TANZANIA: Culture v Women’s Rights

Photo source: Africa Speaks 4 Africa

I went to Tanzania for 8 weeks on a community development project, and during that time I found myself falling in love with the country, it has become my second home. A place I could always go back to. Everyone around me knows that I want to go back and work in Tanzania one day especially under the UN: Women or any other organisation working towards empowering women.
Society in Tanzania is highly patriarchal, males in that country are deemed as superior while females are seen as inferior & weak. As in many African states, there are gender roles assigned to men and women which perpetuate male dominance and female relegation. Boys and girls throughout their lives from the time they are toddlers are taught to behave in a certain way. Girls are conditioned to believe that marriage is the ultimate goal and that household chores are their responsibility. I recall that during my time there I had gotten ill so I went to the doctor, we engaged in conversation about our countries comparing Tanzania to Botswana, he then proceeded to ask why I was not married, and according to him 19 is the perfect age for marriage and that some girls there get married at 16 so I should also get married so I can have someone to take care of me. I cringed when he said that.
Tanzanian men seem to have supremacy in roles of political leadership as well as socially. Where I come from women are quite outspoken more especially in social setups and we are free to raise our concerns and voice out our opinions and when we did that, Tanzanian men would always be shocked because for them women speaking out and having a stance on any matter somehow unsettled them. They always use culture as a defence when you ask why they are oppressing their women.
For centuries, African women have tolerated the impact of cultural traditions, traditions that limit our advancement and are oppressive. Culture in Africa is something that governs our behaviour, we take it very seriously and we respect our culture, problem now comes when this culture has certain aspects that are dehumanizing, where your human rights are now being infringed upon and you are being oppressed.

Women in Tanzania are oppressed, even I was oppressed. The way I dressed was always a problem as it was deemed “inappropriate” anything knee-length & above the knee is supposedly revealing and once you leave the house like that you have to prepare to be body shamed. Everyone would look at you and make disgusting remarks. I remember an occasion were my friend and I had an altercation with a bus conductor because we were putting on skirts which were slightly above our knees, he was shouting in Swahili and then proceeded to point at my leg.. He shook his head and said “leg”. This is something I was not accustomed to. I didn’t know that my legs could infuriate someone that much.
On another occasion while at the Department of Home Affairs, the security officers told us we were not dressed appropriately because our shoulders and arms were exposed and because we were putting on pants. He said it was not allowed but nonetheless allowed us to go into the premises and said next time we should dress properly. I was beyond shocked! So many tourists come in and out of those offices on a daily basis, people from different countries with different cultures so to force their culture on us was quite unfair. I do understand that sometimes one has to adapt and respect people’s cultures especially because Tanzania’s population is mostly Muslims however they also need to understand where we are coming from and be open-minded. My bodily integrity and autonomy as a woman needs to be respected, this policing of how I need to dress when I go out is so disrespectful, even when one is at the public beach, wearing a swimsuit made you subject to disparaging looks and comments. The only place where I felt free to dress however I want was at Bagamoyo, and I guess that was because it is a tourist town therefore they have become accustomed to foreigners putting on their shorts.
While doing my research on harmful cultural practices I came across two tribes in Tanzania, these are the Maasai and Kuria. These 2 tribes circumcise young girls. Female Genital Mutilation is still a big problem in Africa, it is widely practiced despite the fact that it is inhumane & barbaric cultural as it strips the girl child of her dignity and bodily integrity and also because of the health risks involved.
These are traditions that have been practiced for many years and so it has become a way of life and it is embedded in them. Whether patriarchy will ever be dismantled in Tanzania would be difficult to determine because the Islam religion is also a power player in their way of life. And the majority of the people as I had stated before are Muslims therefore their religious beliefs need to be afforded the respect and tolerance they deserve.
Furthermore, there needs to be promotion of gender equality by changing or enacting laws and policies. Also, culture is not static; it has to be modified with the changing times in order to abolish the practices that are harmful to women. People living in rural areas need to be educated on the dangers and health risks that come with practices such as FGM, We also need to ensure that we get rid of early child marriages to ensure that the girl child gets an education so she can also make a contribution to the country’s political and socio-economic development. This would really help to empower Tanzanian women.

Having lived there doesn’t mean I’m an expert on the culture, in actual fact, I only know a small fragment of it therefore I cannot rebuke it in totality just like I cannot rebuke my Tswana culture because all cultures have certain positive attributes that we also need to appreciate. I will always commend Tanzanians for nurturing and preserving their culture, the young people I met were well informed about their culture, they wore it proudly; it is an integral part of them, and the same goes for their native language, Kiswahili.
In essence, Culture plays a major role in our lives as Africans but would it be right to condone and uplift this culture that continuously strips women of their rights and their integrity? Should culture supersede the rights of women or is it time for Tanzanians to review some of the oppressive practices they do in name of “culture”?

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