Gorillas and Girls

Of course, I was perturbed when two Gorilla masked figures made their way down the aisles offering the audience bananas, however if their intention was to capture my attention - they succeeded.

The Guerrilla Girls say of themselves “We’re feminist masked avengers in the tradition of anonymous do-gooders like Robin Hood, Wonder Woman and Batman.”

Going by the pseudo names of Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz, two of the founding members of Guerrilla Girls are unashamed Feminists and activists. Donning gorilla masks is the Guerrilla Girls method of attracting attention to their cause and provoking a reaction from the mainstream. They've had successes but also disappointments, but their message was clear “change doesn’t just happen – you have to make it happen”. They  have committed themselves to a cause for twenty-five years and that may not be achieved in their lifetime.

They provided me with much needed motivation, the last few years working with gender and sexuality has been discouraging, disconcerting and depressing. The realisation of how strong and how entrenched is the resistance to equality has left me at times emotionally drained and questioning the effectiveness of any action that I could pursue.

While I am not the gorilla mask type, I was encouraged by their words “Invent your own way of being an activist” and their tireless assault on patriarchy and continuing to stand up and call themselves “Feminists” in times when the word is so misunderstood. 

Photograph: Mwila Agatha Zaza; Guerrila Girls 


Art, magic and omission

Having being to Museum of Contemporary Art’s (Kiasma) ARS11exhibit, I have been left pondering the absence of magic and witchcraft in its exhibit.

After reading about the goings on in Mansa and the alleged transfiguration of a man to goat in Nigeria, I wonder why the theme of the supernatural was almost completely absent in an exhibit about contemporary Africa, barring one item by Ardmore arts of South Africa.

The ARS exhibit brought the works of thirty artists linked to Africa (not necessarily African) and sharing the themes of migration, environment and urban life.

Sorcery and the supernatural pervade the lives of many people of sub-Saharan Africa. The rioting in Mansa reminded me that many Zambians have an unquestioning belief in the supernatural regardless of their religion. For them the dismembering of corpses to create wealth and transmogrification is possible in the temporal realm and therefore their fear that led to mass rioting and looting was justified.
Several of the images at ARS alluded to witchcraft – I have written before on Nandipha Mntambo work. Her installations, claimed in the brochure to be “loaded with masculine power” alluded to the supernatural with their blend of human and beast.

Many other images could be interpreted as portraying or alluding to magic, but except in the artwork referring to HIV and AIDS it was not identified in its own right. Magic is integral to many people’s everyday life – thankfully not mine, it is interesting that a portrayal of contemporary Africa could omit it. 


Icons and Illusions

Having subjected myself to Willow Smith’s “Whip my hair” I found a blogger who actually saw Willow Smith as sending a positive message to black girls about their hair. From what I can see, Ms Smith wears a variety of hair extensions and has straightened hair. Some black girls do have a type of hair that allows them to “whip their hair back and forth” but most of us don’t.

I would like to see more girls with kinky hair in African American popular culture. Where dark skinned black girls are shown, there is a tendency to them appearing to have spirals or very long hair. Recalling Ashley in “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” and Tia and Tamera Mowry from my teen years – I yearned to have hair like theirs. I dreamed of the day my mother would permit me to straighten my hair and it would like magic, grow long enough to swish and swirl when I walked.

The African American media is where most of our black beauty and fashion icons and modes originate. Black boys are shown from the darkest to the fairest hues and have curls or kinks, men’s hair reflects the diversity of black men. Whereas girls, on the other hand, overwhelmingly have long or spiralled hair to the extent that in some television families two dark skinned parents have fair skinned daughters with frizzy rather than kinky hair.

I offered to give advice on transitioning a little girl from permed and this would be it – to be your daughter’s icon. Don’t make natural hair sound like a chore and a curse “my hair is so... (dry, impossible, hard).” Don’t denigrate our hair and make it seem inferior to other hair types by constantly adding length – extensions and braids. Look for styles that make you look cool, chic or elegant so that our girls learn that their hair, like the rest of their body, is as good as anyone else’s.  

Cross-posted here 


And Zambia too

The success of the much derided Perussuomalaiset (True Finns) political party in the Finnish parliamentary elections astounded a few but offers a few lessons for Zambians and their could be leaders.

Zambians desperately need something to believe in; an ideology, the assurance of temporal gain that stirs our soul enough to take us to the poll booth. Preferably this will not be a message of hate, xenophobia and religious fundamentalism that has stoked fires under many populations causing carnage and bloodshed.

