The debate Malawian women are having about gender and the
political space is painful to watch, but it raises one question. Can this
debate prove to be a turning point in the way Malawians discuss gender and
politics? Regardless of how you answer this question, the challenge
for men who don’t take gender as a matter of national importance, and women who
don’t believe in the existence of patriarchy, is to respect the women engaged
in the debate, and learn from them.
The most important lesson to have emerged out of the current
discussion is that the women are holding an open debate about women’s role in
leadership without men dictating the terms of the debate. The debate is a practical application of
feminism. It demonstrates that women can be free to disagree with President
Joyce Banda, and can avoid falling into the uncritical position that they
should vote for a president on the simplistic basis that she is a woman.
Rather, the decision as to whether or not to vote for President Banda, as
Jessie Kabwila and Seodi White argue, should be based on what she achieves for
the empowerment of Malawian and African women.
This is a high order level of thinking, lacking in most
debates Malawians have around our male presidents. As bell hooks (famous for
preferring small letters and no capital letter in her name) writes in her book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center
no other social justice movement has been as self-critical as the feminist
movement. She adds that internal critique is critical to any political transformation.
In my humble opinion, Malawian women are currently engaged in such an internal
Since this debate started some weeks ago, I have heard from
several women who disagree with Jessie Kabwila and Seodi White, the two
feminists leading the argument about the need to vote based on achievement and
not uncritical sisterhood. The point here is that the women who express the
disagreement are themselves practising exactly the kind of critical analysis
that Kabwila and White are calling for. These women are refusing to
uncritically follow Kabwila and White on the simplistic basis that Kabwila and
White are fellow women and therefore should not be criticised.
The intriguing thing is that some of the women I have heard
criticising Kabwila and White are not doing it with the consciousness that they
are in fact enhancing the terms of the debate and thereby helping change the
way we conduct national discourse in this country. Some of them are expressing
the criticism because they do find it objectionable that women activists are
criticising a fellow woman occupying Malawi’s highest office.
Others are criticising Kabwila and Kapasula on the basis of
political partisanship, seeing the criticism against President Banda as
criticism aimed at their political party. A considerable number of women are
worried about the tone set by Kabwila and White, seeing it as unnecessarily
harsh and uncomfortably confrontational. Yet others are voicing their criticism
for reasons of the very patriarchy that Kabwila and White are famed for waging
battle against. It is not uncommon to hear women disavow the feminist label,
drawing a distinction between a feminist and a woman activist.
The reason why some women are feeling scandalised and
fatigued by the conduct of the debate is itself rooted in the very patriarchy
Kabwila and White work hard to end. As the feminist saying goes, “well-behaved
women seldom make history.” This saying should not be misunderstood to mean
that women should be aiming at making history for the sake of it. Rather, it
should signal to us the pressure many women feel to appear “well-behaved” in a
society which defines women’s behaviour on men’s terms. This is the point that
was picked up on by Kabwila and White from what President Joyce Banda said in
her Nkhata Bay speech about the questionable marital status of some Malawian
The need for more
women candidates in 2014
It is a pity that thus far President Joyce Banda is the only
woman candidate in a field that is increasingly likely to be male-dominated, as
it has always been. This is where the question being debated by the Malawian
women activists comes in. It is a classic dilemma that has divided electorates
across the world and across history: reducing the premise for choosing a
candidate to a banal factor. In 1994, a lot of Malawians were reduced to this
premise when they said “Bola wakuba yemweyo”, in reference to then-UDF
presidential candidate Bakili Muluzi. In the 2004 presidential elections in the
United States many Americans used the expression “Anybody but Bush”. In both
elections, it was the candidate presented as the baser choice that won the
My personal preference for 2014 is to vote for a woman
president. But there needs to be more women standing, otherwise the choice
becomes constrained in the manner highlighted by this debate. This is not to
say President Banda has no redeeming grace worthy people’s votes. A lot of international
commentators are failing to understand why there seem to be two Joyce Bandas:
the Joyce Banda causing so much debate and controversy within Malawi, and the
Joyce Banda who has won the hearts of the rest of the world.
Presidency Banda’s ascendancy to the highest office happened
at a time when Malawians were collectively re-evaluating their expectations of
what Malawian leadership ought to achieve for ordinary Malawians. At the heart
of that re-evaluation has been the question of whether the leadership this
country has had since independence has been the key reason why development has
been too sluggish. Add to that the problems in the economy and increasing
socio-economic inequality between the tiny wealthy elites and the rest of us,
President Banda’s presidency has been subjected to unprecedented levels of
In the early days of her presidency Dr. Joyce Banda sought
to demonstrate a remarkable closeness to ordinary people, cutting a motherly
figure with a strong African woman ethos. It persuaded some Malawians, and a
lot of foreign observers, but not Malawian chauvinists, who were unable to
imagine a woman taking charge while espousing the ethos of an African woman.
Some observers detect a shift from the feminist ethos to a masculine tone that
seeks to rival the streetwise machinations of her predecessors. The more she
has resorted to that style, the louder the criticism has become.
But the ascendancy of President Banda to Malawi’s highest office
can be argued to be a fruit of the gradual shift in gains from the feminist and
the women’s movements. Not because of the manner in which her predecessor
vacated office, but because the occasion found her poised to assume the role.
Despite his inner contradictions, the late Bingu wa Mutharika knew about the
importance of women’s empowerment, even if he pursued it for his own political
undeniable that Joyce Banda’s presidency has excited the echelons of women‘s
leadership globally. Women leaders around the globe are organising themselves and
planning to use her presidency as a turning point for how development is
defined and delivered. This is a not conspiracy, but rather a serendipitous
moment when Malawians and Africans are re-inventing the notion of development
toward a more grassroots-oriented understanding of empowerment.
There are lessons to be learned from this debate. It is time
Malawian men learned to respect women’s ways of debating, and to refrain from
wanting to dictate the terms of those debates. To those men who are dismissing
the debate as typical of women’s bickering, and to those women who are feeling
embarrassed by the debate, take not that Malawian feminism is coming of age.
In the words of bell hooks (2000), “And even though trashing
feminism has become commonplace, the reality remains: everyone has benefitted
from the cultural revolutions put in place by contemporary feminist movement.
It has changed how we see work, how we work, and how we love.”
Note: A shorter version of this article appeared in the Malawi News of Saturday 14th September, 2013