Friday, April 22, 2011

Gender and Gardens

Gender and Development Context
In the literature on gender relations in Africa, men and women are very often presented as inhabiting separate, almost antagonistic, social spheres.  Men are very often portrayed as dominators, and women very often as subservient victims.  This has been identified as a problem that hinders development, and, thus, in need of a remedy so that development can take hold. 
It is popular in the international development community to say that women are the foundation of development and that development ‘happens’ by supporting women and girls like this. It is my perspective that, though there is probably some truth in there somewhere, this view tends to oversimplify the way men and women relate, and to dumb down the complexity of what is really required for development.  Women are often assumed to be subjugated, while at the same time possess a heroic potential. In my opinion, this view essentializes women and perpetuates a view that women everywhere are victims, which I find downright offensive and, possibly, racist. 
My Research
Part of my research had to do with studying how urban gardens are implicated in household well-being.  In M’Bour, men are typically responsible for market garden production, so that when gardens are integrated into the daily lives of the household, they are considered the domain of husbands.
Gardens represent many things to the household.  Most obviously, they are a source of food and income.  But, what is also emerging from the data is that gardens represent a physical space in which husbands and wives cultivate a sense of shared responsibility and a shared goal of improving overall household well-being.  Not only do they improve the well-being of the house through material enrichment, but they also provide the opportunity to cultivate the marital relationship.  For example, husbands have expressed to me a number of times how they feel encouraged and grateful to their wives when their wives help out in the garden.
Of utmost importance to household well-being is peace and harmony (jamm ak dego).   Peace is cultivated between husbands and wives through honesty and communication.  It is also cultivated by each person fulfilling their socially determined, and personally negotiated, household roles and responsibilities.  Generally, men are regarded as the ‘kelifa’, or the authority.  This means that a good wife will defer to her husband in a number of ways.  Men, on the other hand, have the responsibility of providing for the household.  In an urban environment, women are increasingly sharing in household costs, and, presumably, in decision-making.  Though wives clearly defer to their husbands, in no case did women present themselves as subjugated victims.  Indeed, the relationships I saw between husbands and wives were clearly mutually respectful. 
There was a time I would have looked at these households and would have interpreted the relationship between husbands and wives as one of dominance and subservience.  I would have interpreted that as ‘bad.’  I would have seen it as indicative of non-modern, backwards, and in need of a remedy.  But, here’s the thing:  I don’t get to say.  My task was to understand how gardens are implicated in local notions of household and individual well-being.  I have tried to represent voices and perspectives as they have been told to me, not based on a previous or universal notion of what they should be.  Whether they do, or do not, accord with my view on what a relationship should do and be is irrelevant.
Had I not taken a gendered approach, I would not have discerned the gardens as a space for cultivating household relationships.  Furthermore, had I not been familiar with, and influenced by, feminist literature, specifically standpoint theory and postmodern feminist theory, I may have not come to the conclusion that women are not subjugated.  I listened to what women were telling me was important to them; my responsibility to the feminist part of my research agenda is to attend to the well-being of women as they themselves see it.

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