The second lesson is youth. Nine of the new Finnish MPs are under 30. The old guard is Zambian politics is essentially that – old. They battle among themselves, switching allegiances and swapping seats. They have learned to play old-school politics. Many of our younger people have experienced more than the Zambian way of doing things, they have lived, worked and studies in other countries and some are even involved in politics there. They run our banks and telephone companies as international professionals. A large enough force of fresh faces would make a significant change in political strategies.  

Finally, we learn that free and fair elections can make a significant change in our country’s politics. A party that is founded on what its people want can move from minority to majority. This can happen if we impassion our people, wake them up from their apathetic slumber and give them something for which to vote. 


Roundup - Women and revolutions

Women Irate at Remarks by President of Yemen

SANA, Yemen — President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s suggestion that antigovernment protesters in the capital were in violation of Islamic law because women were allowed to mix with men stirred a women’s rights march in the capital on Saturday, as thousands of women in this staunchly conservative country made Mr. Saleh an object of public derision. 

Prominent during revolution, Egyptian women vanish in new order 

You saw them. I saw them. We all saw the women of Tahrir Square, marching, yelling, dancing, singing, smoking, waving signs and taking hits alongside their fellow citizens. Then we blinked, and they were sidelined, pushed out of the political process faster than you can say, "Women are human beings too." 

The way things have shaken out for women in post-revolution Egypt, it's easy to forget that it was a courageous young woman who summoned protesters to the streets in the first place. On January 18th, a charismatic activist with the April 6 youth movement named Asmaa Mahfouz invited fellow Egyptian citizens to join her for a Day of Rage on January 25th. Facing down the camera, she told her audience "Do not be afraid." 


The woman's history

As I packed away my pen and paper, preparing to leave, a young Pakistani woman stood before us and told us that she had been raped on her wedding night by her husband. I was at a discussion on child marriage in Pakistan hosted by Plan Finland and we had just talked of these practices in a faraway place. Her new husband was 26 years older than her and she’d just told him that she was love with a man her own age. This young woman explained that her parents arranged this marriage and were complicit in her three years of violence. She arrived in Finland, her hair pulled out of her scalp and weighing thirty-two kilograms.

The stories that hide alongside us can be shocking. We know such stories exist but there are times and situations in which we expect to hear them.

Her parents a teacher and a business manager – educated people – but rather than face the stigma of her marrying a man for love, forced her at nineteen to marry a forty-five year old stranger.

In the discussion we were reminded not to think of such people as evil, but it is frightening to think that the teachers and managers I know could subject their child to such cruelty. The man she married, most likely also educated and probably with respectable public facade was a rapist – raised in a society that teaches that forced marriage is a legitimate means to acquire wife and that to torture her is acceptable.

The Plan meeting discussed the need for the law to impose itself in the private sphere and this woman’s story illustrated that need with urgency.

Those of us who’ve been lucky enough not to be subjected to harmful traditional practices and other abuses that hide behind the veil of privacy are sometimes reluctant to support the policing of our private spheres, because our spheres, though imperfect, were loving and supportive enough to not make us fearful of what can happen. We were lucky enough that if we went against traditions that we found distasteful we would not be raped tortured or killed.

Still, as Elina Pirjatanniemi, Director of the Institute for Human Rights at Åbo University said “We are more interested in dramatic events rather than small ones,” we should not underestimate the power of smaller abuses, of less dramatic cultural practices that erode our confidence, make us vulnerable to abuse and perpetuate the power differences between men and women, tribes and classes.

This woman’s father perhaps had seemed to her a reasonable man, but he went to great lengths to punish her once his traditions and status were threatened. She is fortunate to be alive.  

Photograph: Galibert Olivier Flickr


Immigrants and elections

The last few weeks have led up to the final frenzy of campaigning in the Finnish parliamentary elections. How campaigning is conducted in Helsinki has been fascinating to watch – the banners, fliers and on-street campaigners while I wonder how I as a newcomer to the country, though not yet a voter,  fit into the melee.  

To begin with there are forty-five candidates of immigrant background – citizens who immigrated here or children of immigrant parents. Some faces are recurring on the enormous posters that are impossible to miss, however I look at them and wonder if my interests are served by voting or a “new Finn.” My ideal candidate would of course be me - 35 year old black African, irreligious and educated, working to find appropriate employment and to fit into her new country. As such, I do not feel that any of the immigrant candidates at first sight fit my needs – Asian male, Somali Muslim female and so on. Due to the language barrier I do not have the information I need, which is something immigrant candidates have not picked up on.

