*unrelated picture of what i’ve been doing instead of writing blog posts*
First of all, sorry for the long hiatus! Work + life has been a lot (in a good way).
In every work or internship experience I’ve had on the continent, I’m always surprised at how incapable we Americans are of comparing situations in the US to our country of emigration – specifically regarding sexism and gender perceptions. I remember once in Togo, a white expat (I realllly hate this word but y’all know what I mean when I say it so whatever) women was lamenting over the state of girls’ education in the country. “It’s just soooooo bad here,” she stated. “Girls are just so undervalued and disrespected. I can’t imagine growing up under these societal conditions.”
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to underestimate the realities of gender inequality, sexism, and gender-based violence on the continent. But I’ve never been able to understand how expats are unable to recognize the relationship between sexism in Africa (in this case, West Africa) and the US. Gender equality in the international development realm has been framed as a linear path of progression, where one country is “ahead” and another is not. This ignores the fact that sexism is a global phenomenon related to an international patriarchal system. The same patriarchy that facilitates the devaluing of girls’ education in Togo is the same one that facilitates a system where an American cop was able to systematically sexually assault poor black women with little media outrage.
I quickly tried to remind her that some people in the US actually DO actually grow up under similar societal conditions – including black women. When I brought up instances of sexism and racism that I’d personally faced in Georgetown classrooms, the expat worker looked genuinely surprised, but tried (in vain) to add a degree of separation between my experiences and those of Togolese female students. “Well, it’s just different here. The attitudes toward women is just awful! You wouldn’t believe how men speak about women here.” …..Sis…..try me.
As a black (immigrant) women, I’ve always been conscious about the realities of sexism – especially race-based sexism – in the US & Europe (shout out to France for all the uncomfortable fetishization!!). The way that media in the West talks about women of color – black women, Asian women, Latinas – is honestly just as appalling as any devaluing comments you’d here from men, well, anywhere. In addition, it goes without saying that such conversations strip African women of their agency, ignoring examples of African feminism that far predate European/American ones, as well as African women working on the ground toward gender equality.
I met another American (male) expat worker in Benin that echoed similar sentiments, calling the degree of sexism in Benin “unbelievable”. When I brought up the fact that Americans elected a president who’s advocated for “grabbing [women] by the pussy”, there was the similar acknowledgment of things being bad in the US, but “like, not AS bad” as Benin. I also have found that a lot of the Western views regarding of sexism in Benin revolves around sentiments toward polygamy (that’s a whole ‘nother blog post but basically I’m just going to say that polygamy ≠ inherently sexism and leave it at that), which plays a role into why Western expats are able to place their home countries further along on the linear gender equality path (“at least we’re only marrying 1 wife!”).
The conceptualization of sexism, women’s rights, and gender equality within international development needs to break out of this linear ideology. Seeing progress as something that occurs on a graph allows Americans and Europeans (especially those who are white) to ignore glaring domestic instances of institutionalized sexism – especially when it occurs to minorities. Gender-based violence is believed to be something that only occurs in the developing world; meanwhile, 2017 is expected to be the deadliest year on record for transgender women in the US. We lament how Buhari refers to his wife as belonging in the kitchen while ignoring the fact that the US president is a known sexual assailant. And the ascendence of known sexual assaulters as political leaders in the US is not new – remember how Congress did Anita Hill?
So, to the white development worker, this week I’d like to urge you to think about the connections between patriarchy in the US and Africa. Understanding chauvinism as something that occurs, pretty rampantly, in the West, may help you better address sexism by actually addressing its deep-seated, global roots.