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19 March 2020 | Story Opinion article by Prof Hussein Solomon | Photo Supplied
Hussein Soloman
Prof Hussein Solomon, Senior Professor: Political Studies and Goverance

The world celebrated International Women’s Day on 8th March 2020. Such symbolic days, however, seem to have little effect on the actual status of women in the world as a recent United Nations report notes. Despite strides towards greater gender equality, the world body notes there is not a single country which has achieved gender equality. Moreover, 90 percent of men and women hold some bias against females. The statistics are alarming: 50 percent of men thought they had more rights to a job than women, and a third of respondents in 75 countries felt it was acceptable for men to hit women. In China, 55 percent of respondents felt that men make better political figures. Even in what used to be regarded as the bastion of liberal democracy, the USA, 39 percent agreed with the statement that men make better political leaders than women.

Participation of women in the labour force

Disappointing as these figures are, there is hope if one considers how patriarchy is being overcome in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. It is here where patriarchy first developed between 3100 B.C and 600 B.C. It is also the region which has experienced the least gender progress in the world. The figures are incontrovertible. Given the widely held view that women belong in the domestic sphere focusing on keeping house and child-rearing, there are low rates of participation of women in the labour force. Only 24 percent of women in the MENA region are employed, whilst the figure for their male counterparts is 77 percent.  Moreover, according to a report of the International Labour Organization, young women with higher education have a slim chance of entering employment than their less-educated male counterparts. This has negative consequences for the household economy and the economy at large, and it perpetuates greater dependence male family members (husbands, fathers, brothers) -patriarchy, built as it is on vertical power relations, is further entrenched.

The absence of women in positions of power is glaring in the MENA region, as is their absence in governance which is made possible by patriarchal attitudes.  According to the Arab Barometer the majority of respondents believe in limiting the role of women in society. Within the home, 60 percent believe that the husband should be the final decision maker in matters impacting the family. Moreover, only a third of the Arab public believe that women are as effective as men in public leadership roles.

Resisting marginalisation

Whilst the marginalization and oppression of women is a sad truism of MENA countries, this should not be the norm. Patriarchy was constructed and can be deconstructed. The challenge for feminists then is to actively resist their marginalization in conjunction with other progressive players and to utilize the tectonic changes underway in the Middle East – from the penetration of the internet, to making common cause with progressive forces in society to open up the democratic space. Democratic space in this sense does not only mean the fight for the ballot but also emancipation in every sense – including freedom from patriarchy. There is reason to believe that some of this is beginning to happen in the region.  Consider, for instance, how Morocco’s rural women in an effort to access land from conservative tribal authorities, formed action committees called Sulaliyyates. These challenged tribal authorities and women’s subordination in the family and the work place.

There is reason to believe that women’s experiences in mobilizing against authoritarian regimes in the region have resulted in a new consciousness on their part. They see the connection between their own oppression and the need for emancipation of the broader society. When women took to the streets against Al-Bashir in Sudan it was their awareness of how fuel shortages and inflation brought on by corrupt and inefficient governance were increasing household food security. Following the July 2019 agreement between the military junta and the alliance of opposition parties, there was an effort to force women back into the home to play their “traditional” roles. However, women have remained politically engaged and mobilised – decrying everything from the persistence of sexual harassment to demanding the prosecutions of those involved in wrong-doing from the Bashir era.

Social justice and gender equality

Women activists are also pushing back on the streets of Tehran, Ankara and Algiers. In Tehran, women’s’ grassroot movements are calling on Islamic Republic to fulfil their promises of social justice and gender equality. Their resistance to patriarchy has taken the form of disobedience, refusal, and subversion. Initially their activism sought to reform the rule of the mullahs within the prevailing system spurred on by a reformist president – President Khatami - who demonstrated greater receptivity to gender equality. In the past two years women’s groups in Iran increasingly called for the end of Iran’s post-1979 system of governance as they view such theocracy as antithetical to the cause of gender emancipation. In Ankara, feminists have taken on domestic violence by forming the Purple Roof Women’s Shelter Foundation in an effort to collectively fight abuse in the family.

Meanwhile, in Algiers, women have been at the forefront of the protest movement against the establishment or what Algerians term a “Le Pouvoir” – the cabal of generals, businessmen and politicians of the ruling party which govern this North African country. For 19-year old Miriam Saoud, it was seeing the back of this political elite that impoverished ordinary Algerians through their corrupt practices. For 22-year old political science student Amina Djouadi, it was about real political representation for male and female citizens. Whilst the presence of this younger generation of women makes sense given the fact that half of Algeria’s population is below thirty years of age, who bear the brunt of unemployment - older women have also been on the Algerian streets. Elderly Nissa Imad was also on the streets protesting. All five of her children are unemployed. Explaining her presence against the barricades she defiantly states, “I am here for the young, for our kids. There’s nothing for the young generations. No jobs and no houses. They can’t get married. We want this whole system to go”. It is clear from the narratives of these women that they see the connection between their daily lived experiences of disempowerment and marginalization, and the broader structural causes, and therefore are actively seeking the end of the patriarchal and oppressive political and economic order.

Changing attitudes

Despite the MENA region having the largest gender gap of all regions in the world, there is hope too. Attitudes are changing and becoming less patriarchal - the Arab Barometer starkly demonstrates this, where 75 percent in the MENA region support women’s access to tertiary education, 84 percent believe that women should be allowed to work in the labour force, whilst 62 percent believe that women should be allowed into political office. What accounts for these progressive attitudes? First, there seems to be a generational divide with younger people (which comprise the majority in the MENA region) holding less patriarchal views. Second, with access to tertiary education, those holding post-secondary qualifications are less discriminatory in their attitudes than those without post-school qualifications. The momentum for a post-patriarchal MENA region is therefore increasing.

