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Sexuality and Gender Politics in Mozambique: Rethinking Gender in Africa

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Sexuality and Gender Politics in Mozambique: Rethinking Gender in Africa. Signe Arnfred. James Currey, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2011. Pp. . ISBN. 978-1-84701-035-3 (hb). £40.

Danish scholar Signe Arnfred presents compelling scholarship and challenges to theories of gender and understandings of Mozambique’s modern history.  Her account provides a hopeful view of women’s lives in rural Mozambique whilst avoiding the suggestion such lives are easy.  It is a unique and immensely valuable anthropological and historical study based on thirty years of research and building relationships with women in northern Mozambique.  With other recent work on gender in Africa, Arnfred’s research in Mozambique challenges ‘the Eurocentrism of the international women’s movement that emerged in the 1980s,’ noted by Walsh and Scully in their discussion of the politics of gender in southern Africa (2006, 12).

Arnfred first arrived in Mozambique in 1979, four years into the establishment of Frelimo’s (the Front for Mozambican Liberation) post-colonial socialist republic, under the presidency of Samora Machel.  It was also a time when European and American feminism sought to connect with other liberation struggles around the world. Machel promised an enlightened, compassionate, and egalitarian response to the excesses of colonialism, and Arnfred and her partner went to Mozambique with a wish to contribute to social and political reconstruction.

The book is a collection of her writings over three decades, and the flow isn’t always smooth.  But each of the fourteen chapters offers a rich and useful contribution to a sweeping portrait of gender and sexuality in rural Mozambique, along with challenging and original insights.  This time span is a strength of the book but also results in some repetition and awkward historical jumps. The slightly confusing thematic organisation sometimes fails to account for change over those decades, occasionally leaving, for example, the impression that early Frelimo perspectives and policies are contemporary.

The central claim is that fundamental assumptions about gender identity and gender relations among rural Mozambicans are often either uninformed or wrong.  Yet these are shared across the decades and politico-cultural regimes of Portuguese colonialism, early Frelimo socialism, and contemporary neoliberal-inspired society.  In line with much ethnographically informed social research from rural Africa, hers is ultimately a plea for policy informed by investigation of how, and why, people lead their lives, rather than by assumptions about how they should.

In 1979 Arnfred and her partner joined a visit to Mozambique of a Danish solidarity organisation, like many others seeking with enormous enthusiasm to support the egalitarian reconstruction of Mozambican society.  On behalf of the OMM (Organização da Mulher Moçambicana), Frelimo’s national women’s organisation, Arnfred travelled throughout Mozambique collecting information for an extraordinary conference on women’s social problems, including such issues as initiation rituals, polygamy and lobolo (brideprice).  Frelimo assumed from its early days that such traditions were incompatible with their liberationist, socialist agenda.  This began Arnfred’s fieldwork and the fascinating challenge to her own European feminist assumptions.

Arnfred begins by quoting Samora Machel’s assertion ‘The liberation of women is a necessity for the revolution, a guarantee of its continuity’ and explains how such sentiments ‘spoke to my feminist heart’ (4).  But she moves quickly to referring to ‘the president’s often moralistic and misogynistic points of view’ (8).   Throughout the book she uses her research well to argue against perceptions of women’s traditions, such as initiation rituals, held by the Catholic church, colonial policy makers, the Frelimo government, and the international community with their neoliberal development policies.  These actors have all fundamentally misunderstood such practices, assuming they are demeaning to women, oppressive and should be abolished.  She disagrees and finds they play a positive role in promoting relationships between women, and that the women in question do not want them to be abolished.

She describes how such practices are not about oppression but fundamentally about the relationships between women of different ages and organising female society.  She stresses how affirmative such practices are:  as young women are being sexually initiated before their first encounter with a man, they keep a degree of female control over the sexual relationship between men and women, and a focus on mutual sexual pleasure.  In contrast to neighbouring Malawi, where recent research by Anderson (2012, 275) describes women on the receiving end of their sexual relationships, Anfred portrays northern Mozambican women as active participants whose sexual pleasure is important and legitimate.  She describes the raucous and joyous behaviour of older women at initiation weekends, to which the younger women come with fear and trepidation.  Well-meaning attempts to bring change and equality threaten such vital social structures and are reductive and, paradoxically, disempowering to women; indeed, she concludes, such efforts are male control dressed up as liberation.

In the case of lobolo, which was assumed to be a means of repression – a transactional system of male ownership of women – she shows how it was in fact about protection of and respect for women, a measure of their worth.  These reviewers observe that even today, educated middle class Mozambican women often make an active decision that they want to be lobolada, choosing this above civil marriage because they see it as preserving status and identity and connecting them to valued traditions.  The amounts of goods and money now involved are purely symbolic, but the different aspects of the ceremony have important cultural significance.

Another key area of Arnfred’s analysis is Mozambique’s family law – an early legislative project of independence, which ended up taking the better part of three decades to be introduced.   From 1977 there was a plan to have a new family law to replace the Portuguese código civil and create a legal basis to regulate and protect all Mozambicans’ lives, through legislation based on the principles of uniformity, equality, and secularism. A draft was circulated in 1980 but, due to its complexity and ongoing contestation and renegotiation during years of civil war, it finally came into law in 2003; an example of how much more complex the project of governance in Mozambique turned out to be than Frelimo and its supporters initially imagined.  Arnfred uses the law and its application as an example of policy which fails to account for the realities of women’s lives.  For example, “the law is supposed to support women, but it does so only to a limited extent, because a network or an organisation to support women in (legal) matters is lacking” (94).  She highlights a discrepancy between the law with its ideology of gender equality and the realities of Mozambican women.

Arnfred’s exploration of three decades of gender politics in rural, traditional Mozambique is persuasive, and offers a great deal beyond a narrow social history.   The anthropology is detailed and insightful, but is refreshingly presented from the perspective of compassion, in the spirit of valuing female experience and learning, as well as documenting.  This is an impressive example of empathetic, rather than voyeuristic, ethnography, and should be considered vital to discussions both of the modern history of Mozambique and of gender politics in southern Africa and beyond.

Reviewed by: Simone Doctors, Education Consultant, formerly Universidade Pedagógica, Maputo, Mozambique, and Chris Paterson, University of Leeds.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 74 (December 2012), pp. 97-100]

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