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Black Women Still Face Challenges in the 21st Century

March 8, marked as International Women’s Day, has been a time to celebrate the economic, political and social contributions of women globally. In general, the entire month of March allows an opportunity to highlight the role that women of the African diaspora have played in shaping various societies and helping to usher a new breed of politicians who can abolish patriarchy and make African countries more egalitarian.

This realization challenges the predominant classification of women as mere objects only concerned with fashion and totally incapable of authoritative decision making.

Even with significant changes, cultural and traditional practices have contributed immensely to the lack of representation of women in politics worldwide, even in the western world. For many, running for positions of power has resulted in harassment, violent and intimidation, an example being Italy’s first black cabinet minister, Cecile Kyenge, at whom hecklers hurled bananas and maligned with racial slurs nearly three years ago.

“I do not believe the problem lies with me. There are some people who are not happy, who are showing their discontent, and it is my job to listen to that discontent,” Kyenge told BBC reporters shortly after the widely publicized incident in April 2013.

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A group of young women at the University of the Witwatersand in Johannesburg protested sexual violence in August 2014. (Photo by Wits PYA)

Pan-African research group Afrobarometer recently conducted research on African woman political participation in 34 countries, measuring public perception of socioeconomic and political issues. Findings showed that Swaziland, Nigeria, and Benin had some of the continent’s lowest proportion of women in government (6.2, 6.7, and 8.4 percent respectively) compared to Rwanda and South Africa, each of which had more than 50 percent. Not all countries share this progressive outlook on the inclusion and representation of women in leadership roles.

In Northern Africa, only half of the people living in that region agree that men and women should have equal opportunity to take positions of leadership. Sudan and Egypt have been reported to have more than half of respondents against women in leadership positions.

Many African countries have struggled to find political stability due to the prevalence of their colonial past that contributes to the economic challenges faced today. An often argued idea is that the inclusion of women in politics would help make democracy a reality.

Such was the thought when Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first head of state in Africa in 2006. In recognition of her work to further women’s rights, she received a joint Nobel Peace Prize with Leywmah Gbowee, also from Liberia, and Tawakel Karma of Yemen five years later.

But work remains to be done.

For South African political science student Minkie Mashiane, the persistence of issues faced by women across generations is a painful reminder of how much things haven’t changed and how far women still need to go.

As a feminist and blogger, Mashiane uses her talents to engage young people not only through her blog but other social media networks, on issues of race, ethnicity, identity and self-preservation. She said that women still suffer micro aggressions fueled by respectability politics that shame those of various experiences, identities, sexualities and disabilities.

“Women’s Day means nothing to me with all the structural exclusion and dispossession that cisgender women, transgender and gender-fluid folk still battle with. It’s a painful reminder of how suffocating this world is for anyone who is not white and male,” Mashiane, who studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said. She contends that attempting to rally women behind a singular voice would be difficult, primarily because each person’s oppression is particular to their circumstance and position. Mashiane said addressing these issues with a definite voice would only erase the struggles of the most marginalized.

“It’s important that we come to collectively understand that women are not a monolith and our experiences are not altogether the same,” Mashiane added. “We can link our struggles and acknowledge the intersections of various systems of power but trying to find a universal narrative for all those struggles is tricky.”

This has especially been the case in the United States. Throughout the history of women’s liberation movements, non-whites have faced even harsher discrimination based not only on their gender, but also their race.

In 1913, African-American journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett organized the Alpha Suffrage Club, one of the first black organizations of its kind, in Chicago with plans to participate in a parade in D.C. to protest gender-based segregation.

Unfortunately, white organizers of the event asked that black women walk toward the end of the procession. Due to inadequate support from Illinois delegates, Wells ultimately refused to comply with the instructions given to her, eventually making her way to the front of the line and marching between two white women.