I’d consider my needs may be better served by a 35+ Finnish female candidate, who has experienced unemployment and the other pressures that befall women of our age. My sex and age are critical factors in my identity as well as my immigrant status.

Additionally, the on-street campaigners have unfortunately put me off several candidates. Yesterday a young gentleman captured my attention when after proffering me a flier in Finnish and realising I didn’t speak the language “Have you voted yet” he asked “Please go and vote.”  He handed me a flyer of a white female candidate and waved as I left. He probably has no idea that he treated me as I feel I should be treated – like everyone else. I dislike campaigners who see me and make assumptions based on my appearance – the targeting by campaigners for non-white candidates and ignoring me completely by everyone else.

I have yet to see what happens with the actual elections, there has already been “election violence” and right wingers are still in contention. I think, however, that the personal interaction with immigrant voters needs to be investigated. Finally, if candidates were to examine our varying identities closer they may find more potential supporters.
Photographs: Ruby Nguyen photography (Flickr), Mwila Agatha Zaza


Sex after the draft

Looking back at the Zambian constitution making process (or farce) I am pessimistic about the future of sexual and reproductive rights in Zambia. A quick scan of today’s online newspapers shows that the defeat is now a tool for politicians and there is little discussion of implications of such a contested process.

Michael Sata, a prominent opposition party leader, is in the meanwhile trying to distance himself from accusations that he might legalise homosexuality if he comes to power. He has defended himself saying that Zambia is a Christian nation and that such an act would be unthinkable. Another politician has been accused of having five wives, which he may or may not have, but he also claims that he is a Christian and therefore cannot be a polygamist.

Sadly, the “Christian nation” nation argument that was brought up repeatedly in defence of any archaic moral stance during the constitution making process – abortion and homosexuality especially. One could be lead to believe that Christians have agreed upon dogma and social teaching. I can say with certainty that very few Zambians would even know the details of their denomination’s stance on abortion or homosexuality and their justification of that stance. But in Zambia we continue to conflate a convoluted form of our traditional beliefs, archaic aspects of Christian teachings and our consented upon contemporary culture. This is what we call our “Christian nation” -  a nation in which corruption has pervaded every aspect of our lives, where alcohol is a national pastime and in which sex outside marriage and multiple sexual partners are seen as normal – activities that are apparently not forbidden by Christianity. The Christian nation notion is only raised to put a stop to a new concept, a radical idea – anything that might force us to change our world view.

It was also frightening to find that hundreds of people could gather to devise laws without considering the implications on the individual. They were unable to look beyond their own goals and personal beliefs and ask “What happens to Mwila if... ?” Obviously it has never occurred to them that sexual identity and health crises have occurred or may be occurring within their own homes and neighbourhoods. Have they not considered that perhaps that effeminate neighbour is not just a little queer but perhaps is queer?

Currently in HIV and AIDS policies we are trying to promote “openness.” How do we do that, how do we confide in people in a society that is so judgemental, oppressive and restrictive that when given the chance they will take away the few sexual and reproductive health rights that we do have? 

Photographs: Michael A Ferris (Flickr), Jessica Gold (Flickr)


Suomenlinna - war and kings

Suomenlinna Island was the destination of yesterday’s Finnish language and culture class. We spent the afternoon shrouded in mist surrounded by memorabilia of three hundred years of history.

The history of the fort and of Finland is a history of war, of occupation and reoccupation, of being pawns of the greater powers of Europe. It is the story of indentured workers, of how the little people dug the foundations and died like flies in the process, how their wellbeing depended on the generosity of their masters. In the meantime the elite travelled across Europe, their wives spoke French and wore the fashions of foreign cities.  

The island and the country passed to Russian hands and after a process of national awakening, the Finns won their independence from a country that had tried to Russify it – to subordinate its culture and autonomy to that of Russia.

Of course, when one listens to the news, these are the stories that are still being lived in many parts of the world – the stories of the subordination of the masses by ruling elite, the stories of repressed ethnicities trying to assert themselves and the stories of war. The 21st century still looks like the 19th in terms of war. These days the rewards are much bigger, wars are not fought by gentlemen and the scale of barbarity belongs in the darkest of ages.

 The rulers of Cote d’Ivoire and Libya have treated their land and citizens as if the discourse on human rights and democracy has never happened. Their actions are that of kings and conquerors throughout history – men (and some women) who have thought nothing of sacrificing their civilians as if they exist only to fight and to be ruled.

How little has changed in this 21st century. Ages of Enlightenment and Renaissances have come and gone. But the decades of warfare and the cruel kings still remain.