human beings who should use their masculine-like energy constructively. "I know many of them and don't see a problem with that; it only causes problems when the so called 'Virago' wants to her strength to lord it over men, especially a husband who may be less aggressive than her. In fact such character should be used to benefit their families and society at large," says Nyinawagaga, a resident of Bibare center, Kimironko in Gasabo district of Kigali city.

Giving the example of a female commercial motorcycle rider in her area, Nyinawagaga says being Igishegabo is a gift. "She is the only one in Kigali. There is also another who is a driver with Prince Tours; if you think you can do mechanics as well as men do, why not give it a try? The important thing is what you will get and most of those jobs bring in a lot of money," she observes.

Esperance Kangabe, a 45-year old trader in 'Mateus' says gender should not be confused with Ibishegabo. "To me gender means having mutual respect, knowing that there are things my husband can do which I shouldn't, and vice versa," she says.

And like Nyinawagaga, Kangabe also believes such women should use their masculine-like character for individual and societal benefit. "I like football; do you know how much Eto'o (Samuel) earns a month? Around a billion Rwanda Francs, so imagine if I could also play football and earn as much, I would be rich," says the businesswoman.

She also castigates those who engage in banter based on patriarchal stereotypes. "I don't even like that word 'Igishegabo' because I think it shows that women are inferior. Why don't we see Ibishegore in men who behave like women? We are all created differently because as individuals, we are made to serve the world in particular ways; let's be who we are," Kangabe says.

"If your daughter likes playing football or riding a bicycle, you are lucky! If you think its negative, think about her being a prostitute, would you be proud? This is my message to my fellow women for the Women's Day: let's be who we are, men or women, we all have strengths and weaknesses, let's focus on that!"

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