13
Mar
10

international women’s day – continued but abridged

I had been expecting the festivities to rumble on into the night for International Women’s Day, but Aristide, our Project Coordinator, explained to me that the women absolutely had to get home by seven or eight p.m. He said it was to avoid trouble. My first thought: okay, it’s a bit unruly here, maybe not safe for women on the streets after dark with so much beer already consumed. But Aristide, with the help of the female staff, explained differently: The problem is that if they didn’t get back by then, there’ll be trouble at home.

‘8 mars’ is synonymous with female emancipation…for a day. The thinking is, women get their day and men will put up with it to an extent. So men will tolerate the “desordre” of ‘8 mars’ for a while. They’ll let the cries for equality and female empowerment ring out as long as they stay on the street. They’ll permit the dancing and parading as a necessary antagonism, so long as the women come back home and remember to cook dinner. So women who stay out a little too long, who drink a little too much on 8 mars are pushing it – they’re taking the whole liberation idea a bit too far. If they “se vengent” against men that way and if they try to repay the men for the other 364 days of inequality, then there would be hell to pay the night of ‘8 mars’. Better for the women to return home early and show their obedience to existing power structures – on this, both sides generally agree – “saving face” takes on a very literal meaning. So while ‘8 mars’ is a daylong party for women, it’s also a node for the paradoxical nature of women’s rights in the Congo, both its celebration and its negation.

I’m especially curious about the bellicose tone of these conversations. Of course, many discussions about gender roles and the sexes take on some edge of competitiveness, but I consistently sense that it takes on the dimension of a combat here. Women are either up or down, have to be shown their place or beaten back. Men have to show their dominance, must always be superior and they really are in control anyway but they talk as if their place is forever in doubt in this familiar contest. This is strange. Women remain overwhelmingly the principal victims in conflicts all over the world. In the Congo, it’s spawned a new vocabulary of inhumanity. Has the international community so inundated eastern Congo (and the world generally) with rhetoric about women’s empowerment that there is a defensive backlash from men? Probably, but that wouldn’t be a problem if real solutions to promote women’s livelihoods accompanied the flashy posters. More on this point another time, I think.

The next day, I gathered the staff to talk about the previous day’s events and what it meant to them. Inevitably, we talked about notions of respect and equality, women’s progress in obtaining rights such as inheritance in the DRC and the evolution of a women’s role in a family or a couple. It’s so interesting – I feel like we make a lot of progress. The men are at times disenchanted, at times threatened, at times just flummoxed. I was really impressed by how even-handed the women’s arguments were – not at all in line with the fervor of the day before and not based on some UNIFEM slogan. It sometimes makes me think there isn’t really a dialogue going on, not yet. The men, maybe out of politeness to me, clearly had things they wanted to say but always found some quirky way of framing their real thoughts to make us all laugh. Right before I returned to Bujumbura, one of them said, “Yes, of course we respect women, but sometimes they are just so proud (orgueilleuses)!”

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