Gender is a complicated and tricky topic. I feel like I’m only scraping the surface of understanding it in Tanzania, and of course it’s a continuing conversation among Tanzanians themselves! I’ve been hesitant to write anything on it for fear of oversimplifying, but blogging is like thinking out loud, so I’ll reserve the right to modify what I say here later on!
One thing that is striking about gender in Tanzania is that the colour restrictions of the west are irrelevant. None of this blue for boys and pink for girls stuff. Men wear bright pink shirts, even shiny ones. Lots of people wear second hand clothes, and the other day I saw a bloke wearing a brown hoodie with pink sparkly writing about the Grand Canyon on it.
Though colour is not an indicator of gender, the type of clothes is. Women generally wear skirts, and guys wear shirts and trousers. Some female uni students wear skinny jeans in bright colours but women rarely wear jeans. If they do wear pants, many women still wrap a kanga around their waist to at least cover their thighs. The kanga is worn by women in a variety of ways and is rarely seen on men. Muslim men might wear the full length tunic and the little hat, but they are obviously distinct from the women since the latter are veiled.
Modesty for women is a big deal. Tight clothes are fine, including showing the shape of bums, tummies, boobs, etc. But there are no exposed midriffs, skirts don’t sit above the knee, and the only time you see exposed cleavage is for breastfeeding.
While we’re on appearance, some women also have facial hair. It’s not a fine sheen so much as little clumps of fuzzy hair, sometimes quite long, on the chin or jawline or even cheeks. I don’t know whether Tanzanian women are embarrassed about it as western women would be (and my own culture keeps me from asking) but there doesn’t seem to be any effort to remove it.
It is normal for Tanzanian women to work. Often on top of work at home with crops, cleaning, cooking, looking after children, etc, they have some kind of business as well. However, this work outside the home is often a burden rather than a freedom.
Women who are more professional leave their children with a nanny, so the idea of a stay at home mum is unusual. However, looking after children is definitely viewed as women’s work, even among men who take an active interest in their children and care for them.
There are plenty of women in Tanzania who work in jobs that require hard labour or would be considered typically masculine in the west. They carry water or massive parcels of firewood or other heavy packages on their heads, and they work with the crops. The big hardware shop in Dodoma is run by a group of women!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.