Monday, March 28, 2011

Here Comes My Girl: A Feminist in Ghana

Feminism in Ghana is a subject I've wanted to talk about for quite a while, but wasn't sure how to approach without sounding culturally insensitive, angry, or both. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of great changes occuring that I'm lucky to be able to witness, but feminism still has a very long way to go - even for one of the most advanced countries in Africa.

I may be a woman living in Ghana, but I'm also a white, American woman. There's no doubt in my mind that I'm given a lot more consideration because of these two facts. I can only imagine what it's like to be a Ghanaian woman so, naturally, I'm inclined to constantly observe. Of course, being that I am, above all things, equipped with a xx chromosome, I am offered an array of experiences, myself (which I will get to momentarily).

Historically, Ghana is considered matrilineal because it's largest ruling tribe, the Ashanti, follows a matrilineal tradition. As one moves away from the Ashanti region, however, it becomes clear that the rest of Ghana (like most of the world) is patrilineally inclined. It seems that, over time, as the influence of Christianity and Islam grew over Traditionalism, so did the 'culture of man.' Since I am almost as far north as one can get, its safe to say that my experience, being the feminist that I am, has been akin to time travel.

The issue of gender equality exists somewhere in-between the rush toward modernization and a desire to keep with very strong cultural traditions. This causes a great amount of tension because it means challenging a lot of long-standing beliefs tied mostly to religion. Unlike America, Ghana hasn't had ninety years of practice between 'serve thy husband' and equal rights. It's clear that women, and Ghana as a whole, very much want to move forward - they're ready to embrace the kinds of opportunities that come with change - but it's hard for women to define a more 'modern self' within the context of their traditional roles (sound familiar?). Add to this the fact that some men can be threatened by such movements and you end up getting a petri-dish teeming with activity.

I can only speak for myself, of course, but speak, I will:

As a rule, female volunteers recieve marriage proposals almost daily. In the very least, Ghanaians are simply curious about our personal lives, and generally they mean no harm. But there is always at least one person who is legitimately concerned that, at my age, I remain unmarried and without children. Many young girls in Ghana get pregnant before they finish high school, sometimes sooner ... so it seems odd to them that, even though I'm not married, I don't have at least one child waiting for me back home. Small girls becoming pregnant is almost an expected occurance, which makes it a lot harder to motivate parents in rural areas to combat what they consider inevitable.

When I tell people that I neither want to be married, nor am I ready to have children, I get anything from confusion to outright anger and it's always implied that there must be something wrong with me for being perfectly satisfied on my own. They usually insist on offering their services (only half-jokingly) and so far, I have collected so many potential husbands (and possible impregnations) that if I found myself in a pickle, I'd have my pick of the litter!

I recently spoke with a male volunteer about gender relations and, being a teacher, he mentioned a girl he was attempting to encourage back into school, into anything really. Her response each time was to laugh it off, while her mother explained that all she need to do was pray for God to bring her a man she could marry. They were more concerned with her ability to wash clothes, than the fact that an education was a great thing to have as well as a husband.

In America we have the luxury of education and the option to marry, we get to enjoy both - the ability to pursue our passions and tap into our potential without settling or neglecting our desire to be loved. In Ghana, women aren't expected to go very far in school - at a certain age it becomes more important to perfect their house-making skills. Sometimes, a woman will be expected to test her baby-making skills; it's not unusual for a man to get his girlfriend pregnant before marrying her just to make sure she can have children. (Of course, if the couple doesn't get married, she's left with an illigitimate child, and can face problems in her next relationship.) Sometimes very little love exists, the arrangement is strictly an endeavor for procreation, and cheating is rampant.

Divorce is very, very unlikely, but if it does occur, it leaves a woman with barely anything. In the even of a divorce, she leaves the house with exactly what she came with. In very traditional communities it's likely she'll never see her children again, her husband gets sole custody and (culturally) his new wife becomes their only mother. Sometimes, when a disagreement or fall-out occurs between husband and wife, he finds a new one. In my experience, this leaves the shunned wife cut-off from his monetary support and leads to a strained existence between her and the new wife. 

