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Review of Gender, Justice, and the Problem of Culture


By Winnifred Bedigen

Review of Gender, Justice, and the Problem of Culture: From Customary Law to Human Rights in Tanzania. Dorothy Louise Hodgson. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana 47405, USA, 2017. Pp. 187. Paperback, £17.99. ISBN 978-0-253-02535-7.

It has become fashionable to point out that sub-Saharan women always had powerful ways to confront rights and justice issues. This zealous book is one of a few that strive to make apparent cultural practices of the Maasai of Tanzania. Fascinatingly, this book describes the Maasai’s culture problems and demonstrates aspects of complex social lifestyles. Perceived unfit by the colonial administration, a legal framework was introduced to address problematic indigenous and customary laws. Organised into three parts with four chapters, this book’s apparent purpose is to document customs, laws, human rights, legacies of specific colonial policies and practices and how these have shaped the contemporary Maasai justice system. The author, Dorothy Hodgson, an anthropologist, documents elements of gender or women oppression from the colonial to the contemporary era. Hodgson’s effort has achieved the book’s purpose.

In part one, “undesired” contextual issues, such as customary law-culture relationship, customary marriage, polygamy, adultery, women’s rights, FGM (and colonial laws criminalising it; p. 122), and rights-based approaches to justice are interrogated. Hodgson acknowledges that not all Maasai cultural practices are bad. In these debates, Hodgson does a great job in introducing readers to the Maasai cultural and moral rights that could help shape “social and political fields”, “projects” and “governance” (p. 4). Developing to part two, Hodgson examines how these debates are understood and modified through imperialistic notions of gender, class, race and ethnicity. Hodgson laments that such Euro-American perceptions have helped place rural, illiterate Maasai women in a “vulnerability” box. For example, the formations of Tanzanian feminist movements purposed to transform the “problematic” cultural practices into western-like justice and rights frameworks. Part three raises questions on when, where, and why British colonial and contemporary human rights laws are utilised to transform these social lifestyles. Hodgson points to the ways in which oppression and injustice originate from these “imported” laws.

Describing the Maasai customary law, where “custom” and “law” are viewed by colonial administrators as blurry, Hodgson analyses how this traditional justice system is seemingly oppressive to women, most especially in the areas of marriage, adultery and Female Genital Mutilation-FGM (pp. 4, 28). She emphasises the colonial attempt to change the Maasai traditional justice system to an “orderly” institution, where “custom” and “law” are distinctive and match “civilised standards” (p.30). Hodgson proceeds to provide a remarkable evaluation of previous authors’ work on how “natural law” developed, pointing to their inadequacies and different nature to the Maasai justice system. Other authors indicated a relatively easier transformation or adoption of the British justice system, in other parts of Tanzania as well as other British colonies. Reproducing this model in Ngorongoro (Maasai land) created confusion that could have been prevented by a deeper understanding of the Maasai customary practices. Particularly, Hodgson indicates contrasting perspectives on FGM practice: whereas Euro-American actors view it as a “problem of culture” (p.99), the locals do not and rather prioritise rights to water and land. Various types of FGM and other cultural “problem” issues are mentioned. Some, such as dowry and FGM are discussed at length. Hodgson focuses discussions on Euro-American justice interventions; as such, no detailed explanation of the significance of customary practices such as marriage, polygamy and FGM are provided to help the reader gain a further understanding of why majority Maasai, including Maasai activist, do not regard these as problems. Whereas the book does well by providing an individual’s (a modern mother’s) support for FGM (p. 111), majority voices are excluded. For instance, the discussion ignores the voices of the 5,000 Maasai women who participated in the land-rights protest and specific aspects of their experiences of “customs” and “laws”.

This book is a recommended read for all those with an interest in African Development Studies, especially for those not conversant with the cultural and anthropological literature on the range of African cultural practises. It not only queries but provides an entry point for more substantial debates about African customs, laws, justice, rights, and the “legitimacy” of Euro-American “human rights” interventions. Most readers will want to seek out the original reports on which these debates are based. The footnotes offer readers with sources from which the concepts discussed are derived, and the index provides readers with references to the pages on the subject matters. Hodgson’s work will likely provoke new ways of “researching Africa”, spark lively debates about “decolonising Africa”, and which “human rights” issues should be prioritised.

However, descriptions of the Maasai or African customary practices and how Euro-Americans misunderstand them are not new. Other authors have provided alternative arguments on the attempts westerners make in trying to fix “bad” cultural practices. Also, (pp. 33-39) discusses “the scope of customary law” by analysing the role of British colonisers in attempting to transform the Maasai justice system “structures and processes”. Hodgson’s work highlights that the administration did not recognise the complexities in transforming Maasai justice system into “natural law”. Indicated in the title “...the problem of culture”, questions can be raised about why “Operation Dress-up” in the 1960s (pp. 70-71) turned out to be “cherished”, for foreign activists scrambled for photos with the Maasai dressed-up in traditional costumes. Examination of the transformation of the Maasai justice system is narrow as there are examples of functioning British dual-legal systems in post-colonial states. Also, descriptions of these cultures lack depth. Hodgson’s analysis demonstrates that majority Maasai, including the Tanzanian government, still approve of cultural practices such as polygamy and FGM, which are deemed a “gender rights and empowerment” concern by the Euro-American centrics. Almost the entire book concentrates on rights issues; however, the positive and significant aspects of these cultures (only understood by the indigenous Tanzanians), are largely ignored. One would expect an in-depth, balanced description of the indigenous forms of women’s collective protests (p.50), but discussions in this section focus on modern-day local women and NGO protests on land rights.

A discussion presented on “debating marriage” (pp.61-93) does not have depth as the social significance of marriage (particularly polygamy and dowry) are minimally presented. Captivating cases of complex inter-marriages, i.e. arranged, Christian-customary and personal preferences are well-constructed and are compatible with a wave of post-colonial social changes that swept across Africa from the 1960s. Despite, Hodgson’s arguments about imperialistic perspectives on the Maasai lifestyle seem less convincing. The “conflicting ideas of culture and the relationship of culture to law” (p. 123) have largely been maintained by lack of political will by the Tanzanian government, who should become more assertive in encouraging positive cultures and discourage negative ones. To concur with “the problem of culture” as a Euro-American social construction, that should be redressed by the very people who constructed it, is a familiar Western-perspective rhetoric of an “incapable Africa”, unable to identify and transform its undesirable practices. Adding to that, emphasising the bad colonial legacies and human rights relegates discussions on the Maasai customs from the centre, to peripheries. Interestingly, Hodgson redeems the argument for “...the problem of culture” by providing Maanda’s (a Maasai activist’s) view that education could provide a gradual process of change (p.121). The Tanzanian government should commit to critical context-based education.


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