Recently, I attended an intensive, five-day gender equality workshop, hosted by ZANGOC and attended by members of their Gender Equality Team. I had done a little bit of work on gender-related issues during my four years at the University of Toronto, and the struggle for gender equality is an issue of particular interest and passion for me.
I must admit, I underestimated the degree of difference between the discourse around gender that I’m used to in Canada and the one in which I was immersed during the first day of the workshop in Zanzibar less than two weeks after arriving in the country. Perspectives that I have taken for granted as (near) universal were openly challenged and debated (mostly, but not exclusively, by men) during the workshop: the importance of equal opportunity employment between genders, the indisputability of women’s basic sexual and reproductive rights, and the appropriateness of female participation in federal politics.
Day-to-day reflections, observations, and interactions with people in town have also frequently activated my ‘Gender RADAR’ (let’s call it ‘GenDar’): seeing women and men line up separately at the bank, trying to make sense of the variety of justifications offered to explain why women are barred from Zanzibar’s mosques, feeling unsure about when and how—and even if—I can or should interact with local women at work and in town. Occasionally I find myself resisting the temptation to vehemently object to various perceived manifestations of gender inequality—social, institutional, or otherwise—most of which would no doubt elicit reactions ranging from disapproval to outrage among my (mostly liberal-minded) social circle in Toronto, but in Zanzibar are generally accepted as the norm.
My point here is not to criticize or challenge the prevailing perspectives on, and attitudes toward, gender in Zanzibar. After spending fewer than six weeks here, that’s far from my place. Rather, I feel inclined to turn inward and reflect on some of the questions around gender that this experience has prompted. Is this fight for gender equality really a global phenomenon rooted in universal human rights? Or is it just another example of the imposition of liberal Western values by the global upper class on the world’s majority? At what point is the importance of cultural sensitivity eclipsed by the ethical imperative of defending the agency and well-being of women? It seems obvious to me that when it comes to such conspicuous demonstrations of injustice as politically-motivated rape or forced sterilization of women (neither of which I’ve heard of in Zanzibar, I should add), any worries about the preservation of tradition or culture become secondary to the protection of women’s dignity, health and well-being. But when the conversation shifts to traditional household and community gender roles (where women primarily fulfill child-care and domestic functions while men take on professional, commercial and political responsibilities), which are commonly defended on religious or cultural grounds (often by a majority of both men and women), the discussion becomes blurred and markedly more difficult.
Finding my place in this discussion, especially in Zanzibar, is my greatest challenge. As a straight, white, Canadian-born man, my perspective is shaped, and both the authority and validity of my opinions limited, by my background and identity. I’m not going to pretend to understand the intricacies and nuances of gender dynamics here (it’s hard enough in Canada) or the ways in which they are influenced and reinforced by the population’s widespread adherence to Islamic doctrine. What I can do is to continue to be as open-minded as possible, to continue to learn, and to recognize and embrace my position (mostly) as an observer and as a student of the culture. I’m excited about the coming months; I relish the challenges that I’ll face and I’m eager for the lessons I’ll hopefully be able to garner through facing them.
-Ben Verboom, Health Policy Officer, CIDA International Youth Internship Program, Tanzania 2012