Women belong in the mainstream

I DON’T care very much for affirmative action, but I acknowledge that in certain circumstances, it is the only way for social justice to be realised.

Agreeing to disagree with Delta Milayo Ndou.

There is, however, the possibility of creating a false consciousness within the women’s movement if all we preoccupy ourselves with is creating so-called “safe spaces” and resolutely remaining confined in them. Some months ago, I thought about the existence of women’s wings or leagues within political parties and wondered whether these formations confined women to merely occupy the periphery of mainstream discourse, engagement and participation in the political sphere.

Why the need to have a “special” club to talk about “women’s issues” if we can all begin from the premise that women’s rights are basically human rights? Perhaps, what we need is not so much exclusionary conclaves, but rather mainstreaming of issues that have been obscured by the gender-blind approach that has dominated policy formulation and implementation?

It is well and good for women to set themselves apart and clearly define the issues that they want addressed within their political parties, but these separatist approaches are ineffectual in changing any status quo.

It has often been said that the best way to transform an entity is to transform it from within because it is difficult to impact it from without.

Women in political parties need to begin penetrating the ideological centres of their parties because those closest to the ideological centre inevitably become the most favourable individuals to stand as party representatives.

In fact, I would like to boldly recommend that they do away with the paddock of a “women’s wing” because it invariably serves the purpose of creating a “safe” space for women in politics while also removing them from the political core of their parties.

That old adage about how when we build walls to keep ourselves “safe”, we’re also building the same walls to keep ourselves “entrapped” might best explain my feelings of ambivalence. Women need to get into the mainstream instead of creating parallel structures where their voices, interests and agendas are confined.

And the truth is, it takes merit to get and stay in the mainstream. All the positive discrimination (also known as affirmative action) in the world will not change the nature of political parties if women do not claim spaces within the mainstream rather than settling on the “fringes” of women’s formations.

While, positive discrimination can succeed in fast-tracking women into positions of influence — as is the case with the 60 senate seats reserved for women — it cannot fundamentally change the hostile political terrain that necessitated such a drastic undertaking in the first place. Indiscriminately placing someone into Senate just because of the body parts they possess is downright silly, but it is the kind of silliness that points to the absurd nature of our politics where the lack of male body parts is automatically used to disqualify competent females who aspire for political office.

We cannot counter this sort of discrimination by imposing female candidates at every turn and hoping that the presence of more women will automatically translate into a paradigm shift — because it won’t.

We celebrate the women who push beyond barriers and shatter glass ceilings because they serve as living proof that the barriers can be pushed aside and that the glass ceilings can be shattered by those who dare to enter the mainstream and claim the right to be recognised as equals through merit and not through the use of positive discrimination (no matter how noble and just the reasons may be).

Whether it’s in politics, business, economics, industry and other sectors where women have historically played second fiddle — we are often quick to point out the reasons why women have not succeeded.

And usually the reasons are valid; ranging from the internalisation of disempowering social stereotypes on the part of women and girls to the uneven access to the means of production or a limited capacity to create wealth owing to the skewed land and material ownership patterns that exist in Zimbabwe.

We have a reason why women have not made it in vast numbers to the top of whatever field in which there continues to be male domination. In response to these inequalities and to the unjust status quo we apparently default to the convenient crutch of insisting on affirmative action to remedy the situation.

But affirmative action can only achieve so much and it can only be justifiable for so long — at some point it just becomes plain unfair — especially as it is applied in the education sector where the university entrance points tend to be lower for female applicants.

Advocating for preferential treatment on the basis of having been historically confined to a disadvantageous social status must have a sell-by-date because it cannot be a perpetual stance.

It is not a permanent solution although it can be a great interim measure. We are often quick to point out the reasons why women have not succeeded, but perhaps it is time to point out why those women who have succeeded have managed to do so.

If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that the only reason these women succeeded is because they chose to fight for their spaces in the mainstream and whatever victories they claimed within that sphere are victories that could not be taken away from them.

If other women could “duke it out” with their male counterparts in the mainstream (in whatever sector) why are we not looking at these viable female role models and gleaning the very important lessons on self empowerment which their lives typify?

I think women need to join the mainstream more than they need to be confined in “safe spaces”. But that’s just me. I could be wrong. We can always agree to disagree.

Delta Milayo Ndou is a journalist, writer, activist and blogger

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