“I am a superwoman, businesswoman, a boss, street sweeper, politician, leader, farmer, pastoralist, market vendors, a sex worker but above all I am a woman, mother, wife, and a got to female. I can balance work (career) and home without any of them suffering. I can do it all.” These are some of the expectations of how and what a superwoman should behave like and or act like? We are told women are natural multitaskers, women are naturally strong and can take whatever comes their way, but can they or patriarchal situations force them to?
Unlocking Economic Opportunities
There is a growing debate globally and in the Africa region, on what is the biggest obstacle to achieving gender equality between poverty and culture. While most of the programs addressing gender equality focus on the culture and traditions as the main cause of inequality, there is a new growing outlook on addressing gender inequality through economic empowerment. Unlocking economic opportunities seems to be the new key to women’s empowerment both socially and politically. However, unlocking economic opportunities comes with more responsibilities for women than for men. There are more programs and campaigns encouraging women to engage in income-generating activities, do more than unpaid work, and household chores. Stay at home wives are encouraged to engage in other income-generating activities than just cooking or cleaning, farmers are being told to do more than just depend on farming, the same story to middle-income groups, street sweepers, market vendors, bus drivers, and almost every class or type of female group. Women and girls are in all types of financial group savings.
Putting things in perspective, going by the 2016 Tanzania Demographic and Health Survey report, women still own fewer properties (assets) including land compared to men. Men aged 15-49 are slightly more likely to own a house (41 per cent) or land (37 per cent), either alone or jointly compared to women (38 per cent and 34 per cent, respectively). Unlike women, men are more likely to be sole than joint owners of either asset; 33 percent of men own a house alone, and 30 per cent own land alone compared to only 9 per cent of women who own a house or land alone.
What does the data say?
Why is economic empowerment important? Because economically independent women are more likely to make decisions at home, about their career path, their bodies, health, leave an abusive relationship and/or marriage, engage in politics and or leadership platforms compared to less economically empowered women. Therefore, there are more benefits to being economically independent than the opposite. Women and girls are now grabbing all the economic opportunities they can lay their hands on, women are trying to be everything. Women are trying to do it all and have it all. To celebrate women and their achievement in the economic contribution platforms, women who do it all have the recognition names that somehow makes them feel important, powerful, and appreciated by their communities. Women are somehow trying to get rid of the patriarchal gender stereotypes of men, the providers and women the homemakers. Now that women are in both spheres (private and public spheres) terms like superwoman is becoming normal. They are glorified names and terms that put women at the financial and material contributor platform, a platform that traditionally belongs to men. It feels good, right? And powerful, right? Who does not want to feel good and powerful, we all do at some point in our lives.
Let us talk about the superwoman concept. Who is a superwoman? I spoke to different people (men and women) and more importantly, I listened to the famous Tanzania women all-stars song Superwoman released in March 2020, a beautiful and danceable song, and it came at the right time during the International Women’s day celebrations. I believe the intention was to celebrate women and their contributions both at home and in the public sphere. It was a song aimed at showing women can do it all and achieve it all. But who is a superwoman? What are the qualities of a superhero person? What do the narratives of heroism represent? How is it represented to a popular group? Women are not a homogeneous group, how does the narrative fit into heterogeneity? How can women and girls as a heterogeneity group maintain their superwomanness? These are questions that cannot be answered by one size fits all responses, because women are not a homogeneous group, they think differently, want different things, have different priorities, and their routes are defined differently.
Hard Fought Progress
It is important to understand that it is just recently when women were allowed to enter the paid workforce, traditionally women were homemakers, while men were the providers. Women fought their way to engage in the marketplace, be allowed to go to school, and be employed. Women had too many battles to fight during that time, and they had to choose their battles carefully. As a group of the female nation, women are different even in their fight, number, and level of battles they choose to fight. Therefore, some wanted to fight the overall patriarchal structural inequalities and systems that perpetuated inequality and discrimination against women, that gave women a lesser level compared to men, that looked at girl child as property and sexual object that than a full-fledged human being with all rights to be protected and respected, the right to seat on the table and air her views, the right to work in decent conditions and be paid for what she contributes, the right to marry when she chooses to and not be defined by her marital status and or the number of children she has or cannot have. There are those who opted for a safer landing by not dismantling the system, because they had a lot to lose if the system (patriarchal system) fought back or just the timing wasn’t right.
