Saturday, February 26, 2011

March 8th is International Woman's Day

17 February – Kossouka, 8:36pm

I'm sitting in my courtyard, under the brilliant full moon. Today is our 2 month anniversary at site, or almost 5 months of being in the Faso. It's incredible how hard it is to keep track of time when there isn't the familiar pattern of the changing seasons accompanied by the ebb and flow of the academic year. How in the world do “adults” function without the schedule of first-days, exams, due dates and finals? :p

I don't do all that much talking in village besides a ton of greetings (have I mentioned that you stop and greet nearly everyone?), attempts at conversation in Moore (no I don't understand you, yes I understand when you tell me I don't understand), and occasional chats with my CSPS staff. But when Moussa comes to talk to me in English I finally get to expand on a topic, to the point that he now jokingly calls me “the philosopher”. He inevitably gets me onto a topic that I have trouble explaining in English, let alone French, so after trying for a minute and not finding the right words I switch back into English and he surprisingly seems to get most of it.

Today our subject was March 8. While this day doesn't really hold much significance for most Americans, in the rest of the world it's International Woman's Day. I always loved receiving my annual CD from Stephanie of music by female artists in celebration of the day, but admittedly didn't see the big deal until I got here and realized how much it means to Burkinabe women (and this is just based on what women have told me!). So when Moussa declared himself to be 'against' March 8th I was taken aback – I could hardly imagine anyone saying that, even if it was how they felt! I was really curious to see where he would go with this, so off we went.

His argument seemed to be that there are better things to do to advance women than to have an international day, specifically through pushing education for women. He said that he respects women who have an education, and that if the government gave more scholarships for women and if women worked hard to earn respect from men they would have it. He also was concerned that women who think they are better than men can't find husbands, because what husband wants to be pushed around by his wife? And finally, if there is a single day for women, does that mean the rest of the days are for men?

I started trying to share my opinion in French, but this was going to have to be another thing better expressed in English. I honestly ignored his joking comment about all the rest of the days being for men – I knew I wouldn't be able to argue it convincingly on the spot without coming across as totally defensive. While I completely agree that education is a huge factor in advancing equality and respect for women, I was a little puzzled that he felt it was an either/or situation – we can have International Woman's Day or we can have more women being educated, but not both. We got a little sidetracked on the subject of education and respect, with me pointing out that in the US there is also a severe lack of respect for the uneducated, and that without an education one cannot do much of anything in terms of work. He said “well, you know, you don't need a degree to work in a bar or something like that” and was shocked when I told him that, in fact, you do need to go to bartending school and be licensed to work in a bar – education is everything in the US and while it's legal to drop out at 16, you're going to have a very hard time. He was a bit surprised.

The issue of respect is an interesting one that I started thinking on more once I got home. Moussa, as a teacher, respects women if they are educated. What about Americans? Stereotypically, the person who garners the most respect is a middle-aged, well educated, decently but not obscenely wealthy white male, preferably who either comes from a well-off family, although a lot of respect is also afforded to those thought to have “pulled themselves up by the bootstraps” so to speak. People who are not “well spoken”, who have not graduated from college or high school, who don't move comfortably through middle class society or have the wrong skin color or the wrong bank account balance – these are the people who are not granted that “automatic” respect. The rich older white guy could be dumb as a brick, or cruel, or a criminal, but he will still have a measure of that automatic respect – people will pay attention to him and what he says. The poor immigrant woman who speaks broken English will be passed over without a glance, even if she has earned a PhD from her home country – until people learn that there is a reason to respect her (her high level of education), she won't be respected very highly.

The point that I did make to Moussa is that, no matter what their education or background or skin color or job or sex, people deserve our respect for being human. He said he respects the women of our CSPS staff because they're clearly educated. But we should equally respect the illiterate woman who never went to school sitting next to them, because she's human and her life has value. Burkinabe women work incredibly hard with very little appreciation for their work. They are the first to be pulled out of school when it gets too expensive, they are expected to do chores (and not easy chores – carrying water on your head when you're 7 years old is hard work) while their brothers play, they do the heavy labor of the farm (harvesting, threshing millet, crushing beans) while the men drink coffee and dolo and sit as Presidents and Treasurers on community committees.

So we find ourselves in a chicken-and-egg situation. Men will feel that women deserve respect if they are educated and demand respect. But women won't demand respect or be educated until men feel like they deserve those things. You see the problem. This is where things like March 8th come into play. Will a parade solve the ills of the world? No. But (and here is where I earn my nickname from Moussa and my staff) people need to be given hope. They need to have dreams and aspirations and examples that they aren't alone and that they are valuable and have potential. That is what Woman's Day is about – taking the time to see and celebrate the many accomplishments of women all over the world, to show women that they can have aspirations and hope, to show men that women can do it, that they can be successful in business, in politics, in education, in the home. It's not just a parade to let women march down a street with a sign saying “Look at me! What an oddity – a female lawyer/banker/miner/doctor/mayor/head of household.” It's a parade to let women say “Look at that woman! She started out just like me and now she's accomplished so much – if she can follow her dreams, maybe I can too.” It's a parade to let men say “Look at that woman and how much she has accomplished! Maybe if she deserves my respect, so do my wife and my sisters and my daughters.” It's a parade to let children say “Look at that woman! She's doing something I thought she couldn't – maybe men and women can do some of the same things in life and it doesn't have to be a man-thing or a woman-thing, it can be a person-thing.” A parade will not change the world. It probably won't be a revolutionary or mind-changing experience for most people who see it or even who are in it. But societies and opinions change slowly, from many small things chipping away at the status-quo, and something like a parade and a day to celebrate women and to make people think about the value of women in a society – that's one more small step contributing to a larger movement towards change.

While I didn't change his mind of the importance of Woman's Day, I'm glad I got the chance to think about it and articulate it (sorta). There are a lot of things like this that I have a really strong gut reaction towards, but can't really explain or defend. While I know there are holes a mile wide in my arguments, I also know that there is a reason for International Woman's Day, that even if not everyone values it, it makes a difference to some people, which to me is a good enough reason to have it. I think it certainly says something about the value it holds for women here that I've heard quite a bit about it before even getting to experience it myself, that people ask me questions about it and how it is(n't) celebrated where I'm from (France? Canada? Who knows.).

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