New Internationalist

Equal Rights | White Sisters Listen!

Issue 150

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SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF FEMINISM

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Cartoons by Cath Jackson
3 EQUAL RIGHTS
Feminists believe that all women have a right to legal and financial independence.

. Racism is an important issue for feminists because black women are oppressed by racism and sexism. Positive discrimination should be used to counter their disadvantages.

. All discrimination against lesbians must be ended.

. Women must have the right to vote in every country of the world and the right to stand for election.

. Laws, welfare and tax rules which define women in relation to their husbands, and assume that women are primarily responsible for domestic work, should be abolished.

Words

Frogs in a well: Indian women in purdah
Paaicia Jeffery (Zed Press)

Women on Trial
Susan Edwards (Manchester University Press)
An alarming look at criminal/ustice at work in the treatment of women as suspects, defendants and offenders.

Maternity Rights Handbook
Ruth Evans and Lyn Dwward (Penguin)
In formation spanning the full materniw cycle from preconception, through child-b/nh and motherhood

Mukti: Asian Women’s Magazine
213 Eversholt Street, London NW1.
Published in Bengait English, Guieratt, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu.

Look me in the eye: old women, ageing and ageism
Barbara MacDonald and Cynthia Rich (The Women’s Press, UK).

Look me in the eye.

Action

The Commission for Racial Equality
Elliot House, 10-12 Allington Street London SWiE 5EH. Tel. -1-828-7022.
Investigates, reports on and provides legal advice in cases of racial discrimination.

Women’s Electoral Lobby
National Office: 3 Lobelia St O’Connor 2601, A.C.T. Australia (Branches in each state)
Produces a newsletter and lobbies politicians on women’s rights.

Rights of Women
52-54 Featherstone St London ECi Tel.
(01) 251 6577 Telephone advice Tue-Thur 7-9.00 p.m.

Migrant Resource Centre
122 Gouger St Adelaide 5000, S.A. Tel. (08) 212 1622
A referral centre.

Gingerbread
35 Wellington St London WC2E 7BN Tel. (01) 240 0953/4
Self-help association for single parents.

Lesbian Employment Rights,
Room 203, Southbank. House, Black Prince Road, London SEl 7SJ Tel. (01) 587 1636.
Provides information and monitors the discrimination that lesbians face in un-employment

Women’s Immigration and Nationality Group
c/o 115 Old Street London ECi 9JR Tel. (01) 251 8706

The Children’s Legal Centre
20 Compton Terrace, London ECi 9JR Tel. (01) 359 6251
Provides in formation on the rights of young people, and publishes a bulletin Childright ten times a year.


White sisters listen!
Are black women more oppressed than their white sisters?
Buchi Emecheta puts an angry African viewpoint.

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At the University of Stanford I met the head of a research department. She was a very quiet, nice Canadian lady. She said, without mincing words, that she would rather have young men in her department. This was because hers was a funded research section of the university. She found that women always left to get married when the going became too long and difficult, whereas men usually stuck it out. The greater the number of students that saw their courses through, the better for the department and for all the lecturers concerned.

I asked her if this stand did not perpetuate the myth that women give up too easily after their master’s degree. ‘It probably is a myth, but this is what happens here.’

Well, if this is a myth, which is being confirmed by real-life experiences, why are we women hesitant in stretching ourselves to our fullest in the fields considered to be important?

During our time, the media have not done much to explode the myth about women and education. And since education has become available for all, girls have not been pushed as hard by their teachers as boys. The white girl pupil is encouraged to play the delicate beautiful lady, an attitude that survives from slave society. But matters are worse for the black girl because her myth is that of the mammy. Her stereotype is fat, with lolling breasts full of milk, a headscarf to cover her ugly cringy hair, and flashing teeth she is loud, hot, and never angry. She is the full contrast of the white alabaster woman, whose delicacy is enhanced by the existence of the mammy. The mammy would do all the work, would feed the master’s all-white babies, bear slaves for the master and would never say no to him. All these myths originated from slavery.

The power of myths and conditioning is not to be trifled with. It is very strong. Many such images given to people through the ages, and then reinforced in literature, still persist with great influence today. Women, despite all their education, would rather go and teach (or at best lecture) or nurse, or work in medicine as paediatricians or gynaecologists. In other words, extending the home work outside.

