Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

21st Century Women

This week we had an interesting office conversation regarding the role of women.

It began when one of the men stood up and declared, “Twenty-first century women are unreasonable!  They want to have an opinion on everything!”

The women beside me began arguing with him in Zulu.  Eventually he turned to me and asked, “What do you think Bethany?” 

“I didn’t understand most of the conversation,” I confessed.

“What do you think is the role of the woman in the house?” he pressed.

Oh no.  There are a few topics I try to avoid with my colleagues and feminism is one of them.

“I think in this day-and-age, no one has to have a gender specific role anymore,” I answered.  “Even though we have cultural norms and expectations for the different sexes, no one should feel hindered by their gender.”

The conversation progressed with the first man and the woman beside me doing most of the arguing.

She told him, “Women have to act like men because men aren’t acting like men!  I grew up without a father, so my mother and my grandmother had to do everything.  We couldn’t wait for a man to take a screwdriver and fix a door – we had to do ourselves!  Do you think women like having to do everything?  But we do because we can’t depend on 21st century men!”

Her tirade didn’t convince him – or me for that matter.  I hate gender arguments that focus on blaming the opposite sex for everything.

He finally agreed that men and women should have equal voices in the household.  He said everything should be a discussion.  BUT it’s the man’s job to keep the family close to God and, as a result, he has final say on every decision.

What a colonial attitude!  “You’re allowed to have your own opinion as long as it’s the same as mine.”

“I’m not Christian and I don’t believe in God, so you’re going to have to give me a better reason than that,” I said.

He gave me a bunch of bullshit reasons why men were head of the household, but I countered each one.  Finally he said, “What if the decision requires more education to understand the issue?”

I thought about it and said, “OK, I can get on board with that.”  It’s true that some decisions are better understood with more education and usually the men in poor families are better educated than the women.

Then I asked, “Does this go both ways?  What if the woman is better educated?  Does that mean she gets the final say?”

He looked at me and shook his head, “Educated women complicate the world.  It’s never easy for them.”

I think that meant no.

Eventually the conversation wound its way full-circle and he started complaining about upstart 21st C women again with all their damn opinions.

“Look,” I said, getting annoyed.  “Women have anyways had opinions, but historically we weren’t listened to.  You complaining about today’s gender conflicts is like white people complaining about today’s race conflicts.  Yes, it was a lot easier for white people during apartheid when they could disregard black people – but that doesn’t mean blacks didn’t have a voice.  The more voices you listen to, the more conflict there will be.  But you shouldn’t be afraid of conflict.  Instead you should embrace other opinions and try to look at issues from different points of view.”

“Yes!” the other woman agreed.

He wasn’t convinced, but eventually he realized that he wasn’t going to persuade me that men should govern women by divine right.

The conversation trailed off and he hasn’t brought up either gender or religious issues with me since then.

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