Affirmative action is overrated and here’s why…


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.

...the world I come from


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.

...images from long ago


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.

...the fate that could have been mine


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.

4 thoughts on “Affirmative action is overrated and here’s why…

  1. novuyo says:

    ‘Sometimes all a girl needs is to be raised by her father because her father isn’t training her to become anyone’s wife or mother – he is just interested in her being the best she can be’. I take it this sweeping statement is based on personal experience; nevertheless, its sweeping conclusion is not justifiable! It is not as if all fathers view their daughters in that light really; it is not a gender thing at all (there are men who advocate for their daughters not to go to school and instead look forward to their dowry)..

    Now…so many interesting things here how to articulate the things that are burning within me…

    Firstly, I agree with you that the girl child’s progression would be more successful were her motivation to always come from the home… This ‘responsibility’ I feel lies more with the current ‘enlightened’ generation for future generations more than with the passing generation,,,the current generation plays a central role in shaping future generations and perhaps persuading the passing generations to alter some of their views…

    That being said… Ahem… I beg to differ perhaps a little vehemently to your views regarding affirmative action and its impact…it is interesting that you should give yourself up as an example to push forward your idea vis a vis affirmative action when the example of yourself contradicts your idea and infact supports the merits of affirmative action (is this a deliberate twist? Are you pushing forward an argument you are passionate about or probing a particular standpoint in a quest for mutual enrichment with your readers?) Infact, i would say that, from your elaborations above, you are a good example of an ‘affirmative action’ success story. Before you raise up a red flag (and I know you are doing so in your mind) let me explain why. Affirmative action may not probe into the intimacies of a family structure (as they can only demonstrate through their successes and not coerce a societal change), but it does, as you said, set up the structures for opportunity and the pursuit of an alternate reality. What does this mean?It means that those girls who wish to excel in certain paths contrary to those expected of them in their particular setting, find these structures of affirmative action to be sources of support which give them that very necessary ‘leg up’. Imagine how it may have been for you then, to go out into the world with all your passions and ambitions to find no support structure whatsoever, no opportunity whatsoever to propel yourself in your present direction and becoming the driving force that you are…these are the gains made by affirmative action, over the decades, from the time women fought for the right to work, to vote, to learn, to own property…milestones we now take forgranted because we, like children so used to the spoon in their mouth, do not consider the advantages of this spoon but instead complain that if only it were a little larger, if only it were gold and not silver, it would not be so ‘useless’.

    The very fact that humans have managed to evolve over time and very often in the face of oppression and adversity, is attestation to the fact that humans are capable of self-propulsion, ‘determination of the self’ at a personal, intimate level. I therefore question your assumption that girls under the expectation banner of ‘mother or wife’ gain very little advantage from the benevolent aims of affirmative action. I believe in this instance you give excessive weight to environment over certain inherent qualities which mature some humans in certain ambitions. It gives a rather insulting condenscension upon the girl child, as though she cannot make much progress in her own mindset outside the halls of ‘being ushered to her alternate possibilities by her mother or whoever raises her’. Again, not every girl wants to be that alternate woman, many are very happy to be wives and mothers and nothing more and that is perfectly fine – here comes the differentiation of affirmative action. It provides you with opportunity and leaves the choice to act upon that opportunity to you- after all, the affirmative action system cannot expect to spoonfeed people for life and instead needs individuals who, once given the momentum, can propel themselves towards their ambitions. Those who donot find the waters refreshing are perhaps then made for a different dish…

    Lastly, education is definitely a cornerstone of emancipation in today’s world where innovation and the development of ideas is key to development…this point is easily illustrated by taking two individuals with similar potentials, one educated one not, and seeing their levels of interaction within fresh environments. More than providing some skill for professional remuneration and therefore a certain level of independence to choose a set of societal systems to live by, education expands the horizons of the mind, where all great feats are originally born…vital more so in Africa, rich in resources and short of skills for adequate social, economic, scientific, technological and other developments…

    Enough said! I am not fully convinced though, that this is your true, personal stance on the matter…I think this was structured for a good tete-a-tete with your readers…that said, made for a stimulating debate,,, the mind has received its exercise for the day.

  2. Standtall says:

    Reading your points and Novuyo’s point, am now left to process your diverse stances but one thing is for sure affirmative action is a strategy and if mindset will continue to change tasking ourselves to make sure people look at the real issues and join hands to move forward is key…

  3. Nonhlanhla moyo says:

    I agree with you that a girl ‘ s upbringing determines her future.What came to mind was my mother in law who strongly believes that a woman’s place is at home not in the office as such I shld leav my job and go plough the fields!.In contrast I was raised by an aunt who told me that my generation belongs in offices…..Thus the views of our mothers or gurdians strongly influences wat a gal becomes…

    While t mayb true dat some of the skills are not neccessary , let me point out that we are socialised according to the environment we live in, be it rural or urban.This is neccesary to condition us to the environment as we grow up and to take care of ourselves wen we leave and start up our own homes.If you look at yourself you’l see that your ma left you a legacy though you live in a different world.Personally I dnt view what I was taught as a wastage of time…

    Not all fathers are like yours , in most cases its usuall the mother who fights for her gal child to go to school.

    My view is that we should raise our children with no gender barriers and give them all equal opportunities to be what they want to be…

  4. Phineas says:

    Thanks to your mother who did not teach and cultivate laziness in you as some parents did, you are powerful at what you have chosen. I believe it comes from the training you felt was ‘bad’ (lol) then. If she was around , she’ll be proud of you and the results of her training. I really wonder how you think sometimes.

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