Here’s an overdue blog post… Enjoy!
International Women’s Day represents a global commitment to improving gender equality, and is a time to celebrate the accomplishments of women around the world. Because last year I was traveling March 8th, I didn’t get a good sense of how the day is recognized in Cameroon, and was excited to be involved with organizing the holiday with the Danfili community. During the planning stages and throughout the holiday, I saw women gather to discuss ideas and plan for a week’s worth of activities. Danfili is more traditionally male-dominated, so women’s day preparations provided a neat opportunity to see women’s empowerment at work.
Preparations for March 8th began in early February with a community meeting, where we discussed the activities to plan and started collecting money to cover costs. The group chose a lead organizer, and agreed to have a talent show, soccer match, market day exposition, parade, and cocktail party during the week of March 8th. We also scheduled weekly meetings to train for the soccer match and prepare our talent show acts.
In the following weeks, I attended a few meetings and soccer practices to support the efforts of the women organizing the events, but was discouraged that many times these meetings devolved into complaining about why more women weren’t attending, lack of funding, and endemic tardiness. These are not new themes; many conversations at the health center and at schools touch on these same frustrations. I even encounter these in my work. The truth is, Danfilians tend to prioritize their private lives and are more interested in community-wide activities that require minimal personal investment. At the same time, Danfilians also value protocol and formal presentations. In my observations, Women’s Day became a Catch-22; the planners began to feel pressured to have a professional, organized holiday, but had little help in realizing the activities. These motivated community members often felt unsupported and that the community didn’t particularly want to celebrate the nationally recognized holiday, but knew it would be expected of them.
The week of Women’s Day, spirits were high, and more women came together to help plan and participate in activities. On market day, women prepared various foods that we sold into the afternoon, including hibiscus juice, beignets, couscous with beef and tomato sauce, meatballs, braised fish, and my own addition-banana bread! Later in the week, we held foot races, prepared for our talent show, and organized the menu for our cocktail party. During the talent show, women mostly lip-synced and danced to their favorite songs, but we also had a few skits about the importance of sending women to school, the comedic side of polygamy, being clever and patient while surrounded by “villagers,” and inter-generational wisdom. At the very end, we had a “fashion show,” and we all showed off our finest outfits for the night. Apparently people were impressed with my catwalk, and declared me the winner!
Women’s Day itself was a very busy day. All of the women in Danfili were invited to join us for a parade through town, which ended at the chief’s palace. Twenty showed up, so we formed two ranks and set out with our Cameroonian flag. While marching, we sang a song about singing and marching to celebrate women in Cameroon. In front of the chief, we sang a Gbaya song and then select women shared a few words about the importance of women’s day before we all continued on to the pastor’s house to start preparing food for the cocktail party.
Each year there is a specific fabric that the First Lady of Cameroon selects as the uniform pagne that women then use to make outfits for the holiday. This is a common tradition for other holidays, political parties, and even weddings. This year’s pagne was sponsored by He For She, which you may remember hearing about as Emma Watson’s NGO to promote gender equality. When Emma Watson first announced her He For She initiative, I was in college and immersed in my ideas of feminism, gender equality, and surrounded by people who generally agreed with my views. I found it difficult then, to know that the pagne was sponsored by an organization driven to increase capacity for women’s equality, when observing and interacting with men about Women’s Day. By that I mean to say that I was disappointed by the lack of participation in the activities that women spent so long to prepare. The talent show audience was mostly youth, and many of the men who were there at the start did not stay until the end. During the parade, many husbands came out to see the parade pass by, and their wives stood behind them, watching in the doorway. During the cocktail party, the male invitees were the first ones served and acted very childish and greedy about the whole affair. While walking through town, many of the men I encountered asked me where their gifts were, because to them women’s day isn’t about treating women special, its about women advocating for themselves by giving out gifts and continuing their traditional roles as providers for others’ enjoyment. Ugh, there’s a long way to go. I had to reframe how I view feminism and the messages of HeforShe to meet Danfili where they are at in terms of considering women’s gender equality. This was the first year that Danfili even celebrated the holiday, in at least two years. The women who are used to leadership positions (teachers, nurses, the wives of pastors and teachers), were fearless in leading the charge and motivating their peers to step it up and contribute to making the holiday their own. They were giddy with how positive the week went, though it was not without its hiccups and frustrations. The thing that I found most inspiring was watching how the children and young women, especially, received the activities. They were eager to play in the soccer game, to see the talent show acts, and be a part of the other activities. Seeing their mothers plan the first women’s day will hopefully encourage them to push boundaries a little more and take a more active role in women’s day as they get older. With them we will see real gender equality progress, I’m sure of it!