“Make me a sandwich”… so the sexist trope goes in anticipation of any female daring enough to venture out of the kitchen. Pardon the pun but the mother of all conundrums is that in this, the 21st century, equality of the sexes is still an elusive unicorn. Perhaps even more baffling is the indifference of proponents of racial equality towards issues of gender. Africa is a continent that has moulded a unified identity on racial equality but so often falls prey to the honey trap of gender inequality.
In July 2014, Emma Watson was appointed as a UN goodwill ambassador with the credentials of accomplished actress, humanitarian and Ivy League graduate behind her name. The focus of her campaign is to empower young women through promoting gender equality as an advocate for the UN Women’s HeForShe campaign. With the campaign targeted at young woman, it is apparent why Emma Watson was chosen. She has inextricably become linked to her character of Hermione Granger, the headstrong witch, in the Harry Potter series. Aside from the pop culture excitement of Hermione’s involvement with the UN, the Harry Potter series has been a significant literary platform for strong female characters.
Too often has the world of Wizardry consisted of patriarchal overtones. The mere mention of wizards evoke the scintillating imagery of magic, long beards, large hats and a sense of wonder. Witches, on the other hand, evoke little more than green skin, large warts and jars of newts. Though these are seemingly nothing more than fictional creatures that exist both to enchant and ensnare the senses, there are undeniable gender roles created with these characters. Wizards of Merlin’s stature compete with witches who intend on eating Hansel and Gretel while Gandalf sits in stark contrast to Roald Dahl’s witches who kidnap and kill children. Hogwarts painted a world where witches and wizards were on par with each other. A headstrong young witch, intellectually superior to her contemporaries while still maintaining poise challenged the nightmares of evil cackling witches.
And so emerges the HeForShe campaign seemingly through a flick of an eloquent wand. The HeForShe campaign exists in the realm of feminist principles that seek equal rights and opportunities for men and women politically, economically and socially. However, the narrative signals a shift from oppression by males, to the inclusion of males in the movement. With a swish and flick, the doors open to a new discourse. Shifting the margins and drawing into the debate, men. Men have often been peripheral to feminist movements whilst this campaign invites them to take to the centre stage in the theatre of gender inequality. The focus dissuades the narrative of pitting the sexes against each other by placing the emphasis on a unified movement against prejudice. It is not simply an issue pertinent to woman but rather a combined human rights issue.
What does this entail for an African context? The scathing, albeit generalised, truth is that African states are often presented as patriarchal societies enforcing the stereotypical gender roles. The notion of racial inferiority has often clouded the continent blatantly through systemic racism or under the guise of colonialism and neo-colonialism. While the fight against racism is a unified cause in Africa, the gender battle is still at large. The quest for equality pertains both to race and gender. How does one fight vehemently for racial equality and by the same hand continue to objectify and oppress women? One cannot simply seek one conception of equality while subjugating another. How do we then tackle the rights and role of women of colour who fight a double barrel inequality?
Racism is only tackled when the oppressor is aware of their wrongdoing. Similarly gender equality can only gain momentum through the support of men. The caveat, of course, being that oppression feeds on the ideology of the oppressor. Until these notions are challenged, inequality is able to reign free.
HeForShe feminism is exactly what we’re seeking. It is not manifested as male bashing or bra burning but rather in terms of equality. This should be particularly poignant in societies that have come under colonial rule and have suffered the injustices of racial degradation. These nations sought racial equality through the emergence of an identity no longer deemed inferior but rather on par. The battle cry for gender equality has to be raised to the same pitch and intensity. Our response can no longer be “make me sandwich” but rather to begin a conversation about whose turn it is to make a sandwich.