Starting two years ago, the Thomson Reuters Foundation launched TrustLaw, “a global hub for free legal assistance and news and information on good governance and women’s rights.” One of the major parts of TrustLaw is TrustLaw Women. Monday’s TrustLaw Women ran, as its major piece, a curious squib under the headline, “Five things you didn’t know about women’s status in ‘traditional’ Africa.” I know. The heart sinks at “you”, sinks further at “didn’t know”, and then plunges to unfathomable depths at the invocation of “‘traditional’ Africa.” And while some will exclaim that the square quotes around ‘traditional’ suggest irony, that’s not enough.
The five “things” are elderly women peacemakers and negotiators; women rulers and heads of states; women warriors and soldiers (“including Queen Amina”); women legislators and adjudicators of both State and Market; and, finally, independent women who had access to easy and cheap divorce.
The article’s author Alex Whiting mentions, in passing, that colonialism and Christianity opposed these various forms of women’s formal autonomy and power.
It would be too easy to lambast the piece for its ‘traditional’ Western National Geographic golly-gee tone, especially in the absence of any news hook for the piece, other than to inform ‘us’, ‘you’, that African women did stuff … once. And some still do.
But there’s something else going on, a missed opportunity. Whiting relies on four sources for her ‘things’: UNESCO documents from 2003, another one from 2005; an on-line ‘historical museum’; and a scholarly journal article from 1972. Scholars, analysts, activists, artists and just plain folk have been sharing this information for decades. But apparently only with one another.
So, thanks to Alex Whiting for pointing out the silence and the noise concerning “women in ‘traditional’ Africa.” What the TrustLaw article misses, however, is the action agenda of its own sources. Almost each piece Whiting references argues, urgently, that the structures of women’s power are not ephemera we can only see in the mists of some African Brigadoon. Women have struggled to preserve and adapt those structures. They are here, now. Not knowing that ‘thing’ is not due to a lack of resources, but rather to a political economy of violent exclusion.
For example, in one of the pieces, the authors Kimani Njogu and Elizabeth Orchardson-Mazrui ask, “Can culture contribute to women’s empowerment?” Their answer is yes. While their immediate focus is the Great Lakes region, their point is broader. Sustainable development and ‘progress’ can only occur as part of “working through communities instead of against them.” “‘Traditional’ African women” are not bereft of either knowledge or power. Their empowerment cannot begin by denying them their history, including their very present forms of power and knowledge.
That’s not about ‘traditional’ women, and it’s not about ‘modern’ women. That’s about ‘you’ and the “things you don’t know.”