One of the issues that has been frequently thrown at my face whenever the issue of gender equality arises is the question of affirmative action and the preferential treatment given to girls and women which disadvantages their male counterparts.
To me affirmative action has the same limitations that every other instrument being used to elevate the status of women has – and it is that these things only help women who want to be helped and who bother to take advantage of the opportunities availed to them or claim the rights provided for them.
Affirmative action does not help the girl whose end goal is not a career, a life outside the home or even a remote desire to contribute to the society in any other way save through child-bearing.
With affirmative action, we do not attempt to take the proverbial horse to the water troughs but we make the herculean effort of bringing the trough to the horse and still fail to make it drink.
To me, empowering girls does not begin in the classrooms but it begins in the homes.
Our upbringing has a huge bearing on who we aspire to become and on what we believe we can achieve.
It is my contention that the manner in which we raise our daughters subconsciously reflects our aspirations for them, what we hope for them, what we expect of them and what we envision their future will become.
Raising a child is always premised on futuristic assumptions, the idea is to transfer knowledge and information that we believe will help this child in the future, which we think will be relevant, crucial and indispensable to them in adulthood.
The manner in which people raise their daughters tells a lot about what they believe that child’s eventual place in the world will be and what role they are preparing that child to assume later in life.
I believe that African mothers, have fallen into the unfortunate habit of raising daughters through the use of crippling and dis-empowering stereotypical dogmas that do more harm than good.
Of the things my mother taught me, in terms of skills transfer – there is little that I have made use of or will ever make use of in the life I have chosen to carve out for myself.
The values she taught me through those skills remain cherished but some of the practical aspects of her tutelage are rendered obsolete and inapplicable in the world I have come to occupy, in the woman I have chosen to become and in the aspirations I live in pursuit of.
A few examples are in order.
My mother was one of the hardest working women I knew and everyone else attested to this – the woman was a manual labourer par excellence who commanded the respect of our neighbours in Siyoka village for relentless work in the fields, at home and everywhere.
She made me look bad (lol).
When I was young, I hated manual labour and I loved reading. It is not that I could not do the work – I simply hated it!
But my mother (may her beloved soul rest in peace) was a slave driver of great renown and all the other relatives found some pretext to send their daughters over to our homestead to ensure that they were inducted into my mother’s school of excruciating, hard and sweaty labour.
But all this is an unkind digression, back to the examples of how incongruous my mother’s life skill training turned out to be.
My mother taught me how to paint the mud hut walls, insisted that I wake up at the cock’s crow to sweep the yard (as if it could not wait until a decent hour); raised hell if I used the wrong soil to smoothen the hut ledges or if I failed to keep my fingers stiff enough so that the patterns and lines didn’t look crooked and smudged whenever I polished the mud floors with cow dung.
My mother insisted on crushing the maize grains using a mortar and pestle (ingigo) until there were small granules that it seemed pointless to even go to the grinding mill and convert it into mealie meal because by the time she was satisfied the job was half done.
She ignored the blisters that formed on the palms of my hand, was not impressed by the unbearable agony I felt at having to lift anything above my head because my arms would protest after hours of grinding.
She had no sympathy to spare when we had to walk distances to get firewood or when I complained of a stiff neck and aching limbs – she was hell bent on ensuring that I would not be an embarrassment to her “wherever I went” (a euphemistic way of referring to a future married life).
Though she never said it, I always knew at the back of my mind that all this frenzied drilling in manual chores was to ensure that I did not humiliate the family and specifically my mother “wherever I went”.
I said earlier that the way we raise children is indicative of what our aspirations for them are, of what we expect them to become.
Sometimes in order to determine what we think children, especially girls, need to be taught we must have an idea of what we believe they will become and prepare them accordingly by transferring skills we think will benefit them in adulthood.
Using this as a premise, I could then possibly conclude that from the way my mother raised and trained me she anticipated that:
1 – I would obviously become someone’s wife (hence the emphasis on washing, cooking, cleaning, sweeping and all other domestic chores)
2 – Not only would I be someone’s wife; I would be a rural one at that (where else would I use skills such as grinding corn, gathering firewood, fetching water from the well, painting mud huts and using cow dung to polish the mud floors?)
3 – I would become a field owner eking out a living from subsistence farming (why else would I have had to endure the back breaking torture of a 5am to 7pm non-stop hoeing and weeding session at the fields whilst enduring the unforgiving Beitbridge heat?)
Well, my mother was right about one thing – I did become a wife and she was wrong about everything else.
I don’t farm for a living – I write. I don’t live in rural areas and hardly find time to enjoy living in the city because I work hard at what I do, from morning until night – not hoeing but blogging.
I don’t wake up to the sound of cock crowing but I do wake up to the shrill, piercing sounds of an alarm not to fetch water from the well but to read and study in my endless quest for knowledge.
I don’t go miles in search of firewood but I have travelled miles in pursuit of self-discovery – to better appreciate where I come from by exploring the unknown.
I don’t grind corn any more but I relentlessly pit my ideas against the equally fierce ideas of others – finding a way to learn something knew by embracing the diversity that allows great minds to differ.
The conclusion of the matter dear reader is that I am not what I am because of affirmative action but I am what I am because of my upbringing, largely because of the influence of the men that raised me.
Affirmative action didn’t make me get good grades – that was just the result of my self-confidence which I derived from the support and encouragement I got from my fathers who insisted that my brain was just as good as anyone else’s.
Affirmative action can be used to level the playing field in terms of providing equal opportunities for men and women but it will not keep women in jobs if they’d rather be home; it won’t keep young women in lecture theaters if they’d rather be in maternity theaters.
Affirmative action won’t keep young girls in classrooms if those girls have been raised to believe that their place is an a home – so instead of seeking an education, they’ll opt to seek potential husbands.
Affirmative action won’t convince young women that they can afford a higher standard of life by simply exerting themselves when they’ve been raised to believe that all that’s expected of them is to find men to take care of them.
Affirmative action is like holding a cup of water to a person’s mouth, persuading them that the water tastes nice, convincing them to take a sip and even getting them to fill their mouths with the water but not being able to make them swallow it because you can’t make them believe that they are thirsty when they don’t happen to think they are.
Men shouldn’t feel threatened by affirmative action, boys shouldn’t feel done down because the truth is – as long as women continue to raise their daughters with no expectation except that they become mothers and wives – they won’t have much of an advantage anyway.
They’ll just believe what they’ve been told since childhood, they’ll just internalize the stereotypes handed down to them by their mothers and ultimately they’ll benefit nothing from any system that fails to change their mindsets about who they are and what they can become.
Sometimes, all a girl needs is to be raised by her father because her father isn’t trying to train her to become anyone’s wife or mother – he is just interested in seeing her become the best she can be.
Because if you raise them right and raise them well – no girl would even need affirmative action to give her a ‘leg up’.
Let’s not overrate affirmative action whilst underrating socialization and upbringing.