Mozambican Women: Know Your Place (Hint: It’s not in the hardware shop)

Up until last week, I had been having some difficulty hanging up a mosquito net in my room. I had resorted to using duct tape to hold it to the wall behind my bed.

(Wasn’t that just the most exciting start to a post, like, EVER?! Hold on to your hats, it’s only going to get crazier…)

But the duct tape just didn’t work. I was waking up every night at four in the morning looking like this….

pug in blanket
FML.

So whilst on a walking tour of a Baixa I took the opportunity to ask the guide where I would find a ferragem (hardware shop) in that part of town.

He gave me a quizzical look but dutifully showed me to the right shop where I proceeded to ask the broadly grinning attendant for a hammer and nails.

Hmmmmm…. Was it just me or was everyone (every MAN) in the shop smiling at me?

Oh yeah…I have ovaries and you don’t. Well spotted!

sacastic well done

As I paid for my purchase, my very polite tour guide quietly inquired as to what I actually planned to do with the hammer and nails. I explained they weren’t just for looking at, nor was I going to artfully arrange them in my room, channeling that highly sort-after, utility-chic style. No, I was actually going to HANG SOMETHING FROM THE WALL with them.

He looked aghast. I had obviously confirmed his worst fears.

“In Mozambique women don’t use hammers.” He said, shaking his head and looking immensely worried.

“Do you know how to use a hammer? They can be dangerous, you know. You can hit your fingers if you’re not careful… Why don’t you get a man to do it?”

sexist ad 11
Is this really my life now?

I reassured him that I would be fine and explained that I had done it before and hadn’t hurt myself.

As sexism goes, it was a pretty mild encounter, and the look of utter confusion on the poor guy’s face was amusing to say the least. But it was also a reminder of how far attitudes towards women still need to change here.

I think it’s fair to say that, rightly or wrongly, most people in the West would not generally associate the word ‘feminism’ with ‘Africa’…

So it may be surprising for some to learn that when Mozambique finally achieved independence from the “over-sexed”, women-hating, Catholic Portuguese on 25th June 1975, it had what can only be described as a ‘Feminist Moment’.

feminist moment

Oh yes, Mozambique’s Marxist-Leninist leadership wasted no time in declaring gender equality in their newly independent nation. After all, FRELIMO had come to power famously assisted by platoons of female soldiers and activists such as Josina Machel.

josina
Radical activist, feminist, soldier and all round heroine.

As Samora Machel declaimed (I’m told he did a lot of that) in his speech opening the first Conference of Mozambican Women in 1973:

“The liberation of women is not an act of charity. It is not the result of a humanitarian or compassionate position. It is a fundamental necessity for the Revolution, a guarantee of its continuity, and a condition for its success.”

Adeus Portugal, Adeus Misogyny! Thou shalt not be missed….

….But remember I called it a ‘Feminist Moment‘? Unfortunately, the party ended pretty swiftly.

In fact, following the tragic death of Machel in 1986 and as Mozambique sank into yet another bloody conflict, the nation’s feminist agenda which had inspired such hope in so many Mozambican women was gradually forgotten.

That being said, my experience so far of Maputo has been overwhelmingly positive and women seem much freer here than in many other capital cities in this part of the world, walking around alone, drinking and smoking in public, driving, going out with friends, playing cards in public….

However, I have to say that over the past three weeks I have experienced more casual sexism than I have at any other time in my life (which just goes to show how privileged women are in the West), and it is a culture shock though perhaps not that shocking a one. I hasten to add that none of it, bar the hammer incident, has been directed at me, perhaps because as a foreigner the same rules just don’t apply.

Classroom Sexism:

  • When a teacher elicited a sentence from the class in Portuguese in order to explain a grammar point, the boy sitting next to me called out “A Maria fica grávida” (Maria got pregnant). Clever.
  • When discussing in class the best age for a woman to get married:  “25 is the best age for a women to get married because she is still fertile and can have plenty of babies, whilst also being young enough to look after them and keep the house clean” was one young man’s response. Well, he’s not wrong.
  • The fact that boys out number girls 8 – 1 and this is in Arts and Humanities…( I mean WTF?!)

However, I have also encountered sexist attitudes outside the classroom…

  • Being forbidden from entering the library whilst wearing jeans and a pretty modest vest top. Apparently my shoulders really offend some of the books in there.
  • Being told, by a friend of Ika’s that if women listened to their gut instinct more, there would be less rape……………………………………………………………..

Alice-facepalm

There is also the ongoing debate about the length of school girls’ skirts: to summarize, several weeks ago a group of women who were going to put on a short play outside their local school in order to raise awareness of the rampant sexism and sexual abuse of girls in schools here were arrested for inappropriate behavior in public. They were protesting the fact that school girls’ skirts have been lengthened once again in order to discourage sexual abuse. The police took issue with this and shot at and then arrested them. (I guess if you’re already dead when they arrest you, they don’t need to waste time doing the whole hand-cuff/’You have the right to remain silent’ rigmarole….)

Anyway, this story has had the whole of Maputo up in arms, most of all because of the attitude of the police, one of whom was heard saying “Why don’t you just go back to the machamba” to some of the women.

Machamba is the vegetable patch traditional tended by women, so I guess it’s the Mozambican way of saying “Get back in the kitchen, you slag.”

But then again, the fact that people are talking discussing the issues is brilliant. Perhaps Mozambique is on the verge of another ‘Feminist Moment’… I just hope it lasts a little longer this time.

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Back to the machamba with you, you SHREW!

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