Tanzania: Samia's Headache Isn't About Bosom Sizes, but Athletes' Lives in Retirement

opinion

Tanzania's head of state made the international news recently because she called some fellow women flat-chested.

President Samia Suluhu's words have to be taken in context: she was actually advocating better financial care and investment for women footballers and I suppose by extension all women athletes when they retire from active sports.

Madam President pointed out that successful male athletes tend to get awarded large prizes, land and cash and suchlike and that their lives after retirement were more or less made. Not so for women athletes, whose reward packages are, of course, not the same.

Here is where the cleat-in-mouth happened: she basically called women footballers flat-chested and "man-like" and said that it would be hard for them to attract husbands and therefore have a good life.

Madam President did qualify that in the national women's football team several players were married, but her concern was for those who were not: what, oh what, would these poor ladies do when their professional careers were over?

Heh. Good intentions were derailed by a colourful, unfortunate "spicing up" of her public address. For those who are wondering: yes, this is what a conservative matriarchy would sound like. Please do not confuse it with feminism, not for a second. Matriarchy is not the opposite of patriarchy, it is actually its partner and complement -- the other side of the same coin if you will. Feminism is an altogether different kind of currency.

The fallout from Madam President's address has been spectacular.

Confession: I actually watched the clip very late in the game after all the public and private outrage had given me the impression this was an all-out war against sports and dark-complexioned women with moderate bosoms. What an age we live in! Everyone with a beef to chew has been able to angle and spin this tale to fit the narrative they want to put forward. So why don't I join in the fun?

Y'all know this isn't about the size of people's bosoms, don't you? It is about keeping women in their place. And that place is apparently safely in the clutches of a man through matrimony, lest a woman's autonomy threaten the balance of power by inspiring girls and other women to explore their physical potential. Sports build character, encourage confidence and leadership and physical activity in general has health benefits that accrue to performance in all areas of life.

In April this year, I wrote an article about the new education combinations that would be made available to secondary school students soon. Among them: physical education, geography and economics as well as physical education, biology and the fine arts. So how, now, do we turn around in this very same-same government and imply that professional sports turns women into pseudo-dudes? The students doing the PBFA combination will let you know through their knowledge of basic life science that this is not how things work at all.

As a scare tactic, saying that professional sportswomen are manlike is a very telling one. It has been used to press-gang girls and women into conformity with a deeply conservative fantasy of society. The threat of the unmarried woman, alone in the patriarchal world, stripped of feminine wiles to entrap a husband as her social and economic investment and guarantee... what a 1950s nightmare! One that says more about the speaker's values than it does about the 2021 realities on the ground.

Tanzania is endowed with a plethora of women in all different shapes and sizes. Like in so many African countries, it is women who bear the burdens of physical agricultural work and otherwise. Large bosomed super-women wielding their hoes in the sorghum and cotton fields, stringy tough women carrying buckets of fruit and vegetables to sell all day under a punishing sun.

Screaming fish market mamas with strong invectives slinging wares into deep pans of hot oil. Do they fit into the fantasy? Do these sweaty, working-class lasses make the grade? After all, professional footballers are also working women who use their physical strength and endurance to make a living.

We can't all be plump office partridges and soft stay-at-home mummies scented with eau-de-chapati. The economy would stall.

But I get it. Maybe this has less to do with fearing "mannish girls" than reassuring the patriarchy that all is under control? There is no evidence to support the idea that the physical appearance of an actively fit woman will get in the way of her finding a spouse if she chooses to do so. I can only imagine that the more successful a woman is in a sporting career, the thinner the herd of unviable partners and the greater the concentration of enthusiasts she might attract, and she has to be careful if she's making mad money off her game.

So, in that respect, I support President Samia's intention of highlighting the need for good pay and benefits for our women athletes, especially those who represent us well internationally. I have no doubt that at the end of the day there are decent men out there waiting to support and encourage them, just as they do for all the women we have in public office and in the corporate world, and in the fields and markets and kitchens.

Oh, and those chests are not flat: sports bra technology has just come a long way since the 1900s.

Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report:

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