The Price of a ‘good woman’

Nov 11, 2011

Life along the route between the bed and the training venue is captivating, every block filled with life: frolicking children draped in ragged clothing play in the mud puddles – more like little brown swimming pools – left by the evening rains, some very young ones already conscripted into the task of child-care, a younger sibling strapped against wee bodies.  They wave and squeal, ‘Morning!’ – no matter the time of day. Small corner shops are doing a brisk business with a diverse clientele of women, men and children, dressed variously in neatly pressed suits, knee-length black or ankle-length white djalabiyas, shorts, trousers, SPLM or UNHCR or USAID or White Bull or  Independence Day t-shirts, some barely hanging on at the shoulders.  On the return journey in the evening, restaurant meals, bicycle and boda boda repairs, haircuts and hair-styling are happening, often out front of the small, ramshackle shorefronts, the dust of the road mixing with shampoos, automotive oils, lentil soups and plates of injera.

The second day of the training, we venture onto the treacherous terrain of gender.  In a fishbowl tête-à-tête women and men sit in two concentric circles, women on the inside and men on the outside.  Those in the outside circle are meant to sit quietly and listen, eavesdropping on a conversation to which otherwise they are unlikely to ever expect an invitation.

Workshop activity Gender Fishbowl‘What’s a “good woman” here in South Sudan?  What does your culture tell you is a “good woman”?’ The circle seems to sigh as responses to the question are considered.  A good woman respects men.  A good woman looks after the house and the children.  A good woman goes to the market and prepares the food, cooks, cleans up.  In some parts, Western Bahr al-Gazal, a good woman is a strong productive farmer.  A good woman has lots of babies.  She eats last, after everyone.  A good woman looks after her husband’s needs and stays quiet.  A good woman is married with children, hard-working and does not challenge her husband.  A good woman does not speak about her feelings; she is not supposed to say ‘no’.  A good woman brings a big bride price.

‘Anything wrong with this picture; it’s all OK with you?’ comes the next question.  The response is explosive: It’s like living in a cage! We’re trapped! I’m allowed no feelings, no opinion; just work, work, work; baby machines, that’s all we’re good for. Can you imagine the life of the barren wife!!? We can’t even smile at a man, any man without being accused of being loose.  The kitchen is the place for everyone, not just women! Why are men so helpless? I’m worth more than a thousand cows! I will not be bought and sold, bartered like so much cattle myself, like a slave!

Later in the day, the men, this time in the middle, confirm what has been said by the women, from their perspective.  A good man has a quiet and obedient wife who produces lots of children.  A good man says hello to everyone in the morning.  A good man is ‘productive’.  Grins all around.  Of children.  Lots.  A good man is the religious one who goes to mosque and is respected.  A good man marries more than one wife in order to expand the family.   A good man gets the authority.  We are pastoralists:  a good man knows what to do when thieves come.  He shoots and defends his cows; he doesn’t tremble like a woman.   He is a warrior.  A good man doesn’t blame the woman when she produces just girls.

In between those two sessions of the ‘fishbowl’, the men and women have had a chance to talk together in small groups of their own gender.  The picture continues to emerge.  A man says, Polygamy is good and a woman should adjust.  This is our culture, says another.  The Bible says.  Women aren’t supposed to talk about what happens inside the house.  If I were to do the dishes, both men and women would laugh at me, call me a woman.  If a man marries a woman who is not doing her work and complaining, he can look for another woman to comfort him.  One gets up from his chair and strides into the middle of the circle:  ‘The African woman was missing.  There was no African woman in this room to defend our culture!’ He takes his seat, seemingly oblivious to the wave of quiet outrage that has swept the room.

Two days later, as we list those issues specific to South Sudan, three on a list of 22 emerge for deeper analysis and consideration:  corruption, how to transform soldiers into civilians and cattle rustling.  When we get to the latter, I have a question:  Why do people keep cattle?  In my country, cattle are for milk and beef.  Same here, one says.  And bride price, adds another.  Well, actually, it’s mainly for bride price.

Today’s headlines carry news that Omar al-Bashir is ready to declare war on the South if they do not, as he claims, stop the attacks on border areas.  A front page article asks:  What are we going to do about cattle rustling?  

Cattle rustling is at the heart of our violent culture, a South Sudanese man muses over dinner that night.  It’s everything.  Your daughters bring cows and husbands and children into the family.  More highly valued sons, however, require cows if they are to marry.  What if you don’t have the cows or the money in lieu of cows?  You raid the neighbouring tribe.  You get the cows you need but because they stole cows from you once and their father stole cows from your father and their grandfather stole cows… the element of revenge turns the cattle rustling into a blood bath.

More than a thousand people were killed in cattle raiding last month alone.  Who knows how many were kidnapped.  Children don’t go to school because they are tending your cows or kidnapped to tend the cows just rustled, conscripted as tiny soldiers in their elders’ cattle wars.  And to add insult to injury, your daughters and wives are also kidnapped, raped or killed.  Cows are everything; human beings fall short in value.  Cows are status, wealth, and, most importantly, the currency used in the marketting and bartering of women and girls by their fathers, brothers and clan chiefs.


Six men are role-playing a miniature gender fishbowl, a rather provocative and courageous exercise to choose to play out for the larger group.  The trainees are learning to be trainers, to multiply their experience, train more trainers in an exponential reach across this embryonic nation.   The room reacts with ill-concealed surprise.  The ‘trainer’ poses two questions to the ‘women’ – one of them a manager of Religious Affairs in the office of President Salva Kiir, another unpaid staff with the Darfur Refugees’ Committee in El Ginein, some few kilometres from the Chad border; the third one is responsible for the assertion a week ago that no African women were present to ‘defend our culture’.  ‘What’s a good woman?’  ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ they are asked.

It is when the djalabiya-clad trainer unpacks the experience with the small group that we hear words and phrases that suggest that something is happening.  While mischievously aware of the impact of their role play, the characters are sober, the men presenting themselves as shaken by what they have heard the ‘women’ say. the ‘women’ determined to step outside their patriarchal roles, to break the rules.  The ‘trainer’ probes further with one who says, ‘I need to do things differently’ – how? What will you do?  Well, he says, there are a lot of decisions that women have no part in; I’m not sure any more that that makes any sense at all.

It’s modest; it’s play-acting, after all.  Change does not happen overnight. But this experience cannot be denied.  For his facilitation, the trainer-in-training receives modest praise for his flawed efforts.  It is the words we all heard emerge, the profound contrast with the snorting disgust expressed out loud such a short time ago that have called out tears from a few of the onlooking eyes.  A week ago, one woman said, it’s too difficult, it won’t happen; let the next generation do it.  Meanwhile a flipchart paper poster has appeared on the wall beside the window that looks out on a squatter’s compound of mud tukuls:  If not me, who?  If not here, where?  If not now, when?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-14761020; slide show: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-12538051


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