I took a few weeks ruminating what the struggle for gender equality should look like in Swaziland. When I finally settled on an idea I wasn’t sure how to bring a seemingly esoteric argument to what is usually a rational discussion.
My idea percolated clearly in my mind; women must reclaim their being-ness if we are to move any further in the struggle for gender equality. “Being-ness” is defined as “the act or state of being. Being is more than just existing. Being is who we are at the very core of life, the way we were created, established and called to live. Who we are before being influenced by family history, economics, personality conflicts, consequences of choices made, or pressures we have allowed others to place of us such as culture and religion.”
I believe that our intrinsic being-ness is what will push us closer towards a more gender equal society.
We all know that no two struggles for freedom can ever look the same or follow the same timeline. I think it is common cause too, seeing how things have unfolded thus far, that the struggle in Swaziland will not be won by shouting meaningless slogans.
We are also unlikely to see a mass uprising anytime soon. If anything, it appears to me that the Swazi struggle is quieter, a spiritual one even.
So how does a ‘quiet’ revolution unfold? How, for example, do you tell grown women that their world-view and belief system is incorrect? How do you tell them most of what their mothers, fathers and grandparents told them about themselves was limiting?
Adults like me will know how difficult it is to kick a habit. It is even harder to change a way of thinking deeply ingrained in your subconscious mind since childhood.
Perhaps, this explains why the struggle for gender equality has failed to galvanise mass support in the country.
My favourite quote on gender equality is by the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela where she demonstrates just how deep the programming of patriarchy goes. Says Madikizela-Mandela:
“The overwhelming majority of women accept patriarchy unquestioningly and even protect it, working out the resultant frustrations not against men but against themselves in their competition for men as sons, lovers and husbands. Traditionally the violated wife bides her time and off-loads her built- in aggression on her daughter-in-law. So men dominate women through the agency of women themselves.”
I weep at these truths.
In this article I hope to use the inspirational words of Winnie Mandela to argue why every woman in Swaziland, and Africa at large, can make gender equality their lived everyday reality.
Nature is about equilibrium. We can immediately see in nature when there is an imbalance. A decrease in the population of bees, for example, leads to increased food insecurity.
This is because humans need bees for pollination which in turn allows us to have food. Humans too are part of this equilibrium. Gender equality is but an important part of this balance.
Part of nature’s imbalance is caused by how we have exerted ourselves on this planet. In the human world, however, this imbalance is caused by patriarchy.
For the uninitiated, patriarchy is a philosophy and social order that privileges males to the exclusion of women. It permeates all structures of society mainly through mainstream religion, tradition, culture and ultimately politics, education and business. In a society like Swaziland, culture and religion is an important tool that props up patriarchy.
This gender imbalance has resulted in disintegrating families, weak communities, poor economies, increase in poverty, disease, war and violence.
It is increasingly clear that the task to restore a balance at all levels of society now rests with women themselves. This is in no way to suggest the removal of men or their complete replacement as leaders. If anything, I posit that women must work with men as equal partners in complimentary roles, balancing what has become toxic masculinity with feminine energy.
The struggle for gender equality in most of Africa, Swaziland in particular, has been academic and mostly led by a few women in academia or non-governmental organisations.
There are off course pockets of women trying to organise a true mass movement, but generally a majority of them are hostile to the idea of a struggle for gender equality in its true revolutionary sense.
Women will support calls for better maternity services or to end gender based violence but will not support wholesale transformation of society.
As children, we grow up in societies that prescribed for us what we should accept as normal. Society imposed limits of how far we must change hence this half-hearted attempts at fighting for a gender revolution. Only once we get exposed to an alternative worldview do we start questioning our known existence and by extension aspire for far reaching change.
Having spent my primary school years in Swaziland, I had nothing but reverence for the way our society was organised. Being a patriarchal Kingdom rich in culture made me feel special. I saw nothing wrong with this until I got to university and studied history and politics.
I had of course grown up in apartheid South Africa so I also understood clearly the struggle to assert my blackness at the same time my womanhood.
