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Review of Women in Academia: Gender and Academic Freedom in Africa


By Jane Plastow

Ebrima Sall, ed, Women in Academia: Gender and Academic Freedom in Africa, CODESRIA, 2000, p xix 154, ISBN 2 86978 078 8, £11.95

This book is part of a series being published by CODESRIA on the state of academic freedom in Africa, and what is immediately, and sadly unsurprisingly, evident is that such freedom is extremely rare.

The book consists of  two overview essays, followed by chapters on the situation in Cameroon, Egypt, Malawi, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Tanzania. It is noticeable in this book that the chapters on the most strictly Islamic nations, Egypt and Mauritania, describe situations where academic enquiry of any kind outside the strict dictates of Islam is strongly discouraged and may be actively suppressed. In nearly all nations universities are impoverished, and are getting poorer after the attentions of  the IMF and its numerous Structural Adjustment Programmes, which all adjusted resources away from education. These factors affect all academics and academic institutions.

Naively, perhaps, I was shocked by the stories of particular women academics, their conditions and their harassment. A number of contributors point out that women's multiple roles as home-makers, child-carers and academics are seldom taken into account (though this situation still obtains in Britain, as I am sure many of my fellow women teachers will be happy to attest). Sadly in a number of places writers point out that evincing an interest in studies relating to women or even a woman taking a high-profile role is seen as dangerously 'feminist', a bad career move, and lays one open to significant harassment. So in Malawi, Isabel Phiri's research into harassment and rape of women at Chancellor College leads to students rioting around her house and office, the Principal questioning her findings and the police ignoring her complaints; while in Tanzania the notorious student organisation 'Punch', publicly vilifies female students who do not appear submissive to men or who reject their sexual advances.

This book does not make encouraging reading. It portrays a continent where educational opportunities and resources are often getting worse, where people are encouraged to conform rather than to think, where only technical subjects are valued, and where women - slowly clawing their way into greater prominence - do so in the teeth of fierce opposition and sexist bigotry.


[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 63 (2000), pp. 84-85]

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