Feminists Born, Feminists Bred

By Dahbany-Miraglia, Dina | Women and Language, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Feminists Born, Feminists Bred


Dahbany-Miraglia, Dina, Women and Language


Abstract: Many Third World women have traditionally had what Western women have recently worked to achieve: autonomy, economic independence, and access to and exercise of power--in cooperation with women and men. These claims are supported by highlighting similar cultural patterns shared by populations on opposite shores of the Atlantic Ocean, in Africa south of the Sahara and Native North America.

Prologue

On Monday July 15, 2002, the Associated Press reported that about 600 unarmed Ijaw women in Escravos, Nigeria had exactly one week earlier taken over the country's largest Chevron-Texaco oil terminal. Holding 700 workers, including Americans, Britons and Canadians hostage, they used walkie talkies to communicate with each other as they negotiated with the oil company. Their threat to strip naked, a culturally-validated practice that irreparably shames the target, in part contributed to their ability to control the facility. "Our weapon is our nakedness," said Helen Odeworitse, a spokeswoman for the group. The women--mainly mothers and wives ages 30 to 90--demanded jobs for their sons, electricity for their homes, and economic development in Nigeria's oil-rich but dirt-poor Niger delta (The Associated Press, Monday July 15, 2002a, p. 14).

Their sons, individually and in small groups, usually take out their frustrations by kidnapping workers, intimidating contractors, sabotaging oil company facilities and in general settle disputes with guns (The Associated Press, Monday July 15, 2002b, p. A14; Frynas, 2000; Human Rights Watch, 1999). These actions have minimal constructive consequences in resolving the worst problems: high unemployment and unchecked pollution. On the other hand 600 unarmed Ijaw women in a bloodless siege took over an international mega-corporation's facility from where they conducted negotiations. These women exercised one of the mandates their culture requires of women: organizing to effect specific goals and to negotiate outcomes peacefully. (1)

This paper will show that modern Western feminist goals of economic, political and social autonomy, gender-neutral cultural options for advancement in their communities, same-gender and cross-gender patterns of cooperation, and the exercise of power, are culturally mandated in much of sub-Saharan Africa and Native North America. These indigenous cultural systems which emphasize balances of powers and cooperation between the sexes continue to work in spite of the centuries-long efforts of Islam and Judeo-Christian religions and Western colonialism to suborn them. The data supporting these claims span the Atlantic Ocean: Africa south of the Sahara and Native North America. (2, 3)

Africa South of the Sahara I: Women's Collective Action

In much of the Third World merit and personal gifts, individual and kin place in local hierarchies/lineages, as well as age, are significant foundations of social organization (Oduyoye, 1995, p. 12). Sex/gender, however, is limited to the physical properties of procreation in which women's biology, her capacity to bear children, is rated higher than men's. In many African matrilineal societies "women are the center of the kinship unit. Without women "'a lineage is finished,' the Akan say" (Oduyoye, 1995, p. 7). Speaking of precolonial periods and of the Oyo Yoruba of Southwest Nigeria sociologist Oyeronke Oyewumi (1997) comments.

   Biological facts do not determine who can
   become the monarch, or who can trade in the
   market.... The classic example is the female
   who played the roles of oba (ruler), omo
   (offspring), oko, aya, iya (mother) and alawo
   (diviner-priest) all in one body.... Unlike
   European languages, Yorubo does not "do
   gender;" it "does seniority" ... [which] ...is highly
   relational and situational ... it is neither rigidly
   fixated on the body nor dichotomized.... most
   Yoruba names are gender-free ... constant
   gendering and gender-stereotyping does not
   arise in the Yoruba language. … 

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