Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Minor Correction by a Feminist in Ghana

Recently, browsing volunteer blogs, I came across a friend discussing feminism in Ghana. More specifically, she addressed the misplacement of Western feminism in the developing world. Her focus fell on a well-worn phrase those of us in Ghana use: “Women work, while the men follow the shade of a nearby tree.” Having shared some scattered discussion and a common interest in women’s studies, I was eager to hear her well-read opinion.


As she touched on the problem of over-generalization, the application of condescending and biased Western definitions, I began to feel a tinge of uncertainty. Having recently written a blog discussing my experiences as an (American) feminist in Ghana, I felt slightly insecure. Had I fallen into the category of an over-generalizing, biased, and patronizing observer? I was thus inspired to take a step back and make an honest assessment of my self-titled ‘feminist’ observations in Ghana and that is the topic of today’s discussion.

My first concession comes in the form of admittance: I, too, have fallen into the trap of arrogantly over-generalizing. It’s hard to forget that blanket definitions are unfair. To claim that all Ghanaian men lazily follow the shade of a tree isn’t any truer than saying all Americans are rich. If I can react with offense to this assumption, then I should be more careful with my own. No doubt, some of my observations will stand – sometimes being a woman in the developing world, not just Ghana, can be heartbreaking, but I’m willing to bet I have a few things to correct. I may be controversial, but I’m not a complete tosser 

Though it may have a role, to assume patrilineal inclination stems solely from religion is an obvious mistake to make. As an anthropologist, Kristi pointed out that most gender roles (including the distribution of work) are based on traditional roles and expectations. They’re neither born out of sexism nor easily changed; this is especially true in towns and villages, like mine, that rely on a pastoral lifestyle. My observation of shade-following men may be accurate sometimes, but I should give credit where it’s due – women have a vastly different role from the men and one that’s easier for me to observe. It would be an oversight to imply that all Ghanaian men are lazy, even if I have doubts about a certain few. This brings us to correction number one: As a rule, Ghanaians are hard-working; they’re simply a different kind of ‘hard working’ than I’m used to. This means my expectations should change, as should my definition of feminism.

Now, I won’t go so far as to say that traditional definitions don’t clash with feminist ones and create sexism in their wake. I have experienced this phenomenon, myself, and it stems from the attempt to stick a square peg into a circular hole. It’s a clash of the cultural titans, one that finds root in the refusal to incorporate the new with the old (and vice versa). Feminism in its own right can be applied anywhere successfully, as long as we understand that its application must be unique to that culture. As much as I’d like to see Ghana turn into a Little America, I have to understand that it may not be possible (which, in turn, may not be a bad thing as long as it finds the right kind of feminism for Ghana).

This is where I often see a lot of tension; indeed, I mentioned it in terms of reconciling tradition and modernization. What I see is the attempt to drop a cookie-cutter onto Ghana, which never works (and, quite frankly, shouldn’t be the goal). This is also where you get phrases like ‘following the shade,’ which really do nothing more than undermine a majority of Ghanaians and any progress they make. Of course, nothing’s perfect. It isn’t ethnocentric or demeaning to point out inequalities as long as it’s done respectfully.

For instance:

1.) It’s more likely a male child will be picked to go to school if a family can only afford to fund one education, but children of both genders are often taken out of class to help with farming during rainy season. What we see here isn’t just a problem with gender, but how people view education as a whole.

2.) It’s true that in Kayayo, more young girls and women find themselves in dangerous/compromising situations, but it’s also true that all Kayayo run up against risks (including diseases, poverty, theft, and natural disasters). So we see that it isn’t just an issue of gender, but an issue regarding the opportunities available to those living in the poorer regions of Ghana.

3.) There are a lot of school girls who find themselves pregnant at a young age, sometimes it’s even expected. Though I find inquiries into my own non-existent children (and the reason for their non-existence) to be amusing, it’s still not an issue centered in gender and feminism. There’s also the issue of education and parenting. It comes down to a life very different from one I'm used to, with very different expectations.

All of these things end up being multi-faceted. Like people, they can’t be simplified and, though I didn’t necessarily mean to, I’m guilty of over-generalization and simplification of the issues. This doesn’t mean that gender problems don’t exist in Ghana – I absolutely had a conversation with a man who was, quite literally, angry at me for engaging in manual labor; I do see men drinking before seven in the morning (with what is, undoubtedly, the same money their wives need to buy food); I have been accosted more than once (and harassed more than that) by men who think I should be subservient. I’m not disagreeing with my previous statement regarding feminism’s place in Ghana, but I realize that I may have hasty in my critique. I forgot, for a second, that the world is made up of individuals and, though it’s easy to fall into generalizations, someone in my position should be more careful.

Aside from hoping this makes sense to more people than me, I wanted to thank Kristi. She brought some faults to my attention and, in the true sense of the word, managed to remain unbiased and fair in her assessment. As for me, I'll follow her lead.

Like I said before, I'll rattle the cage patiently.
xx