Western Feminists are Right to Not Look to West Africa for Examples of Gender Equality

Recently, Minna Salami reported in The Guardian that parliamentary elections in Rwanda are in, and for the first time in its history, 64 percent of the seats are held by women. In addition, Senegal elected its first female prime minister earlier this month, Aminata Touré.

So why aren’t Western feminists looking towards Africa, Salami asks. She concludes “ … the western feminist movement is still mostly disengaged from the struggles being fought – and won – by women in other parts of the world.”

Salami makes an excellent point and one that is hard to deny regarding feminism’s bias toward Western culture. How often has each of us seen a fierce feminist debate on campus – or in the comments online – only to have someone put the whole discussion in a more global perspective? Yet Salami seems to take the stance that gender equity is a sufficient goal for feminists — in which case she’s missing the forest for the trees.

First of all, Rwanda’s elections are highly suspect: it has been receiving increasing criticism from the European Union, human rights activists and NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, due to the increasing anti-democratic nature of their elections. The nature of democracy in Rwanda is marked by anti-dissent legislation, Soviet-level acclamation and gacaca courts – or informal tribunals run without trained lawyers or judges. While the courts and legislation were originally intended to prevent another genocide, like in 1994, they have contributed to a multi-party system in name only. This inherently mars the significance of any gender parity among those elected, as the election itself is called into question.

Further, Rwanda uses gender quotas in its parliament. The Constitution of Rwanda states that 24 of the seats in the Lower Chamber are reserved for women, elected through a joint assembly of local government officials. While the abundance of women voted for, well above the 30 percent, could give feminists cause to rejoice, consider: Should a Western country ever be comfortable with gender quotas in the democratic process? It’s one thing to argue that there should be more equal gender representation in public office, but most would agree it’s quite another to mandate it.

Salami does not address any of these electoral issues — she instead focuses on the organized women’s movement in Rwanda and several of its champions. As she puts it, “What we see is not simply a consequence of the conflict or big-hearted male leaders handing out seats to women. It is a conscious and co-ordinated effort, by women for women.” This may well be true, and these women no doubt deserve applause for mobilizing equality in Africa, but the system itself appears to be broken. It’s not enough to have women in government — the cornerstones of a democracy need to be stable, otherwise women — and men — truly aren’t being represented.

Feminists may well yearn for similar political visibility in the United States, or England, or France.  But without a sound electoral system, free of corruption and not weighted towards the party already in power or towards a specific gender, it is not a meaningfully democratic election. This calls any increased representation from voters into question.

In Senegal, on the other hand, the former Minister of Justice, Aminata Touré, spoke out to the Associated Press in 2012 regarding Senegal’s dissolution of the Senate (they still have a larger, representative national assembly). Associated Press reported her position on the dissolution as “ … intended to curb government spending, and will provide the cash needed to help the victims of the yearly rains which have left thousands homeless. Unlike the national assembly, the senate … has become a symbol of government waste, and … Around half the senators are directly appointed by the president.”

The top position in power filled by a woman, who feels a strong responsibility towards her citizens’ everyday needs and is tired of governmental corruption? Now that’s cause for transatlantic envy, from both the feminist and libertarian perspective.