This article was written by Prof Hussein Solomon, Senior Professor: Political Studies and Goverance 

News Archive

Media: Sunday Times
2006-05-20

Sunday Times, 4 June 2006

True leadership may mean admitting disunity
 

In this edited extract from the inaugural King Moshoeshoe Memorial Lecture at the University of the Free State, Professor Njabulo S Ndebele explores the leadership challenges facing South Africa

RECENT events have created a sense that we are undergoing a serious crisis of leadership in our new democracy. An increasing number of highly intelligent, sensitive and committed South Africans, across class, racial and cultural spectrums, confess to feeling uncertain and vulnerable as never before since 1994.

When indomitable optimists confess to having a sense of things unhinging, the misery of anxiety spreads. We have the sense that events are spiralling out of control and that no one among the leadership of the country seems to have a definitive handle on things.

There can be nothing more debilitating than a generalised and undefined sense of anxiety in the body politic. It breeds conspiracies and fear.

There is an impression that a very complex society has developed, in the last few years, a rather simple, centralised governance mechanism in the hope that delivery can be better and more quickly driven. The complexity of governance then gets located within a single structure of authority rather than in the devolved structures envisaged in the Constitution, which should interact with one another continuously, and in response to their specific settings, to achieve defined goals. Collapse in a single structure of authority, because there is no robust backup, can be catastrophic.

The autonomy of devolved structures presents itself as an impediment only when visionary cohesion collapses. Where such cohesion is strong, the impediment is only illusory, particularly when it encourages healthy competition, for example, among the provinces, or where a province develops a character that is not necessarily autonomous politically but rather distinctive and a special source of regional pride. Such competition brings vibrancy to the country. It does not necessarily challenge the centre.

Devolved autonomy is vital in the interests of sustainable governance. The failure of various structures to actualise their constitutionally defined roles should not be attributed to the failure of the prescribed governance mechanism. It is too early to say that what we have has not worked. The only viable corrective will be in our ability to be robust in identifying the problems and dealing with them concertedly.

We have never had social cohesion in South Africa — certainly not since the Natives’ Land Act of 1913. What we definitely have had over the decades is a mobilising vision. Could it be that the mobilising vision, mistaken for social cohesion, is cracking under the weight of the reality and extent of social reconstruction, and that the legitimate framework for debating these problems is collapsing? If that is so, are we witnessing a cumulative failure of leadership?

I am making a descriptive rather than an evaluative inquiry. I do not believe that there is any single entity to be blamed. It is simply that we may be a country in search of another line of approach. What will it be?

I would like to suggest two avenues of approach — an inclusive model and a counter-intuitive model of leadership.

In an inclusive approach, leadership is exercised not only by those who have been put in some position of power to steer an organisation or institution. Leadership is what all of us do when we express, sincerely, our deepest feelings and thoughts; when we do our work, whatever it is, with passion and integrity.

Counter-intuitive leadership lies in the ability of leaders to read a problematic situation, assess probable outcomes and then recognise that those outcomes will only compound the problem. Genuine leadership, in this sense, requires going against probability in seeking unexpected outcomes. That’s what happened when we avoided a civil war and ended up with an “unexpected” democracy.

Right now, we may very well hear desperate calls for unity, when the counter-intuitive imperative would be to acknowledge disunity. A declaration of unity where it manifestly does not appear to exist will fail to reassure.

Many within the “broad alliance” might have the view that the mobilising vision of old may have transformed into a strategy of executive steering with a disposition towards an expectation of compliance. No matter how compelling the reasons for that tendency, it may be seen as part of a cumulative process in which popular notions of democratic governance are apparently undermined and devalued; and where public uncertainty in the midst of seeming crisis induces fear which could freeze public thinking at a time when more voices ought to be heard.

Could it be that part of the problem is that we are unable to deal with the notion of opposition? We are horrified that any of us could be seen to have become “the opposition”. The word has been demonised. In reality, it is time we began to anticipate the arrival of a moment when there is no longer a single, overwhelmingly dominant political force as is currently the case. Such is the course of history. The measure of the maturity of the current political environment will be in how it can create conditions that anticipate that moment rather than seek to prevent it. We see here once more the essential creativity of the counter-intuitive imperative.

This is the formidable challenge of a popular post-apartheid political movement. Can it conceptually anticipate a future when it is no longer overwhelmingly in control, in the form in which it is currently, and resist, counter-intuitively, the temptation to prevent such an eventuality? Successfully resisting such an option would enable its current vision and its ultimate legacy to our country to manifest in different articulations, which then contend for social influence. In this way, the vision never really dies; it simply evolves into higher, more complex forms of itself. Consider the metaphor of flying ants replicating the ant community by establishing new ones.

We may certainly experience the meaning of comradeship differently, where we will now have “comrades on the other side”.

Any political movement that imagines itself as a perpetual entity should look at the compelling evidence of history. Few movements have survived those defining moments when they should have been more elastic, and that because they were not, did not live to see the next day.

I believe we may have reached a moment not fundamentally different from the sobering, yet uplifting and vision-making, nation-building realities that led to Kempton Park in the early ’90s. The difference between then and now is that the black majority is not facing white compatriots across the negotiating table. Rather, it is facing itself: perhaps really for the first time since 1994. Could we apply to ourselves the same degree of inventiveness and rigorous negotiation we displayed leading up to the adoption or our Constitution?

This is not a time for repeating old platitudes. It is the time, once more, for vision.

In the total scheme of things, the outcome could be as disastrous as it could be formative and uplifting, setting in place the conditions for a true renaissance that could be sustained for generations to come.

Ndebele is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town and author of the novel The Cry of Winnie Mandela

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