Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Power of Woman-ness

Jon Stewart had Liberian peace activist, Leymah Gbowee, on "The Daily Show" the other night.  What an amazing person. What I was most struck by, and this is probably because I'm struggling how to best theorize this in the context of my research, was how her 'being a woman' was really an integral part of what she and her sisters did, and are doing, to seek peace and justice in such a devastated, war-torn society.  I often get the feeling that the talk and promotion of gender equality in international development somehow seeks to make one's biological sex unimportant - that one's sex shouldn't matter to the opportunities one can pursue, or how one interacts in the world. I also get the feeling that gender equality advocates too often conflate an African woman's position in society with powerlessness and victimhood.

But, here's a case where women, by leveraging their woman-ness, played (and play) a critical part in promoting peace and reconciliation.  A man could not have done what they did and are continuing to do.  These women drew on, and re-invented, their collective identities as women to do what they saw needed to be done. Listen to her story about how she threatened to remove her clothes in the face of arrest. That action drew on deeply held cultural beliefs about women, and resulted in one of many victories. Listen to her tell how rural women elegantly leveraged their subordinate position in society, and gained the support of their men, via a 'sex strike.'  They all turned power on its head, and they did it by being women...or, maybe it would be more precise to say, they did it by doing woman-ness.  Even more important to understand, they did it by being Liberian women.   This is a particular story at a particular moment in time in a particular place that illustrates the way gender differences can be drawn upon to promote social change.  In fact, I might even be so bold to say that the gender inequality itself was critical to the struggle and to ending the war. Please don't read that as an argument for perpetuating inequality.  I say it to draw attention to the ways in which people negotiate the situations in which they find themselves, and cause change to come about, by drawing on what is and who they are.  Power is fluid and multifaceted and not solely the province of the powerful.

And, kudos to Jon Stewart for getting it, and for being interested and for hosting a forum where these kinds of stories about Africa can be told.


  1. There is a necessary balance that must be achieved between masculine and feminine ideals. The last century (and even further---like most of recorded history possibly) has been dominated by the masculine. If you never watch I highly recommend it. There was one in the last year about an icelandic woman investment banker who changed her Wall Street male centric theories and applied a more conservative approach before the financial crisis there.

    We are living within systems that are in crisis because there is no balance and in most cases are unsustainable.

  2. Thanks Rocket, I don't really believe in any kind of universal Masculine, and universal Feminine. But I do believe in identity, and I think that gender, in any given place, is part and parcel of a person's identity. As humans, we do certainly tend to create masculine and feminine roles, and I think social life is gendered pretty much anywhere you go...but as for universal feminine ideals, or universal masculine ideals...I'm not buying it. That said, I do believe that gendered roles create a different experience of the world, and that those gendered experiences offer different insight, and thus, potentially, different solutions.