In a hierarchical society, who is powerful? It’s natural to me to think that it’s the people at the top, with people becoming less powerful the further down the hierarchy they are. Those down the bottom of the hierarchy are vulnerable, and therefore would benefit from gender equality. This is not how my language tutor sees things.
First of all, she reminded me, Tanzanian hierarchies are not linear. Everyone is responsible to someone, either obligated to provide for others, or submit in some way. The hierarchy is more like a web than a ladder. In a marriage, it’s not simply the case that there is the submissive wife and her powerful husband. If she has an issue with him, there are designated people whose job it is to pull him into line: the church pastor, both sets of parents, and the ‘marriage supervisors’ who are kind of like godparents for the marriage. All of these people are older than the couple, which in a hierarchical society means they – including the husband – are beholden to their advice and instruction. Even if the wife has no power, she has powerful people on whom she can call.
Second, it is incorrect to see those who are ‘underneath’ as powerless. She spoke about the power a woman has in a relationship. If her husband is angry, she knows exactly how to calm him down. She lowers herself before him, and as she does so, his level of anger also lowers. Before you think that she is degrading herself in order to placate him (as I may have been tempted to) hear that what she is effectively doing is pulling him down, by leading the way in humility with her submissiveness. She attains her goal: peace, and a calm husband, and has acted expertly to achieve it. She has left everyone’s status in tact, and still got what she wants. She reminds me of Abigail, who is deferential both to her awful husband Nabal and to David, and is recognised for her wisdom and peacekeeping.
I wondered whether my language tutor was just making the best of a bad situation, so I asked her if she thought society would be improved if there was more equality. She said she thought it would, but also flat out refused it for herself. In fact, she said she was angry at those who come in talking about equal rights and trying to implement that. In her view, they are disturbing the peace: an egalitarian world to her is one of chaos. Furthermore, she saw them as robbing her of her unique power in her relationship. She knows a hierarchical world, how to operate within it, and how to make it work for her. She does not see the system as broken or in need of change; she sees it as functional, and as good for her. To become an expert in a new system is risky, and it’s something she’s seen end badly. She spoke of women who in their attempt for gender equality end up fighting with their husbands and not achieving their goals, where they could work within the system and get what they want, without the disharmony. So her third reason for refusing gender equality was that she has not seen it work, and thinks there are better, easier ways to reach the same functional ends.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.