Curiously, I began to have interest in knowing the forgotten history of our cultures and spirituality in part to validate my full worth in my blackness and my female gender. I got to learn that Africans had their own spiritual practices before the advent of Christianity and Islam. As recent as 170 years ago, Swazis saw God and divinity expressed in both genders who enjoyed equal status.
Even traditionally, we paid equal respect to women in leadership. To demonstrate this, the structure of the Monarchy is to this day still dual. There can be no King without a Queen Mother. The Queen Mother is therefore the co-ruler of the kingdom.
That is why in instances where a King dies the Queen Regent takes over. The mother of the King rules until the crown Prince comes of age. Further, the crown prince cannot be a King until he has married wives from particular clans.
There are a few other important national rituals that require a woman for them to be done properly. Important among these being the Reed Dance and Incwala. This underscores how historically and culturally we have always bestowed power and reverence to both women and men.
Spirituality has always been central, and in it women have always participated as healers, diviners and mediums. This is true of Swaziland as it is of other African countries. This illustrates that even spiritually we have never discriminated based on gender. In African history and culture, healers and diviners are powerful and held in high regard.
In our case, the male divinity, Mlentengamunye, had his female counterpart, Lomkhumbulwane. The erasure of the female divinity occurred only in the last 170 years. For a long time our spiritual medium was through both sexes. How then do we restore this important women-man duality to equal status and power?
To do so allow me to use a summarised version of lessons we can pick from the life of my paternal grandmother. She lived from 1924 to 2013. May her soul rest in peace.
When I think back to my grandmother’s life, I see how she was, wittingly or unwittingly, rebellious to the cultural and religious norms of her time. First, she had two husbands, something she was never ashamed to say. Most rural women of her time never remarried once they lost a husband, whether through death or any other circumstance.
If they did, it was almost always dictated by some cultural norm such as being forced to marry the brother of her deceased husband (known as kungena). Swazi culture regarded women as minors who could not make their own decisions regarding family structures hence the idea of passing them on to be wives to the brothers of their late husbands.
My grandmother straddled culture and her Catholic religion seamlessly. I remember her quipping a few times that Jesus warned that he “did not come to separate you from your way of life and cultures…” or something like that.
I wouldn’t know the exact wording of the verse because I long rejected religion even though I grew up Catholic. My grandmother, however, saw no contradiction in her religious and cultural inclinations. She prayed to both her Ancestors and God.
She also practiced indigenous ways of healing. She had intimate knowledge of traditional medicine that she administered to us from a young age. It always worked.
My grandmother’s second husband was a very gentle, good looking and learned Mozambican. For her time this was revolutionary because Swazis looked down on Mozambicans who had fled civil war in their country.
A proud and respectable woman with a larger than life personality, my grandmother would probably not have wanted to marry from a tribe or people considered of a lesser stature. But she did. Not only that, she built her marital home not far from her parental homestead. To this day this is still seen as a cultural faux pas.
In our culture a woman must marry and go and live with her husband far from her parental homestead. Not my grandmother. She and her husband set up a store and lived a comfortable life as both a farmer and business woman.
I too was inspired by my grandmother to become an entrepreneur. It was on a visit to her that she asked me to assist her prepare a mixture of botanical ingredients to apply to her hair. She would apply this mix to her hair every two weeks.
This mix made her hair look long and beautiful. I longed for her soft afro. Nobody knew my grandmother’s hair because like all rural, and especially married women, she covered it in a head scarf. Talking of headscarf, she was the first to educate me that it was not inherently an ‘African’ tradition.
I got to learn that covering our heads was introduced when Christianity (and other foreign religions alike) spread to Africa. In our culture, she told me, married women wore their hair in a big oval shaped afro known as sicholo. Sadly, swazi women today have lost knowledge on how to grow their hair into huge afros naturally.
If anything, they wear hats that resemble their hair as an indication they are married. However, on a day-to-day basis, rural women cover their heads in a doek. My grandmother did this too but maintained her beautiful natural hair underneath.
