A scientific breakthrough, which could significantly decrease the spread of HIV, creates a divide between feminists. Why?
During the July 2010 international AIDS Conference in Vienna, the media announced that a microbicidal gel containing 1% anti-retroviral drug tenofovir was received with mixed feelings. According to a recent study, this gel could cut down the spread of HIV infection in women by 39%. While most people recognise this as an achievement in scientific development that could save many lives, there are some critics who feel strongly that this is will not “empower women who are unable to negotiate mutual use of condoms with their male partners.” They argue that this will simply make “powerless women stop the kicking.”
Can scientific breakthroughs slow social progress?
With so many arguments flying around about the importance of changing social attitudes rather than providing a quick fix, it suddenly feels like there is a turf war going on between feminists in developing countries and those in the developed world. What is more, there is some sort of animosity building up with regards to celebrating the results of the scientific research, which some fear will slow down the fight against contemporary patriarchies that African legal feminists have had to wrestle with for a long time.
The growing “sisterhood”
Of course, there is the recognition that globalisation has allowed women in developing countries to join forces with their contemporaries in other parts of the world, by creating “women’s developmental networks,” with links to development agencies and non-governmental organisations now touring the third world to promote programmes of women’s “empowerment.” The general feeling exists that women are connected in a kind of “sisterhood” because they live in “phallus-centric” societies.
There are, however, accusations that the brand of feminism often assigned to women in developing countries involves the “politics of survival” and the re-writing of history to create the myth that women’s activism is inspired only by the developed world. Most women in these parts of the world aspire to go beyond survival by equipping themselves with intellectual tools in order to overcome gender injustice.
Feminism’s international roots
Writers such as Ania Loomba acknowledge that feminism, as a concept, is not new in parts of the world such as Africa and Asia. The history of women’s leadership roles in Africa and other developing countries are often cited as having inspired feminist thinking around the world.
While some narratives on gender issues in Africa often fail to highlight the fact that women-friendly traditions and institutions existed in many of these societies, it is widely known on the continent that phenomenal movements were initiated to defend the interests of women.
For example, women’s councils in countries like Nigeria existed among the Igbo people, which according to Professor Amina Mama – a renowned academic based at University of Cape Town – were “capable of instigating widespread disturbances when they found their interests being compromised and imposed sanctions on husbands who erred.”
Traditional African culture had clearly stipulated roles for men and women. Both sexes played their roles in building successful homes and societies. The important task of child-rearing was not left to women alone but belonged to society as a whole.
Still, it is important to eschew a gloss over the constraints that patriarchal African culture imposed on women; moving beyond the traditional role is something women could not do.
Human rights for African women, too
Fast forward to the 21st century. Women in Africa still face obstacles with regards to the realisation of their human rights. Decades of social conditioning have allowed the marginalisation of women to become widely acceptable and continue to create barriers in promoting the integration of gender issues into developmental programmes. Without sounding simplistic, how can the roots of gender inequality be weeded out?
The laws of most African countries continue to order the subjugation of women and do not fit in with 21st century realities. African legal feminists are faced with the enormous challenge of confronting complex legal systems equipped with “resilient structures and institutions of patriarchy whose primary role is to maintain the status quo.” Most countries across the continent possess multiple legal systems, where statutory laws operate alongside customary law.
The colonial and anti-colonial legacies converge
These African legal systems are a direct legacy of the continent’s colonial history. The nationalist male in anti-colonial movements also had his part to play in grooming a subservient wife, even though this included educating a woman and, in some cases, allowing her to work outside purely domestic spaces.
While anti-colonial struggles varied in their attitudes to women’s rights – as seen in Ghandi’s non-violent nationalist movement or contemporary South Africa, where women’s activism altered the shape of nationalism itself – most were explicitly oppressive of women’s rights. It is against this backdrop that African feminist continue to fight the subjugation of women, which is, for lack of a better word, “institutionalised.” It is also for this reason that many do not want to go over the top, celebrating the recent scientific breakthrough because the problems women face in developing countries are much more complex.
Surging forward, step by step
The past few decades have led to an increase in “action-oriented organisations,” which focus their energies on improving the socio-legal position of women. Even though some critics argue that not much has changed with regards to confronting institutions that perpetrate gender inequality working “in tandem with the law,” legal feminists in Africa are surging on with determination. The agendas popularly associated with feminism in developing countries are being redefined. Little by little, their demands for rights to property, political participation, education and health care will be conceded. Most activists want to see the women’s movement sharpen its political edge to advocate for high impact changes.