In recent times, feminist movements have made very strong waves. The ‘Me too’ movement, a movement championed by a formerly abused woman in Hollywood, for example, has left in its wake shattered careers of Hollywood moguls like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein to big politicians like US senator Al Franken, the self-styled giant of the senate, among others. The American society is currently walking a tight rope, a struggle to maintain a balance between on the one hand,totally confronting and hopefully expunging the institutionalized male dominance and sometimes exploitation, especially in high places, without on the other hand putting social relations on ice. Whereas western societies grapple with the repercussions of the ‘Me too’ movement, in Africa, echoes of this new voice of female assertiveness are being heard in local movements like ‘Pepperdem ministries’ in Ghana for example. Beyond organized movements, individual female empowerment and assertiveness is equally on the rise but not without the backlash and generic societal responses from a culturally conservative society like Ghana that is only marginally awakening from its fixation on traditional gender roles. The average Ghanaian seems to equate feminism with man hating, bra burning, lonely, sexless, ugly, bitter and single women who are just out to cause trouble. In this post, I confront the seemingly popular view that feminism is a regressive idea that should be curtailed. I show through the history and successes of feminist movements that on the contrary, feminism is a progressive idea and that, in not so many words, par la Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie “we should all be feminists”. I end by making a case for how and most importantly why law and public policy should bend towards mooring the successes of feminism.
Women’s fight for equal rights, to vote, to be educated and maintain the freedom to make choices concerning their own bodies, has been a generational one transcending race, age and social status. At every turn, shattering glass ceilings have always triggered radical responses from sectors of society that believe in gender superiority. When Emily Murphy had been appointed as a judge in Canada, lawyers refused to appear before her because she was not a person according to the British North America Act. The Alberta Five came together to challenge the constitutionality of this Legislation in what is popularly known as the “Persons Case”. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that women were not “persons” according to the British North America Act and therefore were ineligible for appointment to the Senate. At the Privy Council Lord Chancellor Viscount Sankey asserted that “[t]he exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours…”to those who ask why the word [“person”] should include females, the obvious answer is why should it not”. Canadian women were thus declared persons and eligible to vote and be appointed in the Senate. In Botswana, the provisions in the Citizenship Act which prevented a mother form passing her Botswana citizenship to her child unless the child was born out of wedlock was challenged in the case of Attorney General of Botswana v Unity Dow. The court opined that that the right to liberty had been infringed upon because the provision hampered a woman’s free choice to marry a non-citizen and, in fact, undermined marriage.
Article 17(2) of the Constitution of Ghana, 1992 prohibits the discrimination of persons on grounds of gender, race, color, ethnic origin, religion, creed or social or economic status. It goes on further to define the word“discriminate” for the purposes of the article, as giving different treatment to persons mainly as a result of their race, place of origin, political opinions, color, gender, occupation, religion or creed. Although these provisions are entrenched in the constitution, the general attitude and culture of the society on the rights of women has not often reflected this constitutional view. For instance, in advocating for change in the society’s mindset that girl children should not go to school, the “Girl Child Education” campaign with its catch song “send your girl child to school” was launched by the then First lady, Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings in the 1990s. This was to encourage families to send their girl children to school. Girls, they said, did not “belong” in the kitchen and could also excel if given the chance. Currently, statistics have shown a high number of female enrollments in schools especially for reading related subjects. Although there is still the gender gap in reference the STEM (Science Technology, Engineering & Mathematics subjects) there is progress on that front.
In spite of the steady progress in recent decades, gender discrimination, like an old habit has proven to be difficult to expunge from Ghanaian society. In many ways our society is patriarchal. As a result, the cultural expectations can be suffocating even for both sexes. Society places each in a box in terms of accepted professions, personalities etc and expects every member of the specific sexes to thrive and enjoy the box in which they are placed. Where an individual member of a sex chooses to go against that box of expectations, they are often met with stiff resistance and at times ostracization. Society expects all to thread a fine line. It holds somethings out of bounds for both sexes. For instance, a boy who displays too much emotion in social relations or a woman who decides to de-prioritise family life is said to be acting outside the expected norm. The cultural thread that holds these stereotypes in place are traceable to laws and policies. For example, per Section 98 of the Criminal & Other offences Act, 1960 (Act 29), rape is defined as “the carnal knowledge of a female 16 years and above without her consent”. This automatically excludes a male from being raped per our laws. This provision perhaps is the natural progression of the society’s belief that males are the stronger and aggressive species and are often the ones in pursuit of sexual relations. Again, in Section 26 of the same act, where a wife of an owner of a property consents to the appropriation of that property, it exculpates the accused from liability provided the accused was not aware that the wife did not have the consent of the owner. The question becomes why is this provision framed specifically for “wife” and not “spouse” in general? Is it our society’s belief that women are gullible and more susceptible to deceit?? Does it also imply that women do not, cannot or probably should not own property?
