Letters from TZ

There’s no fun in feminism

When I hear people speak about balancing work and family, it occurs to me that those four words have become a ‘buzz phrase’ that most of us don’t really appreciate in its fullness. What does it mean – really – to balance work and family?

I know a woman who drops her child off at her mother’s house in the morning and picks him up in the evening. She’s been looking for house help but hasn’t been able to find a suitable fit for her family. She spends too much time at work to properly vet all the candidates her colleagues, friends and family have been recommending.

Her evenings are spent being a wife and mother, with all the responsibility that being a wife and mother entails – especially for a woman who doesn’t have another woman to help her cook, clean and care for the men in her life. Her weekends are dedicated to running the errands she was unable to complete during the week. And this is not unusual.

I know another woman who has put her child in the care of her own mother, permanently. She is a single, working mother who cannot afford to hire someone to care for the child while she works. Another woman is expecting her second child in about the same number of years. She must now comply with an employment policy that prohibits mothers from taking paid maternity leave if their children are born within three years of each other.

Heavy with child, she will work until only two weeks remain to her due date. She says she may consider staying out of work permanently, instead of the 90 unpaid days her employer is offering. That way she won’t have to ‘balance work and family’ by returning to the office before her three months are through, just so she can earn a pay cheque.

Having a job and having a family should be mutually exclusive for women who don’t have help. But working women with families defy the odds every single day, somehow managing to exert their influence on two spheres at the same time.

A woman’s work

That, however, is the way of the world. It is difficult to start a conversation about gender roles in 2013 without being tripped up by how things have always been. As ludicrous as it may sound to feminists, in the East African context, a woman’s primary role is in the home. Even the uppity women, those who deem themselves competent enough to join the men in the employment trenches, must understand that their first responsibility is to their husband and children. So a balance must be found, but ultimately, it’s between two jobs, one of which is thankless. And unpaid.

I’m not suggesting that women should be paid to bear children and take care of them. I am suggesting that men should step up and, at the very least, carry their own weight. Over the years, women have proven that they can compete in the workplace – it’s about time men helped out in the home.

Some may consider that a hard line, radical feminist approach. It’s not. Raising a family – birthing them, feeding them, washing them, comforting them, advising them, ferrying them around, healing them, disciplining them – is not the kind of challenge that anyone should take on unsupported. Partnership is, after all, what marriage is all about, is it not? How then did we arrive at these traditional gender roles that may as well have been cast in the same stone as the Ten Commandments?

Who turned the beautiful and beneficial union of a man and a woman into such a lopsided, imbalance of power? My guess? A man. But then, that would really be hard line, and radical, and feminist.

Believe it or not, there is a movement that identifies itself as ‘fun feminism’. Rather than railing against the male machine, by seeking to balance the scales, fun feminists focus on the individual rights of women, including the right to choose to be a worker/mother/wife. Where radical feminism can be hostile, fun feminism is conciliatory. For a fun feminist, men are not the enemy. The focus is not on the war between the sexes – it’s on managing the fallout. Fun feminism adds a veneer of finesse to radical feminism’s ragged and raw approach. It has been criticised however for empowering women to sacrifice their morals on the altar of sexual liberty, because anything sexy must be fun, surely.

On a final note, I came across this little gem on Twitter: “There is something wrong with grown men who eat minced meat. Again women who have ‘mama mboga’ cut for them ‘sukuma wiki’ are sick.” That is the worldview of many a man in Africa, reduced down to its very essence. Hilarious.