Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Girls and Boys

Growing up in the US, I’ve always been told I can be anything I want to be. As a kid, I played soccer and learned karate and took piano lessons. I made a self-toothpasting toothbrush for the 4th grade invention fair and competed against boys in history day and debate competitions. I learned how to drive a car and went to college. And I did most of it while wearing pants, despite the fact that I’m a girl.

American women of my generation don’t generally see their gender as a handicap. Sure, statistically women still make less money than men in the corporate world, and there’s that whole biological baby-making thing that separates us from men, but most Americans women don’t view themselves as inherently inferior to men. Most American MEN don’t assume they’re inherently superior to women. We don’t define ourselves in relation to our fathers or our husbands, we sign our own official documents, and it’s been several decades since any woman has happily been called “Mrs. [husband’s name].”

But here in Africa it’s a different story…

When I tell Africans that I’m 24, single, and childless, they pity me. They don’t care that I graduated college with honors, that I’ve accomplished a lot of things professionally, or that I’m happy with my life. I am a childless, husbandless failure of a woman—a failure who insists on wearing the clothes of men and refuses to cover her hair. When I enrolled for my courses abroad in South Africa, because I’m female the university enrollment forms required the signature of my father or, in the case that my father was dead, my paternal grandfather or brother—NOT my mother or the gender neutral “parent or guardian.” (Sorry Dad, I forged your signature…but technically I, too, am J. Amos.)

I’ve written before about the frustration of gender inequalities in both Swaziland and Tanzania. I’ve told stories of spousal abuse and corporal punishment, of girls who have no time for homework because their fathers and brothers expect them to wash clothes and cook meals for them, of smart girls whose post-graduation plans are limited to marriage and motherhood, and of a hundred other manifestations of gender inequality that I witness every day.

Now, as I spend my every morning studying the intricacies of the Swahili language, I’m realizing that even the language is sexist. Sure, Romance languages have masculine and feminine nouns, and there are gender-specific words in English, too, that have somewhat sexist connotations. Feminist linguists argue that words like “human,” “mankind,” and even “woman” are sexist, and at weddings the bride is still symbolically “given away” by her father to her new husband. But Kiswahili takes it to a whole new level, particularly as the language relates to marriage and relationships.

For example, when asking someone if they’re married in Kiswahili, the question depends on the gender of the person you’re asking. To a man, you ask, “Umeoa?” which literally means “Are you married?” To a woman, you ask, “Umeolewa?” which translates to “Have you been married by someone?” The verb that means “to marry” is active for men and passive for women, so men marry and women are the victims of marriage. If someone asks an unmarried woman if she is married, her answer translates as “I am not yet married,” and it’s improper to answer without the “yet” part. But men are simply “not married.”

In divorce, the language is similarly one-sided. The verb “kuacha” means to throw out, to drop, or to leave behind. It also describes what a man does to a woman when he no longer wants to be married to her (aka divorce), but it cannot be done by a woman. Essentially, when a couple divorces in Kiswahili, the man throws away his wife and the woman is thrown away by her husband—even if the woman legally initiates the divorce proceeding, which is rare but allowed in all of East Africa. The woman then becomes an “mke aliyeachewa,” or “woman who has been thrown away by someone” (aka divorcee), but the man simply becomes single again—there is no word to describe a man who is no longer married.

The linguistic inequality, I think, stems from the centuries old legal arrangement of wives being the property of their husbands—a notion that very few modern American woman would agree with, but that still holds true in many developing countries. Similarly, children are the property of their fathers, not their mothers. (This also happens in the US when, by default, children are given their father’s last name, but today it’s really the choice of the mother.) In the Tanzanian National Anthem, the second verse thanks God for blessing Tanzania and for blessing “the wives of men and their children.” NOT women, men and children—the wives who belong to the men, and the children who belong to the men. Apparently nobody cares whether or not God blesses unmarried women.

And maybe this is something that will change in a generation’s time, like it did in the Western world, after girls start going to college and women start getting top jobs in the corporate world or government and start demonstrating their competency outside the realm of cooking, cleaning, and child rearing. Until then, I’ll be frustrating my Kiswahili teacher by making the language of marriage and divorce gender neutral by using a reciprocal verb suffix—“kuoana” (to marry one another) and “kuacha” (to divorce one another)—even though I know it’s technically incorrect. For now, at least. 

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