The black woman’s struggle for equity continues to this day, especially when it comes to the workplace. Even after the introduction of the Equal Pay Act in 1970, wage disparities persist. White men are still at the top of the pay scale. For every dollar a white man makes, a black woman makes 78 cents, according to data collected by the Center of American Progress last year.

It’s even worse when it comes to representation in the government. According to the recent Women in Parliaments: World Classification study, the U.S. ranks 95th among more than 180 countries around the world in representation of women in parliament. Nicole Barreto Hindert, a Brazilian- born professor of sociology at Northern Virginia Community College said she’s critical of what she describes as the loose use of “representation.” While she acknowledges and agrees that women are not fairly represented in any aspect of society, she says that doesn’t mean that any woman is able to represent the group’s universal interests.

She uses the example of former senator and secretary of state Hilary Clinton to illustrate how far women have come hitherto, saying that Clinton’s gender does not equate to representation. As much as she is a woman, she also represents a specific group of women, usually with similar experiences.

“My identity is multi-faceted, like anyone else’s. Does Hilary Clinton represent me? No, not at all. Her positions of racial, class, and global issues fundamentally differ from many of mine,” Hindert said.

“Sharing the same genitalia does not equal representation. At the same time, the more women of different races, ages, sexualities, nationalities, religions are represented, the more society can see and hopefully accept that there isn’t one way of being a woman, or that all women think the same way, or that all women care about the same things,” she added. For Hindert, the fight against biological essentialism has remained one of the biggest issues that women have had to continually combat.

Through her analysis of social sciences, she believes that sexism is firmly more embedded than racism. This does not by any means mean that one is worse than the other, but rather that the consensus that racism is constructed, means that attitudes surrounding racism are “interrogated” as compared to those surrounding biological essentialism and the biological role of women being rooted in ‘nature’ and something that should not be changed.

“Being a woman is about constantly being reminded that I am a woman. It’s about always having to prove myself capable, about having my thoughts and feelings consistently tied to my sex; as if I can’t cry or take care of my son without someone attributing it to my hormones,” Hindert said.

Hindert compares her experiences with that of her 96-year-old grandmother who was the first woman to graduate from engineering at her university. She and her husband later separated in the 1950s, a time of intense stigma against divorce. Hindert said her grandmother held a career her whole life and after speaking to her, she realizes just how many issues they have in common even with a wide generational gap.

For Mashiane and others with similar

perspectives, equality and representation is more than just the inclusion of women in the workplace. It is the reform of attitudes about women and their social capital in a society that has proven to be slanted to favor a certain group of people. Without this shift in paradigm, women will never arrive at equality.

“We have the artificial freedom to get jobs, to speak as ‘equals’ amongst men/chiefs, et cetera, but the systems of power that place us right at the bottom have not changed or fragmented and neither has our status or image,” she said.

She describes being a woman as something that means ‘so much and so little’ at the same time. Having agency and self-governance to navigate through society with a clear sense of who she is, but on the other hand, it means living in a perpetual state of resistance, interrogation, policing and shaming by both men and women.

Blogger Wandile Mathe said he envisions a world where people can exist without feeling inadequate because of their biological makeup. He believes that equality is a fair way of life and every single person should strive to enforce this ideal.

“Men should begin in their homes [by building] the character of young women and girls around them, their daughters, [and] sisters. They should know that anything less than equal treatment is unacceptable and should not be tolerated. In the same breath young boys should be groomed at an early age to see women as equals in all aspects of life,” said Mathe, 24, who hails from South Africa.

Mathe further highlighted the importance of recognizing that gender inequality exists and remains a huge problem in the global society and the only way to really address it is by men becoming more aware of their actions, especially the actions that continue to perpetuate and contribute to inequality.

“Every action must be accounted for. Patriarchy is a system that is perpetuated by all the little nuances that occur in the behaviors of men toward women and feminine principles. By constantly being aware of how we treat women in all aspects of life we can slowly mend the relationship in gender dynamics and slowly bring equality to women,” he said.

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