It has become commonplace in the west in recent years to assert that the ways in which women experience oppression in Australia are minor compared to the oppressions that women in the majority world face, from gender based violence to lack of access to education, to maternal health, to poverty and economic marginalisation. There are certainly massive issues around women in Tanzania, some of which I have written on here. However, I don’t think these kinds of comparisons are useful. Women have struggles in Australia and in Tanzania, and talking about which one is bigger or greater misses the point that they are all wrong.
Furthermore, my colleague did not see the five oppressions I spoke of as minor. He was shocked by them and contrasted them with how Tanzanian society treats women. We all have things to learn from one another, so in this post let me offer some things Australians can learn from Tanzanians on the issue of women’s welfare.
1. Women’s bodies are not on display in public places
I often contrast Australia’s highly sexualised advertising industry with our squeamishness around public breastfeeding. It’s fine for boobs to be out to sell something or titillate men; not so much if they’re there to nourish or comfort a child! The opposite is true in Tanzania. If you breastfeed in public in Tanzania, no one bats an eyelid. The idea that breastfeeding would be sexy is considered laughable, even perverse. I think this is connected to the Tanzanian respect for motherhood. Breastfeeding is functional rather than salacious because it is associated (rightly!) with motherhood. I’m not saying there’s not entitlement to women’s bodies (there is) or sexual assault (there is). I’m saying that women’s bodies are not publicly on display in the same way. There is a respect for women which means their bodies are not to be exploited for advertising, and have functions other than pleasing the male gaze.
2. Strength can be feminine
In the west we tend to dichotomise masculinity and femininity, so if the former is associated with strength, the latter must be weak. Tanzanians understand masculinity and femininity to be different, but not opposite, and strength is built into their understanding of what a good woman is. This means there is space for female leadership which is not a threat to men, because they are not competing for the same space. My colleague said to me, “It is good if women are strong! We want them to be!” An example that I have seen of this feminine strength is in big Christian rallies. Men use what they call a ‘prophetic voice’. It sounds a bit like an extra aggressive Cookie Monster calling people to repentance. Women also speak very strongly and raise their voices at these rallies, but they adopt a maternal tone, speaking of how they have cried tears over those who are going astray, and calling them back. Leadership is not masculine in Tanzania; there are masculine and feminine ways of leading.
3. The relationship between blame and control
In Tanzania, it’s standard for babies to sleep in their parents’ bed and to be breastfed overnight. It’s also normal and uncontroversial for women to work, and to leave their 3 month old child in the care of another woman while they do so. We in the west debate whether these are good things, but they simply are in Tanzania. This removes a great deal of scrutiny and anxiety from women’s lives. These may be hardships, but they are hardships of how life is, rather than of your own making, and no one will blame you for them. This may be related to the animistic worldview, in which most things in life are largely outside your control. This is a tricky one: to most westerners, a lack of control or choice sounds like oppression. But then we value autonomy and individuality over harmony and togetherness. There may be a trade off in freedom against anxiety.
4. Respect for age can be good for women
Young women are some of the most vulnerable people in any society. This is true in Tanzania, where youth is synonymous with submission, and age brings a degree of power with it. However, it’s also true in Australia, where even though we idolise youth, our young women bear the heavy burden of unrealistic beauty standards, and women reach their use-by date at 40, leaving a sweet spot in maybe your 20s and 30s, which is when many women are engaged in some kind of childbearing or childrearing work. The window is so slim it is little wonder we have such an obsession with ‘having it all’. Because age is valued in Tanzania, women do not have a use-by date in the same way. Not only are women freed from the burden of having to maintain an eternal and exclusive youthful appearance, there is time and space to grow into yourself and to develop your gifts. They can continue to grow and be productive and respected members of society, and this might even increase in proportion with their grey hairs!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.