Tanzania: Public Transport And Gendered Implications Of Disaster
Salma Maoulidi writes that Tanzania has witnessed in the past week significant events in the country and region, which on the face of it may not appear related to her ongoing discussions on women and the constitution.
However, from the president’s meeting with Islamic religious leaders, to the untimely death of Wambui Otieno-Mbugua, to the sinking of the ship off the coast of north Unguja, there is much to say about how these events make a more realistic discussion on women as subjects of the new constitution pertinent.
Let us begin with the horrific maritime tragedy off the cost of Nungwi this weekend. Over 200 people have thus far been confirmed dead and many more are believed to be trapped in the sunken ship. Amazingly, about 600 people survived the tragedy, many clinging on cargo such as mattresses and doors that could float.
We know that more women died or were injured than were men. Also, most of the dead are women and young children. We do not yet have an indication whether most of the dead are male or female children. For some reason government and media sources have decided to lump children in a single sexless category, such that it has been hard to appreciate which population of children were most affected in terms of sex, age, ability and even class.
The high female toll is not new. This was also the case when MV Fatih capsized while trying to dock at Malindi Port hardly three years ago. It was also the case when MV Bukoba sunk some 15 years ago. The question should be why do more women perish than men? There are several explanations which all have policy implications.
Many times women do not travel alone. They may travel with young children and carry a lot of hand luggage as a result. Also, women are commonly seated in areas of the ship that put them at greater risk of being trapped in the event of an emergency. Because men are freer when they travel they often sit on the deck where it is easy for them to see or overhear any suspicious development and thus have a greater opportunity to prepare themselves for the worst, while women are caught unawares.
The different testimonies from emergency crews that responded to the distress call, as well as those of male survivors, indicate that a high number of children died during two critical stages of the rescue. The first stage was when people were scrambling out of the sinking boat to save themselves. The second instance was when rescue crews had arrived and people were trying to get out of the water into the rescue vessels. Both the men who survived the ordeal and the rescue teams reveal that many children were trampled upon or drowned as adult men tried to save themselves.
It will not be surprising to conclude that a high proportion of women also drowned as they tried to help or calm panicked children. Those of us who have been taught to swim know a cardinal rule is not to attempt to rescue a panicked swimmer or someone who does not know how to swim, especially in deep waters. The chances are that you will both go down. Those experienced in life saving are even known to knock unconscious someone they are attempting to save in a bid to save both of their lives.
But how many women know this? How can they know basic survival tips when social and religious conventions are keen to regulate women’s movements, interests and visibility? When I was growing up, male and female children in my neighbourhood all went to the beach and most of us were taught to swim by our parents or older siblings. We swam and did many other things together without a care in the world that I was female and they were male. As young girls and adolescents developed into young women many opted to swim early in the morning when the men were at the mosque for the dawn prayers. But they swam and some would still swim in the late afternoon if they felt like it.
I have, however, noticed in the last two decades or so that most young girls can’t swim because it has suddenly become taboo for women and women’s bodies to be seen in public. Thus the majority of daughters of people I grew up with and swam with can’t swim, not because they don’t want them to, but because of what the children are fed in schools and religious schools. The preoccupation to cover women’s bodies means that most women can’t engage in sporting activities, let alone some attires putting them at risk of strangulation or being drowned.
One of my friends for example has been crippled after her long head cover got hooked in a revolving tyre as she was riding on the back of a motorcycle. As her head cover became entangled in the tyre she was thrown off the seat without her driver’s knowledge. She had been dragged some meters before passersby alerted the driver about his passenger’s fate. Of course the driver did not have a clue about the extra risk women face while riding on the back of a moving vehicle owing to their dress or manner of riding.
Why is all of this relevant to the debates on constitutional protection for women, and more so when arguments invoking cultural and religious sanctity are invoked? It is clear that while some Muslim leaders may be pressurising the president and political opinion to agree to the application of Islamic law as understood by them, an interpretation of law that is not remotely gender responsive, they are oblivious to the realities that make the application of such rules problematic.
Religious leaders and self-styled cultural authorities may argue about male supremacy and men being heads of households and societies but they fail to question if men live up to their supposed supremacy on the basis of sexual superiority. The incident in Pemba, at the Malindi Port and in Bukoba demonstrate that when it matters, most men neither protect nor priortise women. Rather, their impulses are to self-preservation, even when they are in a position to assist other humans in far greater need who may be physically or socially weaker, including their own children.
If this is our lived experience and the actual reality how can we maintain the notion of 'rijal' and 'qawama' i.e. protectors and maintenance of women as a persuasive argument to maintain the status quo as something preordained; something that is religiously, morally and ethically desirable? What do religious teachers who rap about ahadith that urges men to save first their mothers before anyone else have to say about the total disregard these men have shown when choosing to save their lives instead of those of their mothers?
Of course this is just one instance where one expected men to take care of their own and fulfill their divine obligation to take care of charges, since this purportedly is what justifies their superiority under religious doctrine. We have not begun discussing how many men actually fulfill the most basic of their obligations in the home among their female charges and towards their children. Men are quick to evade responsibility, citing difficult economic conditions or their individual circumstances and in most cases there is no sanction to check their irresponsibility or the dereliction of their obligations and responsibilities since doing so will upset the status quo.
How is Wambui-Otieno Mbugua relevant to this discussion? Wambui exemplifies what it means to stand up for what she believes regardless of restrictive political, social or cultural dictates. In her eight decade long struggle, first as a daughter and fighter under colonial Kenya and during post-independence Kenya as a wife, mother and activist, Wambui challenged her society and its value system which were unhelpful to the realisation of gender equity and equality. For example, Wambui defied social norms by marrying outside of her ethnic group and later outside of the age group that would have been expected of her.
By her defiance Wambui shook the political establishment in all its forms. Although judges and legislators paid little attention to her legal challenges against gender injustice, choosing instead to maintain the status quo, they finally had to take notice and some of her key demands were taken up during the Kenya constitutional debates. Next week I will explore what made Wambui Otieno-Mbugua such an inspiration to women human rights activists in Africa. As we mourn her loss, I urge Tanzanian women and women across Africa to learn a thing or two about devoting one’s life in struggle to secure and realize individual and women’s human rights in the public and private sphere.