I like to think she did so to balance up being proudly African, without wanting to raise too many eyebrows within the community.
When I was at university I would visit my grandmother during holidays. Together with my grandfather, they always listened to the radio and read newspapers religiously.
They discussed politics and the state of the economy in hushed tones. She was the first to give me insight into how rural folk in Swaziland know or understand democracy. She told me that Swaziland was a peaceful country with no violence or strife like other African nations.
Rural folk were brainwashed to fear democracy and revere their Kingdom. That was the narrative used to indoctrinate everyone using the only media they had access to; the government owned radio and newspaper services.
They were made to have a very narrow conceptualisation of democracy and violence. Everyday they were told to treasure our peace.
Ironically, Swaziland is now mired in both overt and subtly violence as shown by the lived experience of so many women. Their lived reality is daily beating and the prevalence of a violent kind of poverty. I wonder what she would say to this now.
I am not sure how the government media spins this reality. This is also not to suggest that urban folk with all information on their smartphones favour democracy.
My grandmother did not set out to be rebellious, she lived in a way that was true to her being. She wanted to be happy. She never tried to influence other women to be any other way but the way they chose. But she influenced the more than ten granddaughters she had.
In instances where others would advise their granddaughters to remain in unhappy marriages, she encouraged us to leave such marriages. She never shamed any of us for having children outside of marriage or pressured those without children to have them.
She never pressured us to be married to qualify as happy and ‘whole’ women. This had a profound effect on us. Today her grandchildren grew up to be free, independent, outspoken and fiercely against the constraints of patriarchy. Her being-ness taught us to know and honour our being.
The majority of women tend to misunderstand, misinterpret and even reject feminism because they have not understood how it applies to their daily life as my grandmother did. That is why to this day, the biggest accomplishment a woman in highly patriarchal society can achieve is marriage. In turn this has left the struggle for gender equality to the conscience of our male counterparts.
They are then expected to decide how much control they want to exert over us. That is why the biggest accomplishment a woman in a highly patriarchal society can hope for is marriage. Accomplished author and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie long warned us about this.
She cautions that there was nothing inherently wrong with marriage as an institution as long as it did not become the standard to measure a woman’s self-worth.
By the same logic, I too have nothing against religion as long it is not used to euthanize women’s pain or justify their subjugation. This is what the story of my grandmother teaches us all.
Men were once providers and protectors in their patriarchal structures. Fast forward to today and you you have men that have transformed into murderers, rapists and beaters of their wives and children.
As more women are forced into difficult ways to feed themselves and their children, they remember the strength and ability they were born with as sovereign beings that have only been thumbed down by patriarchy.
As poverty, disease and an inept government persist, women will have to reconnect with the being-ness at first just to survive and then to thrive and lead. Women must find equilibrium within themselves again and force men to find their equilibrium so together they build and lead communities and societies based on equality, fairness and love.
If the resulting post-colonial Africa is to teach us anything, then we should learn that, as Frans Fanon rightly observed, Africa is a mess because the struggle was outward looking for the black man.
Africans did not process their worthiness. Centuries of slavery, domination, coupled with the erasure of our history has left us feeling unworthy, a deep unworthiness that requires planned and consistent effort to reverse.
Consequently this unworthiness plays itself out to this day as tribalism, sexism, classism and every other –ism you can think of. With this we drift further away from the equal gender balance the Universe requires. Importantly, we go further away from the African values that our ancestors bequeathed to us.
In the case of Swaziland, the absolute Monarchy complicates women’s lives even more. This is because the institution oppresses not just women but strips the freedoms of everyone.
If this is our reality then we must perhaps accept that the struggle for gender equality will most likely have to be one that touches the hearts and minds of women in a way that is not seen as “foreign”. It has to start at an individual level where women reclaim themselves and then teach their daughters to reclaim themselves too.
Very soon this consciousness will spread like wild fire and no force will be able to stop it.
Ntombenhle is a businesswoman and founder of Afrobotanics. She writes in her personal capacity