The black woman is still regarded as loose, and people will quickly quote you the number of one-parent families among the black community - hence many of us are wary of feminism as it stands.

For in the American situation, how many black men were hanged for raping white women? I haven’t the figures but I am sure it would go into hundreds. But no single white man has ever been hanged in America for all the rapes the black woman had committed on her.

How can we forget that?

Do you then blame us for being careful in following the white woman’s footsteps? The blood of the black woman has helped so much in building the America of today, but look at her, living in poor areas of Palo Alto in California: look at her shacks in Sacramento, to say nothing of the east - in New York City and its environs, in Illinois.

Can there be an end to these myths and beliefs?

Take the case of the white woman. Literature and tradition have cast her as pure, very submissive and charming. She is there on a pedestal, like a goddess. Men who make the rules in most societies, especially in the West, set their women up as ideals. And when women had been brought up to behave exactly as men wanted them to, they became a laughing stock. The white woman was always so beautiful that she invariably bewitched her lover when young, but when she became old she could be burned for being a witch. So she must always strive to be young. She could be gay and charming before marriage, but after her marriage she had to keep her gaiety strictly for her husband - a husband who in most cases was free to wander.

Men did not just make fun of these characteristics which they had bestowed on women; they soon started to write about them. Women were then portrayed in literature as bewitching, delicate and full of charm. And even the first early women writers followed this pattern. Even those women who had the courage to ask for education for the white woman did not do so to make them independent, but to make them good helpers and soulmates to their husbands.

The black woman came from a completely different culture. Women in old Africa were not all that free, but they had strong relevance in their societies - until they came in contact with the white woman. The black woman who could hold her head up and speak in the congregation of her people was listened to. Women did have their own ways of changing their societies. Housework was never regarded as a minor job, because in a society where to get fuel and prepare the meal takes all day, it is a crucial job. Hence the major qualification for any girl was her ability to cook, and she must be blessed with good health and energy, to bear babies. The black woman had learnt to survive in these environments, and she had become so adapted to them that in areas like the Ibo societies of Nigeria, she could even organise and fight her own wars.

One example is the so-called ‘Aba riot’ of the late 1920s. This was a ‘riot’ that spread from Calabar in Eastern Nigeria through to Owerri (among women who did not even speak the same language) and stretched to include all the towns in the Rivers area, to Onitsha by the river Niger, then across the river to include women from Asaba area. Although the white male chroniclers called it a riot, it was more like a marvel - that women at that time were able to organise themselves when there were no telephones, no letters: only bush tracks and dangerous rivers. The whole area was equivalent to the distance from London in England to Edinburgh in Scotland. The actual war was organised with women from different groups wearing different war gears, and all using their household utensils as weapons.

Interestingly, the black women of that war were praised by their husbands, so much so that they became legendary figures and we, the children born from such women, sing and raise our hands each time their heroic deeds are told. They received admiration, not rebuke, and in desperation the British administrators jailed all the men whose wives took an active part in the war, in a vain attempt to show the world that men were behind it all. They could not acknowledge that women, especially ‘black barbaric’ women, could ever organise such a thing - at a time when their own women were still wrapped in cotton wool and kept so busy being ladies.

But other black women, whether they lived in the Ibo land or in Pennsylvania, were less lucky. They came in contact with the alabaster, white Christian woman. Like the African male, the white male was intrigued by the woman who can hold her own in reasonable argument and logic - but he would not let his wife do it. So the black woman is taught by her white sister to be ashamed of her outspokenness. She is taught to pretend, to value the nuclear family rather than her community life style.

So it would seem that the black woman, like most women in the world, was not really free, but the little freedom she enjoyed before meeting her white sister was taken away from her in such a way that she became of even lower status than previously. But now many black women are becoming educated in the West and in their own cultures. They are beginning to ask questions, questions which even the white lady cannot answer.

Black women all over the world should reunite and re-examine the way history has portrayed us. Now, when we have all this education, why do we hesitate to change all that has been written about us? Going back and not, as Angela Davis once said, ‘moving on’ is looking up to the white woman to help us. How can she? She is helpless herself. And not only is she helpless, she is afraid of our anger, and even jealous of the little freedom we had.

Bachi Emecheta

This article is an excerpt from the book ‘Women: A World Report’,
published by Methuen and New Internationalist Publications.


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