AN INTERVIEW WITH DACIA MARAINI
Dacia Maraini, what is the most violated, denied, and least respected human right of African women?
It is difficult to talk about rights in tribal societies where rights are measured by tradition. However, I would start by saying that one cannot talk about African women in a general sense. In African countries where there are laws, a recognised constitution, a system of institutions that function well or badly, the rights denied to women are similar to those of many other countries in the world. For example, a lack of equality at work, lack of access to higher education, lack of respect and consideration during trials, and a lack of proper care in hospitals.
Violence against women in Africa takes many forms, whether that be rape, physical and psychological abuse, forced, arranged or early marriages, childbirth deaths, denied access to education, female genital mutilation. Which is in your opinion the worst instrument of subjugation?
I would say that the worst instrument of repression is genital mutilation, because it occurs on girls who are not yet aware and because it is irremediable. However, all other forms of repression are hateful and very serious for female growth and freedom. In second place, however, I would put the impediment to studies that deprives little girls of the possibility of becoming aware of their rights. It is no coincidence that in all dictatorial countries women are denied the right to study. A woman who acquires instruments of judgement and analysis is more difficult to control.
What international and national instruments can be referred to for the elimination of female genital mutilation?
As always, laws arise from culture. Genital mutilation is a very old custom, predating the Muslim religion. In addition, it stems from a need to subject women to patriarchal power. There should be a campaign that focuses on historical knowledge of the problem and then on civil rights. Nevertheless, it is a cat eating its own tail, because if there is no awareness, it will be the women themselves, as is still the case now, who will claim to enforce the old repressive rules against women. Some Australian friends told me about a network of African immigrant women who practiced genital mutilation on girls, considering it an ancestral duty. Fortunately someone protested and so the case came out.
What are the challenges of gender equality in Africa?
As I said, it is difficult to talk about Africa in general. Africa is made up of many Countries and not all are equal. There is a Muslim Africa that has often taken and reproduced ancient tribal customs and turned them into laws, there is a Christian Africa that is more careful but does not shy away from syncretism that often does harm. There is a pagan Africa that appropriates the most advanced technology without, however, renouncing the ancient repressive customs, not only towards women but also men, such as slavery, the trade in human bodies, etc.
How does culture affect gender inequality in Africa?
As I have already said, the evil comes from the idea that we can appropriate technological advances without taking into account and focusing on education to respect others, practice democracy and respect civil rights for all. These are cultural achievements and are too often overlooked in the belief that modernity comes from the possession of money, weapons and power.
What is Afro-feminism?
I honestly don't know. I don’t know enough about the situations in different countries. But I would say that all women, when they are deprived of their rights, realise it, even if they do not express it in words. The discomfort is recognisable in their illnesses of the spirit. But who takes care of women’s spiritual ills?
Can we speak of a different kind of feminism depending on geographical regions?
Feminism should not divide but unite. What makes the difference of course are the historical and social conditions. However, freedom knows neither religion nor ideology. A woman who does not have freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of movement knows this. Even a little bird in a cage knows that freedom is to go beyond the bars that deny it the right to fly. The little bird cannot state this because it does not have a voice, but it knows. So even the most ignorant and most unaware woman knows when she is prevented from being free in thought, in speech, in movement.
What are the main problems that the African women’s rights movement is trying to solve?
I think it is a great cultural burden that it has taken onto its shoulders. And I am grateful to the movement that addresses these problems with such generosity and historical intelligence.
What impact did colonialism have on the roles of women in African society?
Colonialism was bad because it was aimed at appropriating the goods of countries rich in raw materials. Moreover, it sinned badly in not taking care of creating acceptable living conditions, such as roads, wells, schools, and hospitals. Yet, without intending to, through its intellectuals something of the civil rights achievements came about. I repeat: I do not believe that there are civilised and non-civilised countries. I believe that the events of emancipation should be seen in a historical sense. There is no doubt that human history begins in Africa and in prehistoric times Africa was in the vanguard in every sense. Then it fell into a kind of historical slumber that led it into poverty, leaving new conquests to take place in other countries. In addition, it has to be said that the richer and more technologically advanced countries took advantage of this to plunder Africa’s wealth.
What were women’s rights like in Africa before?
Rights change according to living conditions. In a tribe that has to hunt and practice nomadism to survive, rights will be those established by the harsh laws of survival. Nevertheless, I think that African women in the times before colonialism had more rights than the power regimes that came from outside. In many African societies there was a form of matriarchy, based on the symbolic power of motherhood. The woman gave life and was therefore considered sacred and divine. This was certainly lost with the arrival of colonialism.
How can gender inequality in Africa be reduced?
Only with culture. More schools for all, more research, more historical awareness. These have always been the tools for the emancipation of peoples. Even of those people -namely women- who are considered a minority but they are not.
What would you write in a letter to an African child?
I would write, Dear little African girl, I would like you to be happy, and for that I would say, first of all you must be free from hunger and misery. If you can be free from misery, I would say, insist on your right to education. Because by studying and informing yourself, you will better understand your rights and know how to fight for them. Trust your moral and intellectual strength; do not be swayed by those who tell you that you are inferior, that you are not capable of thinking for yourself, or those who tell you to cover yourself because your body, your hair, is a source of temptation. Think that your freedom is the freedom of all. Do not be afraid, if you want it, you are capable of imposing your dignity and your need for justice. The future is yours, dear child, do not let it be torn from your hands. With all my heart. Dacia Maraini