Rwandan Women's Liberation: Nationalism Versus Social Liberation
While exploring Rwanda’s alternative experience of women’s emancipation, Grace Kwinjeh outlines the potential conflict between nationalism and social liberation within many post-colonial African nations.
For some time now it has been argued that the failure of the nationalist movements to effectively accord women their rights leading to their full emancipation has been because the nationalist model is rooted in patriarchal notions of power and liberation. Post-colonial regimes adopted governance systems that were based on the double pillars of militarism and repression. They did not have an agenda for the total liberation of their citizens but instead sought to fit into the colonial masters’ shoes, creating a new black elite at the bidding of the former colonial power. What for example Zimbabwean cynics would say of the country's liberation, and of Robert Mugabe in particular, is that the country simply moved from a 'white Smith' to a 'black Smith'. Or better still the relationship that existed between the former Rwandan government of Juvénal Habyarimana and the French administration.
Fulfilling Frantz Fanon's prophecy: ‘In its beginnings, the national bourgeoisie of the colonial country identifies itself with the decadence of the West. We need not think that it is jumping ahead; it is in fact beginning at the end.’ What academic Horace Campbell goes on to describe as the exhausted patriarchal model of liberation: ‘Instead of liberation becoming the foundation of a new social order, the militarist and masculinist leadership turned the victory of the people into a never ending nightmare of direct and structural violence.’ A nightmare for Rwanda that led to the slaughter in 1994 of over a million of her people.
It is in this context that I would like to link the gains made by Rwandan women and men in the last parliamentary elections vis-à-vis women's emancipation, and their promotion to positions of power and decision-making against the country's post-colonial history of repression and exclusion in an attempt to substantiate the nexus between a political system in place, governance and women's emancipation. These are interlinked; an anti-democratic system will not allow popular participation, in most instances women are left out. Consequently, one can risk the argument that it is the political system that determines the mode of governance and ultimately women's emancipation.
Nationalist models promoted a two stage approach to liberation, the first being to gain political power, usually by men, then everything else which included women's liberation would follow. A model that has been challenged by Rwanda.
Feminist Patricia Chogugudza writes of liberation movements after independence: ‘Yet feminist critics argue that at the end of the struggle, women's status actually fell as nationalist leaders and nationalist-oriented societies, in the quest of preserving tradition, expected women to be guardians of culture and respectability, or mistresses of the emerging ruling elites, or wives and mothers, recruiters for political parties, and labourers for the new market economy, while men were engaged in competition for political power in the state and the accumulation of wealth.’
Rwanda's liberation model, from the struggle for democracy, leading to the phase of the post genocide reconstruction efforts was instead based on equal participation of the sexes, in combat and the eventual power sharing with a clear visibility of women at the helm different sectors of society. Women who carried the gun such as retired Lieutenant Colonel Rose Kabuya and others did not evaporate into political oblivion as their other struggling ex-combatant sisters did; instead they have been there at the helm, the success of which can be counted in the recent parliamentary election results.
In response to the election result in which Rwandan women now constitute 56.25% of the lower chamber of parliament, some critics claim the ascent of Rwandan women is through the coincidental misfortune of more men having died during the genocide, therefore women dominate in the country's demographics.
I would not want to go into statistics of female or male casualties during Africa's liberation struggle, though it can be argued with certainty that there were more male than female casualties, perhaps skewering the demographics in favour of women, but that did not change the prevailing context of power relations based on male dominance. To date in most countries women have higher populations than men but will come out in droves to vote for men, remain marginalised and under represented in decision-making positions all as a result of the patriarchal nature of the societies they operate under; the result of political systems that will not allow fundamental changes to the status quo of power underpinning male privilege.
Chogugudza continues: ‘Zimbabwean women, like their counterparts in Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau, joined the armed struggle. Their hope was that with the revolution, gender equality would be certain.’
Taking me back to my earlier argument that the magic potion for women is in the political system in place. For the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), a liberation movement taking over power from a black government in a world that hardly understands black on black violence, the biggest challenge was to start building a system based on basic human values. That included an overhaul of the political culture of one party dominance; for instance all parties that contest elections are represented in government, fostering a spirit of multi-party democracy.
The RPF had to distinguish itself from the politics of the past despotism and apartheid as illustrated in Andrew Wallis’s Silent Accomplice: The Untold Story of France's Role in the Rwandan Genocide: ‘The Rwandan president, the Hutu Juvénal Habyarimana, who had seized power back in 1973, had continued an 'apartheid' system that all but banned Tutsis from working in the army, civil service and professional jobs.’ The relationship between Habyarimana and the French government explained in the book makes but an apt fulfillment of Fanon's prophesy: ‘It is already senile before it has come to know the petulance, the fearlessness, or the will to succeed of youth.’
A political senility quite apparent in gender relations based on a system that viewed women as second class citizens; they had no access to education or proper health care (a preserve of the elite women), they could not own land and inheritance was through a male member of the family. All this through fundamental legislative changes is a thing of the past. Women now queue up for land title deeds! Thus, my argument that a political system in place will by and large determine the role and positioning of women. The more democratic and open a system the more gains for women in that society; only a system that works for total liberation can achieve this.
* Grace Kwinjeh is the managing editor of The New Times.