My second hunch about Tanzanian women is a bit more complicated than the first, and a lot more speculative.
Theory Two: women’s progress in Tanzania is hampered because their emotional expression is limited.
Tanzanian society in general is hierarchical. Those at the top have the power and those at the bottom are expected to knuckle under. There is very little space for those underneath (women, youth, etc) to have an opinion or to express their wishes and emotions.
That means that people don’t learn skills of emotional literacy when they’re young and they may never have the chance to(e.g. how to identify and name excitement, or the difference between frustration and anger). Westerners are often bewildered at the outbursts from African leaders; I wonder whether this is because they never learn to manage your emotions as they move up the hierarchy, so they’re uncontrolled when they finally do get to the top. We grow and expand where we put our time and energy. In a hierarchical culture lots of energy is put into suppression of emotions.
What does this mean for women? If you have trouble identifying your emotions, you may not recognise when something is being done to you that you don’t like. Or if you do see it, you may not have any language to say that you don’t like it. Even if you have the language, cultural expectations may keep you from saying anything. How can consent exist in such an environment?
An anecdotal statistic I heard was that 90% of Tanzanian female university students have experienced sexual abuse. That’s unsurprising, given what we’ve just seen about consent. When you’ve got such trauma is so many women, and at a generational level, is it any wonder that women’s progress is limited? They need more than micro-finance or freedom from abusive men. There’s big stuff there to deal with to do with identity and self-esteem.
Sexual abuse shatters a sense of worth. That’s bad enough in one person, but when it’s been generational, who is to teach younger women of their value when older women can’t see their own? Where are the models of women who confidently live that out?
I will never forget when I was on a panel on dating and sexual ethics at a Christian event for female university students and I said that if you had been abused God hates that, because you are the image of God which gives you both inherent dignity and means that if someone is hurting you they are fundamentally wronging and insulting God. This was a radical statement to make.
However, there are all kinds of other factors that play into this discussion of emotional life.
- I’ve mentioned consent: to what extent does that seem indispensable to me because of my western individualistic worldview?
- I’ve said that women’s emotional life is severely underdeveloped: this does not account for their extraordinary capacity for compassion, nor their shared sense of injustice about their lives.
- It’s also possible that women share emotional life among themselves. That’s not something I’ve observed much thus far, as other components seem to be more prominent glue for friendship than emotional connection e.g. financial help, situational observation, working together on a common project, etc. But perhaps this is still a part of Tanzanian life I haven’t yet been let into.
- Perhaps also this observation is skewed by the immaturity of university students.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.