|Article by Ogova Ondego
Published September 27, 2006
A coalition of feminist activists in Tanzania has publicly and bitterly criticised Salma Kikwete, Tanzanian First Lady, for what they term her support of “backward traditions which undermine women’s rights,” OGOVA ONDEGO writes.
In a press statement prepared by Federation of Women Educationalists in Tanzania (FAWETZ), Tanzania Media Women Association (TAMWA) and Tanzania Gender Network Programme (TGNP), all members of the Feminist Activist Coalition (FemAct), the feminists take issue with Kikwete for participating in the Reed Dance activities in Swaziland where she urged Africans to emulate the Swazi in preserving ‘good cultural practices and traditions instrumental in shaping youth to become responsible citizens’. Praising the Swazi traditional values saying they encourage girls to abstain from sex till marriage and thus keeping HIV/AIDS at bay, Kikwete said she liked the Reed Dance because it brings girls from rich and poor families together, enabling them to socialise and work together.
But FemAct will have none of Kikwete’s syrupy feelings, saying the Tanzanian First Lady’s “participation in the reed dance in Swaziland may send the wrong signals, suggesting that the government both recognizes and supports backward traditions which undermine women’s rights.”
FemAct says tradition and culture often support the male domination of women and the disempowerment of the latter in sexuality and reproduction. “A good example of disempowering traditions is the ‘reed dance’ in Swaziland, where the King is given the power every year to choose a young virgin woman to be one of his many wives. In the reed dance, as our newspapers have gleefully reported without a word of criticism, young half-naked girls are paraded in front of the king and the many guests. The reed dance, we believe, represents the most retrogressive aspects of African culture which degrade and devalue women, whereby women are displayed as objects for the pleasure of men, and in this case, dominant ruling class,” the statement, issued in Dar es Salaam, says.
Offering to sensitise the First Lady on cultural practices that undermine the status of women, FemAct wonders if Kikwete was “not informed enough by her advisors about attempts by women’s and gender groups in Swaziland for many years to get rid of this custom? And that her participation might undermine her status as a role model for girls and women in Tanzania, Africa and the world?”
Tanzania, FemAct says, “is a signatory of SADC (Southern Africa Development Community) Declaration on Gender and Development which calls upon member countries to abolish all cultural practices that undermine women’s rights and dignity. It therefore behoves SADC heads of state – and their wives – to act as role models in promoting women’s dignity and human rights. As such, they would be expected not to participate in such a backward custom, at the least – and ideally, to denounce the dance in no uncertain terms.”
FemAct leaders-Amanileya Nkya (TAMWA), Salome Anyoti (FAWETZ), Mary Rusimbi (TGNP)-contend that as “many of the King’s choices in the past have been under-age girls,” they are “denied their human rights and subjected to the health and life risks inherent with under-age sex and childbearing.”
By issuing the statement, FemAct says, its members are joining “countless other gender and women activists in Swaziland and the rest of Africa in denouncing the infamous ‘reed dance’ displayed as the epitome of male supremacy, which functions to reproduce the subordination of both women and commoners in Swaziland.”
Since FemAct appears to be accusing the mass media of complicity in the conspiracy against women-“our newspapers have gleefully reported without a word of criticism”-ArtMatters.Info begs to be a little critical in this article that adopts a middle-of-the-road approach.
Granted, both Salma Kikwete and the gender activists have a point: culture is a complex phenomenon, a slippery ground on which one should tread carefully. But what exactly is the Reed Dance, and what does it symbolise?
According to an article by Richard M Patricks posted on the Swaziland National Trust Commission website, the aims of The Reed Dance-usually held in late August or early September-are to preserve the chastity of the girls, provide tribute labour for the Queen Mother, and produce solidarity among the girls from all walks of life who are made to work together over the eight-day ceremony.
If what Patricks says is true, then Mrs Kikwete deserves praise and not condemnation. “The girls”, stresses Patricks, “do not gather specifically for the king and they are not forced to attend the ceremony. It is by choice that they attend the reed dance.” Once again, FemAct appear to have got their facts wrong: The Reed Dance is not an event tailored for the Swazi king to replenish his harem.
Culture, those in the know tell us, refers to a people’s practices, values, beliefs and aspirations. Created over generations from a people’s experiences and relationships, culture shapes a people’s existence. Culture, a people’s worldview, shows who a people are, where they have come from, and where they are going. Culture shapes a people.
Culture defines a people.
Culture being everything about a group of people, certain cultural practices, experts caution, could look irrational to the uninitiated but this is the context in which a people construct their identity.
FemAct, that says it works in the gender and development area, would be better advised to consider the observation above as many development partners in Africa are having to consider the element of culture of a people before attempting to bring them any ‘development’.
To persuade a person, family or community to follow one’s way, one must do so from the point of view of the person one is reaching out to. Many Western-minded activists have been disappointed that no matter how much they bash African practices like ‘wife inheritance’, ‘bride price’, ‘female genital mutilation’, and ‘child brides’, the more these practices appear to thrive. Why? Because they not only make sense to those practising them but also define their existence, something that appears nonsensical to those fighting them.
So, perhaps the best approach is to find out why certain practices are considered important to a people. It is only then that one may seek to persuade the people to stop those ‘primitive’, retrogressive’ and ‘backward’ practices by replacing the worldview of the people concerned with a better perspective.
Abrasive or mindless westernisation, urbanisation, and feminism, have wounded many in Africa, split families, spawned prostitution and street families, and led to the spread of HIV/AIDS on the mother continent.
Would you like to know how? That is for another time.