In my village the men and women are farmers by profession. I see the women work all day, all year round, juggling their time between house-hold duties, the children (which includes all children within the household, not just their birth-children), and undertaking any side-projects that will bring them extra income. A few of the men work full-time for the state, but for the most part the most I see a man do during dry season is to follow the shade of the tree he's sleeping/drinking/playing games under. Sometimes it's really hard for me to observe the disparity, to see their general indifference in supporting their wives endeavors. With no job to speak of and a 'healthy' appetite for the local alcohol, I often wonder if the money their wives work so hard to procure is their main source of funds.

With as much as the women work, there are very specific ideas that go along with that work. When I was painting my world map, I received confirmation from a local painter that he would help me do the work for the price of a lunch. We settled on the following week, but Monday came around and my painter did not ... Tuesday came around and my painter did not ... Wednesday came around and I biked to Bolga, bought a few large brushes and a roller (the supplies he originally agreed to provide), and set to work painting the wall myself. It took a few days to finish, but I was able to lay the ground-work ... and attract a little attention while I was at it.

I was told by my neighbor that labor is a man's job. More than once in the span of a week. It became clear to me that my inclusion into that world offended him, so I told him that I'd wanted to paint the wall, that I'd enjoyed doing the work, and that I'd had asked a man to do the work with me, but he'd never come ... still, he couldn't accept that, instead of paying someone to do it for me (I am white, after all), I had finished the work on my own. His justification for his disbelief was that I was weaker, so I should stay in the house and hire a man. Because that's the way it is. I told him that I didn't mind bending the rule (it's what I'm here to do, after all). We then had a lengthy conversation about feminism, women's roles, and equality - you can't imagine how much I enjoyed that conversation, considering its unexpected cause. Of course, it's not always enjoyable.

His resistance was, in-part, playful and he was willing to have a discussion in the first place; sometimes my interactions are unpleasant, almost aggressive. Most men are cordial - being a volunteer, I tend to attract a lot of attention - but being a female can get me into a lot of uncomfortable situations, despite my 'visitor' status. Heading projects in a male-dominated society can be difficult when the people I'm trying to advise don't consider my opinion informed or useful. My degree doesn't change a thing, even if I'm in a room full of people with high school degrees.

Though I'm not unused to being considered a sexual object in America, I'm very unused to being seen as little else. I've have had to bite my tongue more than once when comments strayed beyond the realm of 'appropriate.' An example? One man, having spotted me in a car next to his, proceeded to tell me he would like to drive me to Sherigu to visit my house (this normally isn't unusual); he then proceeded to tell me he expected privacy when he came into my room. He was not playing coy - he likened me to a prostitute and there wasn't much I could do about it besides denying his request. I've run into my fair share of Ghanaian men who are personally insulted when I don't give them my phone number upon request (or stop at their hissing, for that matter). Most times it's easy to brush off (or quickly peddle past), but it's an issue that's currently on the brain. I've spent my life in an existence of freedom and power that many women in Ghana will never encounter. It motivates me to work toward change.

America is far from perfect, feminism still has a place, even if it's met with dislike, at worst distain. In some ways, being that I focused on women's history in school, I'm glad the role of feminism in Ghana is new and legitimate. It's still considered important and useful, which allows me to actively focus on the things I find interesting and important. There are men and women, alike, in America who think we've somehow managed to solve gender issues, that feminism is outdated and useless. Though I'm met with an entirely different kind of resistance here, it's nice to be surrounded by active motivation, rather than toleration - at least there's a reason for resistance in Ghana. America has no real excuse for the way it regards feminism.

Sometimes it's extremely frustrating to be patient, to realize that it will take time for Ghana - and Africa - to change. It can be challenging to be considered less in worth than I am, to be demoted to a second-class citizen simply because I sport different equiptment.

This is why my time here is a journey - for everyone. We are all learning. I think, in the end, my neighbors have begun to appreciate my insistance to do things on my own; they often comment on my strength and my ability. I get to have conversations about gender with people who consider my views foreign, but are willing to consider them. It's a step in the right direction. Most importantly, my presence here is enough to dispel a number of traditional gender myths, I have the potential to inspire a lot of young girls and boys (women and men) to change the system.

If there's anything I'm willing to do, it's rattle the cage. I just have to settle for doing it patiently.