feminism mainI started my International Women’s Day this year watching the 2013 TEDx Talks video of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talking about feminism. If you haven’t watched it, please do (find it here – http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/We-should-all-be-feminists-Chim;search%3Achimamanda). It’s clever, it’s funny, it’s serious.

This got me thinking about my journey in feminism over the years, and why feminism is as relevant today as it was for the suffragettes in the early 20th century, or closer to home, for the international sisterhood at the Beijing Conference in 1995.

I suppose I was raised a feminist. My parents always told me I could do anything I set my mind to, and be anyone I strived to be. It helped that our nuclear family of six only had two males, so naturally as democracy would have it, the majority tended to rule. My parents were determined to raise upstanding citizens of the world, and that meant us girls were given every opportunity my brother (the eldest) had, without exception. I do not recall in my early childhood a single instance of my world being made smaller because someone thought I couldn’t match my male peers in any way.

Consequently, I have always been a feminist. I obviously didn’t always consider myself one, since I only really started understanding what the word meant whilst at university, trying to get my head around the various ‘isms’ in politics. Until then, I simply understood that my girlfriends and I had every right to enjoy the opportunities afforded to the boys in our class. Four of our six years in high school were spent in all-girl classrooms, so in a way, the thought that the world wasn’t ours for the taking was unfathomable.

Ironically, however, the older I became, the more prevalent the ‘gender issue’ turned out to be.  In the home, our inalienable rights began to waver somewhat, as our roles in the family were influenced more by societal expectations.  Inevitably, certain stereotypes crept into our daily routines.

For instance, I’ve never been particularly ‘domestic’. I am not a keen cook and the only reason I try to keep a fairly tidy home (the standards lower, the more kids you have) is because it would take longer to set aside a dedicated number of hours each week to resume order. Yet, since my late teens, there was a certainly more noticeable emphasis on my domestic abilities (or lack thereof). Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to be bringing home decent grades. Well-meaning relatives started suggesting I try my hand at learning a few signature African dishes.

Now, by no means is there anything wrong with being ‘domestic’. (I do wish I could whip up extravagant meals on demand, because I do love my food!) But the subtle conditioning does not end there. By the time (African) women are in their mid-twenties the hints turn into significant pressure, as parents begin to wonder aloud why their successful daughter is not seriously dating. “It must be because you can’t make ugali,” mothers sigh wistfully.  Personally, I am not sure how many of my fellow middle-class sisters whip up ugali on an average date, but believe me, I’ve heard numerous variations of this complaint. No matter the achievements of said daughter, there is this deeply held belief that a woman who cannot (or will not) cook for a man is failing in her role as a woman.

It’s tempting to brush aside the example above, but it doesn’t stop there. Stereotypes are reinforced everyday in claims that women must marry, or that they ought to be the primary child carer, or that they should not be paid as much as similarly qualified and experienced male colleagues. These stereotypes are a result of conditioning that begins in the home and informs individuals to see the roles of men and women as pre-defined and concrete.

Women in our communities champion and campaign for the rights of girls to an education, the importance of reproductive rights and equality in the workplace, but we still talk of exclusively female domains (the kitchen, the nursery, the reception desk). Everyday we hear male figures in the media give lip-service to the importance of girls being educated and being allowed to earn their place on that career ladder … but perhaps not so hard that they struggle to find a suitable mate, or that people at work find their success intimidating.

As a mother of two daughters, I am probably inevitably a feminist. However, I think it is in raising our sons where feminism is imperative. If we truly want to live in a world where there is equality between the sexes, we need to stop defining gender roles with unrealistic and unhelpful identifiers. Boys are expected to succeed in the classroom and on the sports field, often to the mutual exclusion of being considered thoughtful and sensitive.  From preschool, they are conditioned to take on the responsibility of providing for and leading their families, for this is what it means to ‘be a man’.

Girls today are probably not being lectured as much about learning to cook so that they can find a husband, but they are still being ‘encouraged’ to do so, to ensure they have that extra ‘edge’ to offer in marriage. Meanwhile, our sons grow up reluctant to express their feelings, as they struggle to find validation and understanding in relationships.

The pressure to fit these moulds, whether you are female or male is undeniably overwhelming.

These gender-based presumptions must end, and we must develop an awareness of the labels we so easily apply in our daily interactions. We sit here in 2014, commemorating and celebrating (as we should) over a century of developments in women’s and human rights, but we still have a long way to go.   I say be a feminist today – champion, promote and fight for open-ended, unconstrained equality, because any less is doing a disservice to this and future generations.

About The Author

Sifa Mtango

Sifa is a Tanzanian nomad, who today calls Sydney, Australia home. A practising solicitor, Sifa has represented clients from various industries conducting legal disputes in New South Wales and the Federal Courts. Outside her day job, Sifa is passionate about international legal and social issues and as a student, she published articles on human rights topics. Today she continues to engage with community and professional groups on issues of significant social relevance, particularly concerning the African diaspora. As a mother of two, Sifa’s greatest joys are her family and friends. She enjoys music, theatre and reading – making time to indulge in these activities as often as the “real world” permits.

One Response

  1. Renee

    Hi

    Noticed you’re a solicitor in NSW. I am a foreign law student in Australia. Did you study law in Australia? If you didn’t, was it difficult to satisfy the requirements here to be allowed to practise?

    Reply

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