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“We must involve the bosses. We can not move without them. The bosses are our partners. Many of them are just victims of the system too. Most of the employers mean well. All we need to do is raise their awareness and they will be ok. We did a workshop with some of the most senior bosses last year, just one workshop. And I remember two of them standing up and saying, ‘This workshop has been a real eye opener to the suffering endured by the workers. We did not know that running sweatshops, under paying workers, and sexual harassment of female workers is wrong. We really did not know. We will change from this minute on. You can count on us.’ Since that discussion, we now have so many employers on our shop floor committees. One is even the chairperson of my equal wages sub-committee. Another provides counseling to women who are sexually harassed.”
Can you imagine this testimony coming from the head of any trade union movement? Anywhere in the world? Substitute workers and trade unions for landless people’s associations, or the Dalit movement, or an anti-racism movement: can you imagine them saying this? Why not? Tell me your eyes don’t water at the prospect of workers and exploitative bosses holding hands nicely and singing, “We shall over-come?” Like Martin Luther King, isn’t your “dream” that of landless, half-naked peoples and the few landed, be-suited, corporate bosses sharing leadership roles in one another’s organizations? The landless speaking on behalf of the corporate landowner, the landowner chairing the landless people’s movement?
Sound unlikely? Why not? We have done it in the women’s movement. To paraphrase Idi Amin, “if they did it, we can DID it too.” I know I am not doing the deep analysis and giving the nuanced complexities of so-called “involving men and boys” that has become the overwhelming refrain in “gender work.” I am not an academic. I don’t sit in spaces where I have the luxury – yes, luxury – of going into deep theoretical analysis. I just tells it as I sees it. I live and work in the real world of simplicity and sound bites. This is the world where one word from a donor or the media, and everyone around you turns phrases into a program, and soon enough, into expected practice. Where we hear things said in workshops, and suddenly they become the norm, nay, a requirement. In this world we learn from one another. It is not that we are stupid, it’s just that we don’t have time or space to go into political analysis. More importantly, in this world, labels and naming matter. Inclusion of men and boys equals a good thing done by gender activists; protecting women’s spaces and talking about power equals bad thing done by those awful feminists! Who isn’t afraid of being seen as a bad, strident woman?
My safe space called the women’s movement is going, or even gone. It’s been taken over by men. And I am scared and angry. To paraphrase them racists, let me say it one more time – I love men. Some of the best people I’ve had sex with are men. So there. I believe progressive, non-patriarchal, non-sexist men have a positive role to play in the struggle for women’s human rights. There are a few of them out there. But they are not yet in a majority, and a few good men do not a system make. Patriarchy in all its forms is still alive and doing quite well by my last diagnosis. The majority of men and boys continue to have access to all kinds of power, resources, and privileges, which they don’t hesitate to use to exert their control over women’s and girls’ lives and bodies.
When any marginalized and excluded group creates a safe space for themselves, it is their space. Let me repeat, it is their SAFE space. The notion of safe space is deeply political. To badly translate a wonderful song by Thomas Mapfumo, “There are some stories you don’t tell in the midst of certain listeners, otherwise they take oil and start preparing their hands…” I will not go into all those caveats about how not all men are bad etc. Women’s space is women’s space. It is the one place where I can have a conversation with other women about vaginas. It is the place where women seek unadulterated advice when they have problems in their heterosexual relationships. When we experience violence of any kind, and we turn up for counseling at a women’s center, the last person we expect to find sitting behind that desk is someone who looks exactly like the one I just ran away from. He might be nice, or the sweetest gay man, but do I trust that he will hear my story? Even if it’s a magazine to which I am writing a letter, or a phone-in radio program, I want another woman at the end of the line. I need to feel SAFE.
I work in a mainstream development INGO. I have seen, despite our best intentions, that it is very hard to recruit, retain and support women in the organization. The default is to think of men first. When women’s rights are mentioned in a meeting, everyone still turns to look at me or whoever’s job title is 'women’s rights.' We don’t turn to look at the heads of other themes when those are mentioned. Consistently keeping women’s rights on the agenda remains a struggle. And trust me, my organization is one of the best in the INGO stable, if I say so myself. Our language is firmly about women’s rights, and our political rhetoric is up there with the best. But I know this is not a women’s organization and its natural default is not to think of women first. I know the limits of what can be achieved in this space. When I want to have certain conversations and when I expect a particular, firm political direction, I look to the women’s movement.
The women’s movement is still the only place I expect to give women a shot at employment. A women’s organization is the last place I expect to compete with a man for an office messenger post, let alone a directorship. Call it sheltered employment if you must. We still need it because patriarchy and sexism have not been eradicated. Who else is going to give women opportunities if not their own organizations? Yet everywhere I look, women’s organizations are giving jobs to the men, and in large numbers. In some cases, male staff out-numbers female. The range of jobs being given to men is equally frightening. A colleague with a donor agency recently went to Zambia and she reported that a large number of women’s organizations are now directed by men! She also noted that in some organizations men outnumber women in providing psycho-social counseling and support to female survivors of violence. It was the same story in several organizations in Mozambique. In several countries too, government gender machineries are led by men. All in the name of “gender is about men and women….” We shall return to this half sentence later.
Even more frightening is the latest fad, men on the boards of women’s organizations. I will be the first to admit that I am given to hyperbole, but it’s become an epidemic! A seat on the board is about power and leadership. Where are women ever going to get a chance to learn leadership skills and how to exercise power? Are there no other ways to ‘include men’ besides handing over our hard-created organizations to them? At the same time we complain about women being excluded from decision-making positions in the public arena. When we are asked to give names of experienced women to fill leadership positions in the same public arena, we can’t even name five! It would be interesting to take stock of the values, beliefs and behaviors of some of these men on women’s organizations’ boards. Let me just leave it there. Point made.
Over the last few years, I keep wanting to sing my own version of Jacob Zuma’s dreadful song, “mshini wam’, mshini wam’, awu’leth’ u’mshini wam!” (My machine gun, my machine gun; give me my machine gun.) My song would go; “movement yam’, movement yam,’ awu leth’ i – movement yam!” (My movement, my movement; give me (back) my movement.) Where has the notion of safe spaces for women gone? What has happened to the politics that should be the foundation of our movements? Is it that it was never political? Not deep enough? We were fighting this struggle because it sounded like a nice idea, and therefore the strategy was to be nice?
When did we become this depoliticized? Let me go back to where I started. Why is the women’s movement the only space where you expect to hear the kind of depoliticized testimony that I quoted in the first paragraph? Why do we celebrate this kind of stuff in so many ways? As for their eyes being opened after only one workshop, I for one, would love to hear how sustainably open those eyes have remained and what transformation has occurred as a result. I stand to be convinced about the power of the one-workshop-one-pamphlet wonder. To think we have wasted all this energy understanding power when all it takes is a half-day discussion. Ah.
It is time to reclaim women’s spaces and re-politicize our movements with feminist politics. We can only do this if we put back onto the table, the fact that this is about POWER. Repeat after me….Gender is about men and women, and the UNEQUAL power relations between them. It’s back to feminism 001. Sadly.
Everjoice J. Win is a feminist from Zimbabwe, and is currently the Head of Women’s Rights in an International NGO. She writes this in her personal capacity.