The world needs more women in leadership or political positions and most of us know this is true. Practically everyone I have spoken to about this completely agrees with this truth, even though in practical terms, few can suggest how. I have heard so many reasons why more women are needed in the political area. Most of these reasons are rooted in the assumption that women would make more empathetic leaders, some others point to the exemplary professionalism of women while other reasons stem from the sentiment that men haven’t exactly done stellar jobs so far.
Personally, I don’t know why we even need to have a reason in the first place. I mean most of history might have been written about the actions of men in conquests, wars, or politics but we all know that women are – and have always been – the gatekeepers of our entire civilization. Plus, more often than not, a story of history is often just a story, written by people from their own individual perspectives and collective biases. Throughout the years, women have continually outdone men in various spheres of our evolution as humans and they have done so while battling for their safety in mostly patriarchal societies lopsided against them from the word go.
The questions for me are: How do more women get into politics? How do they take up more of these positions traditionally reserved for men? Politics has been described (especially when it relates to developing countries) as a dirty game, a jungle or a zoo. Men are often seen as better at these jobs not just because they have had centuries of participation to perfect their mastery but some argue, they are raised to behave and think competitively in terms of acquisition of power.
For most of history, political leadership positions have been occupied by men. So how do we make room for more women at the political table? The United Nations has already made valiant efforts in this regard, by creating guidelines on the recommended percentage of women in organisations and governments. In practical terms though, and despite these guidelines, progress is slow. But why?
A part of the problem is the collective narrative succinctly captured by the popular phrase “giving women seats at the table”. Don’t get me wrong, it is fair and ideal that women be given seats at the political table, but when has the ideal ever really been the norm? What is the true worth of a leadership position if it is ‘given’ not ‘taken’? Isn’t that synonymous with remaining a puppet on the giver’s strings?
In addition to the foregoing, I also think it’s somewhat fallacious to believe that we can suddenly and collectively agree for men to give up their powers because political powers really are incredibly intoxicating. Indeed, it almost seems unnatural to see this power relinquished freely. Even if political leaders could be strong-armed, you can bet that they would put measures in place to ensure that their female successors do not go ‘too far’.
To provide you with more context here, consider this: we are frequently told how the United States is being run by old white men. There is the general impression that the problem here is that they won’t give up their power to women. But when you really think about it, you will arrive at two irresistible conclusions on this. Firstly, this is obviously not peculiar to the US, the whole world has been run by old wealthy white men for a long time. Secondly, these old white men really don’t want to relinquish their powers to younger white or black men, least of all women.
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Back in the day, the white men in charge made every effort to disenfranchise the younger black men while simultaneously keeping young white men at bay. Old corrupt politicians everywhere literally murder, blackmail, and terrorize in as many forms as possible to keep the reins of office from falling into the hands of younger men, not to talk of women. They would not give away that power, not to women, young men or anybody they cannot control. It is ideal that they do but we live in a real world. No one would have given Rosa Parks a seat that day on the bus, she had to take it and when she did, fight to keep it.
The only real and sustainable way for women to get in politics is by taking the positions they want to occupy, and instances of this abound in the protests of Africans for change. In 2019, during the Sudanese protests against their corrupt government, women showed up in ways never before seen. They made up most of the crowds, and assumed quasi-leadership positions in larger numbers than men, such that when the symbol of the protests emerged, it was the image of a young Sudanese woman, garbed in the traditional Sudanese dress, standing alone on top of a car and singing about the revolution underway.
Similarly, from the recent #EndSARS protests in Nigeria recently, and in reaction to the massive participation of women, the symbol of the protests when it emerged was the image of human rights activist Aisha Yesufu. It depicts her refusal to yield, her raised fist while being violently confronted by the Nigerian policemen and it has become a nationwide symbol of hope in these past few weeks.
The #EndSARS movement itself may not have been possible if it weren’t for the Feminist Coalition and other women activists. This is an organization that was created earlier this year to champion equality for women in Nigerian society. Led by the indomitable FK Abudu, the organization morphed into the heartbeat of the protest, raising funds, coordinating logistics and ultimately inspiring Nigerian youths that indeed, there is such a thing as excellent administration and execution in the public space. By the end of the protests, the women were regarded as the de facto leaders of the protests and the representatives of the youth.
These women took over with no dithering, consensus, guidelines or seats ‘given’ to them. They simply showed up and took control. Think about it for a second; if they had waited to be chosen, there would have been no way that the Nigerian public would choose a feminist organisation to be the voice of the new Nigeria. What we would have gotten would have been some other version of the same old token representation at a table chaired by the same oppressors.
The time seems right for the political arena to be saturated with women. I recognize that women are already hard at work dismantling patriarchal systems, fighting domestic violence, rape and other crimes against their gender, but as far as politics go, this is the formula that will turn the tide. Women who aspire to political positions will have to take the seats because nothing will be ‘given’ without strings attached. Women will have to take the bull by the horns or the balls, whichever. They might not be liked for it but if the balls are crushed in the process, then so be it.
I know that all these would not be easy especially as I am a man, directly or indirectly benefiting from the current systems in place. I try to learn as much about the issues affecting women as possible, but I know that one of the best ways for more people to understand the issues facing half the world’s population is having more women in politics. This response to destructive gender imbalances in power may be the only lasting way to secure the future of our young girls; because young girls can’t be what they can’t see.
Women shouldn’t settle for feeling like they have “enough” equality because they have comparatively less when one considers that they are subject to violence, brutality and marginalization in many societies across the world. In some countries, they are still treated like second-class citizens. The world needs more women in politics. Some will say it’s because they are more cooperative than their counterparts; others will point to their ‘natural’ inclination for empathy; but whichever way you look at it, there should be more women in politics if only to ensure more balanced representation in politics.
Otherwise, those seats will remain occupied by men for a long time to come and some will argue, positive change won’t happen quickly enough.
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Cover image of the launch of African Women Leaders Network held at United Nations Headquarters on 2 June 2017. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown.