Friday, April 15, 2011

Connections Between Race, Gender, and Oppression in Namibian Society

Authors: Amy, Lee, Joel
Week 11: 28 March – 3 April

During spring break, on Monday the 21st of March, Namibia celebrated its 21st year since independence (1990). Thus, Namibia is still a young country. At the inception of its Constitution, Namibia tried to reconcile the centuries-old structures of injustice such as white supremacy and patriarchy. Each of these systems are based on ideas of power and subjugation that has been successful in oppressing large parts of the population for generations. Week 11’s classes addressed these significant issues which are still barriers in the lives of many Namibians today.
(Right: Representation Locally)

This week in History, we received important insights into the ideas of racial superiority and separation that motivated the implementation of the apartheid system. Chris Botha, a professor at the University of Namibia, discussed with us the history and rationale of apartheid from the point of view of Afrikaners in South Africa. According to Botha, apartheid sprang from the Afrikaner idea of “volk.” The Afrikaners’ believed they were a group of people that shared culture, language, history and a special contract with God. This cultural identity, along with the constant struggle against both the native Africans and the English colonizers, gave the Afrikaners an intense sense of independence that drove most of their political decisions. Accordingly, they implemented a policy of apartheid, which is an Afrikaans word meaning separateness. First and foremost, apartheid was a sort of “economic empowerment scheme” for the Afrikaners - to distinguish their independence and self-image as a chosen race. These ideas quickly lead to the racial segregation evolved into the systematic form of racial oppression that we are familiar with today.
(Above: Representation Nationally)

This evolution of these ideas, including those of cultural supremacy, independence, and separation are still apparent today through many aspects of society. As students studying in Namibia, we have observed visible residential segregation, severe inequalities in income, racialized incidences of disease such as HIV/AIDS, and even blatant and open racist remarks against black Namibians. These lingering effects, while deeply tied to structural injustices ingrained in Namibian society during apartheid era, also expose the ideas that buttressed the apartheid system. Similar notions of superiority and oppression can also be found between genders as well.

Gender issues are also pervasive to the political, economic and social climate in Namibia today. It has a dominating presence in social awareness and contributes to countless abuse cases and oppression. Gender is the social construction of sex; it is what society believes to be the correct way for both women and men to behave. Through a system of gender dominance a relationship between gender and power is established. When we look at gender in society, critical inquiry can never be simply an understanding that women and men are treated differently as a social construct. Rather, it has to be signified that men are put into a position of privilege, that not only allows them to have superior status but also gives them power.

During our development class we went to visit Sister Namibia, an organization that is fighting for the rights of women and working to achieve gender equality. It started as a newspaper in 1989 and is now the go-to organization on gender issues in the country. Sister Namibia is influential in helping to increase feminist mentalities and empowerment. It has been a driving force behind increased gender awareness, demonstrated through a 50/50 “zebra” campaign for balanced male and female representation in government. Subsequently, there has been a large increase of elected women in politics, changing from 12% to 33.5% since independence (Magano, Sister Namibia).

(Above: History Class Picture)

Part of the mission of Sister Namibia is to increase the freedom of women in relation to sexual choices and bodily integrity. This can be achieved through lobbying for a more progressive abortion policy. While abortion is legal under certain conditions, there are so many hoops to jump through to have one, that in reality it is quite impossible. While striving for the liberalization of abortion, the greatest opposition has come from the system of patriarchy and the religious right which views abortion as tantamount to murder. This organization also feels the need to come together with other institutions as one voice to tackle a range of injustices in Namibian society. For example, it has been instrumental in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trannsgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) rights movement by setting up the Rainbow project in Namibia. Even if it is primarily a feminist organization, it is also a human rights group. Sister Namibia continues working on bringing all people together as equals, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

Present-day Namibian culture illustrates the similarities between race and gender that are reflected through social inequalities.

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