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 (2000), 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 critique.
High order thinking
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 women activists.
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 election.
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 scrutiny.
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.
Seizing the new moment
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 gain.
It is 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 note 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