Of course, such recognition came amidst a long history of struggle by different women activists. Initial claims the women made were over the right to work in view of the fact that industrialization created greater employment opportunities for women albeit not necessarily on equal terms with men.
This demand was intensified during the war period at the turn of the 20th Century when most young and abled men were conscripted to fight wars leaving the industrial and other services sectors without adequate ’manpower’ to run them. Let it be clear from the outset that workers unions existing at that time were not the main drivers or supporters of women’s right to work or for women workers.
This fact has not changed over time and most gains women have made in the employment sector has been as a result of the women’s and feminist movement’s initiatives and not so much that of trade unions. The second claim that obtained much publicity and support was the right to vote.
This gave rise to the suffragist movement which was probably one of the first times the women’s movement assumed a transnational appeal because such demands were heard not just in continental Europe and North America but also in Oceania, North African and Eastern Europe among others. In fact some of the most famous figures of the early women’s movement were women who were suffragists.
The right to vote for women was significant in two main respects. The first was that by being able to vote in elections it allowed women to partake in decision making related to a country or county and therefore register their interests in the running of national and local social and political affairs. Of course the right to vote allowed women to acquire the status of citizenship from whence they could demand other civil and legal rights. Secondly, it allowed women’s citizenship to be registered and their individuality to be asserted unlike the wide practice at the time that saw women as perpetual minors who were under the watch and direction of their fathers or husbands. It was, therefore, not uncommon for men to marry women from rich families not so much because of love but because they hoped to access their wealth since socially they would not be able to manage their affairs because only men were granted access to financial and public institutions. The assumption from reading the introductory part as well as other literature of the history of the modern women’s movement could be that women’s struggle was waged only in the west and only in highly industrialised nations. This notion is what makes many people assume that hen African women or Tanzanian women ask for specific rights that they are aping western values and ways or that they have been sponsored by someone from the west to make their demands. This is far from the truth and even if it had an ounce of truth then it would not be something unique to women. I will return to this later. I first want to emphasize that women in many communities have through time fought for their rights as well of for the rights of their communities. In the case of Tanzania, however, it must be remembered that at the time the suffragist movement was taking shape the then Tanganyika was undergoing a colonial experience where not just women
but also men were rendered nameless, powerless and insignificant. It was the names of the European explorers who were shown around by locals that became known in history books. Only the names of those who opposed European rule became infamous enough to be recorded in history. But we know that these infamous Africans were many times protected by women. The hero of Maji Maji Chief Mkwawa owes much credit to his mother who kept his hopes to assume his father’s dominion. She is said to have committed suicide so as not to reveal a
magic portion entrusted to her that guarded her son. Numerous freedom fighters are also known to have been nurtured and guarded by women who were the main supporters and sponsors of the liberation struggle. Women tilled farms and sold goods to be able to contribute towards Mwalimu’s trips to the UN to argue for Tanzania’s independence. Women did not, however, just struggle in the political realm. They also struggled socially against cultures and practices that discriminated against them. The Women Writing Africa Project is one of the seminal works to offer an insight on the lives of women in Africa during pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial times and the types of struggles they waged at different sites be it in the bedroom, in matrimonial relationships, in society and the like. Notably the volume documents women’s roles in the struggle for independence. The Women Writing Africa Project focused on specific regions. The volume that covers the Eastern Region of Africa mainly Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambiacontains over 130 texts from 29 languages and is ably edited by our very own Amandina Lihamba in collaboration with other women from the region. The pieces are from a range of disciplines namely History, Anthropology, Sociology and Literature. Some of the pieces are academic works but others not strictly so and cover a range of topics written in different styles- prose
and poetry, fiction and nonfiction, lullabies and protest songs. Women come alive in the volume in their diverse roles and status as queens, slaves, mothers, nuns, field generals, political activists, and politicians. One of the letters published in the volume is a letter published in one of the local dailies in the early 20th century by a woman who resides in Dar es Salaam.Expressing her unhappiness about the unfair portrayal of women generally but more specifically about the advantages men enjoyed while women were being denied even though they too were human and capable of many feats that men were allowed to partake in. Remarkably while her contemporaries in Europe still used pseudonyms to write because it was not acceptable for women to write or publish in their own name, she did not hide her identity or her sentiments. While men who criticize a political,
social or cultural system are rarely vilified but praised for being radicals, revolutionaries, and progressive women who attempt to criticize unjust systems that do not work well for women are vilified, condemned and shamed for betraying their cultures, their country or their families. Women who speak up against injustice are often debased by their communities not valued or praised. In some instances forceful means may be applied to coerce them to fall back in line. Many times sexual violence is used to intimidate women as well as discredit women because of the shame they sustained. In the ongoing Arab Spring across North Africa numerous stories have emerged of protesting women who have been sexually violated for joining the reform movement and sometimes the assault has been committed publicly so as to dissuade other women and their families from partaking in such protests lest a similar fate meet their daughters. This is the message that Tanzanian women activists protesting against the continued loss of life were given following a protracted strike by doctors in public hospitals. As is the case it took the action of the Feminist Activist Coalition to corner the authorities to act but in return the government deployed the police force to open criminal charges against women and men protesting over the violation of the constitutional right to life, to security and the right to assemble. More grave is that such arrests should come at a time when the constitution is being opened for discussion. What women need to ask themselves is to what extent will the process guarantee their rights at par with those of men? Already we are seeing signs that the rights of women will be severely compromised. Certainly, women need to be more vigilant and seek to protect their rights rather than leaving the process at the hands of patriarchal structures whose only interests is domination, exploitation and suppression.