Women maintained the homes and their careers, it was safer to prove you can be both, it was important not to scare the patriarchal unequal traditional system and definition of womanhood and roles that come with being a woman. Fast forward years later, there have been campaigns and programs on gender equality fighting for women’s and girls’ rights. Gender equality has become an important concept. Feminism became an important part of it but a scary one too. It was a scary term for the patriarchal system because feminism wanted to dismantle the overall system that discriminated against women and girls. That’s not an easy task or fight to engage, it comes with a price sometimes too high to handle, and probably needed re-organization, and enough voice to send a clear message of what was needed by women regardless of their differences and heterogeneity nature.
A Facade Of Equality
With gender equality campaigns and programs, women are celebrated or rather part of women are celebrated. There are definitions of success and what women of substance looks and or sounds like. The new neo-liberal form of patriarchy has succeeded to co-opt the women’s agenda and focus on rehabilitating the patriarchy system. Women are still doing more domestic and care work compared to men. Women are still more represented in the informal sector compared to men, the majority of women still engage in agricultural production but do not own the benefit, decide on the market, and or price compared to their male counterparts. The neoliberal capitalist system that exploits both poor men and women, has managed to redefine the women’s economic, social, and political empowerment.
Women are doing more to prove their superwomanness, they are expected to contribute financially and materially at the home-front while expected to continue doing household chores and remain 100 per cent homemakers. Men, on the other hand, have very little moved the needle, they have maintained the masculinity gender roles. It is still considered a taboo in most parts of Tanzania for men to take care of children, cook, clean, or do household chores. Campaigns on men engaging at home must craft their messages very carefully to massage patriarchal and not bruise the men’s manhood, but campaigns on women doing more are loud and clear. Men are also putting out their priorities of what they are looking for, a material superwoman, enough to contribute materially but remain submissive.
Patriarchy Dig Deep
Women have mastered the art of being superwoman, doing it all, maintaining the home, being exemplary wives and mothers. Being strong but not too strong to scare the patriarchal system, be independent but not too independent, make money but not too much to scare men who have little, become whatever they want to become but not become too powerful, use whatever to maintain the patriarchal system that favours and benefits men over women. Women are invited to sit on a table with men but are careful not to forget their place as women. They are expected to walk on eggshells, not challenge the system that treats their seat as a gift that can be taken away if they are not submissive enough. The layers of struggle and oppression of women hide behind the superwoman concept. As economic empowerment campaigns get serious, the fight against exploitative culture and the patriarchal system needs to be in check. Economic empowerment is not enough if systems are still determined by patriarchal rules. That is why there are women who are economically empowered but still not able to make decisions about their lives. Patriarchy digs deep beyond currency and needs to be uprooted. Poverty is brutal and intensifies inequalities, but the two need to be tackled at per without leaving the other out.
I have so much respect for women and girls, they are doing a lot, feeding the nation, and maintaining the nation’s sanity. But they need to ensure they are not breaking their back to prove they can be all and have it all, after all, they are just human like their counterparts. As much as we celebrate women and what they do, we need to have conversations on who we are talking about? And what the labels mean to women and girls without turning them into robots to feed the patriarchal notion. It is important that women understand that it is okay to make mistakes, it is okay not to have it all, it is okay not be everywhere. By the way, why do women need to prove so much, when men don’t, men can remain the invisible provider, and still assume the providers, why do women need to do a lot to prove they are superwomen?
Mary Ndaro is a gender and development specialist with experience in the development sector with focus on gender. She can be reached at Mary.Ndaro@care.org. This is the writer’s opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Chanzo Initiative.