According to Simone de Beauvoir, “the battle of the sexes is not implicit on being man or woman… Enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism”. The strive for our growing society should be such that each person holds their own right of choice according to what they believe suits their needs and for society to provide an enabling environment where each person with their choices thrives and attains happiness. Per the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESDOC), “Gender equity means fairness of treatment for men and women according to their respective needs. This may include equal treatment or treatment that is different but which is considered equivalent in terms of rights, benefits, obligations, and opportunities.” As Professor Michael Eric Dyson puts it, “feminism is not saying women should dominate men, it is simply saying men should not have the last word” especially in matters that affect women primarily.
Women in general have been at the forefront of the fight for gender equality because women are statistically the most disadvantaged sex. In an ideal society, the female gender which statistically makes up 50% of the world’s population and 57.4% and 62.6% of the world’s undergraduate and graduate-level degree holders respectively, should have a resounding voice in the policies and politics of the world. Issues affecting women and girls should be at the forefront of every nation’s policies. Unfortunately, the world we currently live in is anything but ideal and available statistics reiterate the true position of women in the world’s affairs. According to the UN, “Women around the world aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria”. In the work place, even in the most advanced countries, women’s wages average 73 percent of those of men. In Ghana, females make up only 12.5% of the 7th Parliament of the 4th Republic. Putting it differently, there are only 30 women in parliament representing and promoting the views and interests of a gender which forms 51.4% of the nation’s population.Maggie Humm putting it succinctly in the dictionary of feminist theory says “feminism is the ideology of women’s liberation since intrinsic in all its approaches is the belief that women suffer injustice because of our sex”. The fight of feminists is therefore a fight for the equality of all sexes. Duhaime’s law dictionary defines a feminist as “a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes’’.
Moreover, gender advocacy which is the underlying function of feminists of all stripes is tailored toward giving meaning to equality in society. A developing society such as ours should not insist on enforcing stereotypes and discriminatory sentiments. To develop, our society needs advocates to push for the full representation of each member of the society regardless of race, gender and creed. Full involvement of all members means an increased workforce, a nation of well-educated individuals and better choices by persons which will reduce the burden on the nation’s resources. Putting women on the sidelines is the equivalent of having a full team and letting only half compete. That’s ridiculous! In the words of Maya Angelou “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it, possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.
The need for gender equality and the role of gender advocates regardless of the name tag transcends mere rhetoric. There has to be a decisive effort from both genders to ensure that all citizens of the country male or female are given the same opportunities to thrive and to fulfill their innate potential. In the Asante Kingdom, it took Yaa Asantewaa to stand up and defend her people when all the courage of the men had long run away. Our nationwill develop faster and generations will thank ours for it if the burden of leadership and growth is not assumed to belong to only one gender. Imagine what the world would have been like without the orbital mathematics of Katherine Johnson to calculate America’s way to the moon, without the synthetic fibers of Stephanie Kwolek to allow the manufacture of bulletproof vests which saves countless lives. The list goes on and on but the essence remains the same. To achieve equality there must be a concerted effort from every member of the society to unlearn toxic narratives and to break away from stereotypical behavior. Laws and policies must be in touch and reflect the urgency of tearing down the walls of gender discrimination. It is time to abandon stereotypical straitjackets and think anew and reimagine the world as it should be and give meaning to gender equality and equity. This is a generational burden and this generation must make a decision not to continue spinning the obnoxious wheels of the older generation and must chart a new pathand brighten each corner in which we find ourselves. As the sun sets on people like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby through the ‘Me too’ movement, may it rise again with a new generation that recognizes the need to do better, to play as a team- only then will our society thrive. Ultimately it depends on ‘You too’.