There is a popular Beyonce Knowles you’ll hear whenever, and if you ever, go to a local discotheque; ‘Who runs the world (Girls)’. So, in the vein of other great feminist hits such as Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ and Janet Jackson’s early smash ‘Control’, the American songstress is flying the flag for girl power. While I’m sure that the song will get momentous amounts of airplay on our domestic airwaves I think that the lyrics of the song, which includes lines like ‘my persuasion can build a nation’ haven’t really begun to enter the psyche of the average Rwandan girl child. And it’s not fault of theirs. Let me explain.
I do a bit of pro-bono mentoring once a month at FAWE Girls School, an activity that I absolutely love doing. I truly believe that the girls in this school are the next generation of Rwandan leader and I take my responsibility of sharing a little of my life experience with them very seriously. These ladies have great dreams; they want to be lawyers, engineers, surgeons and businesswomen of note and I believe that they will. Simply because they have the tools to do so: a great school that has produced a wondrous alumnus of high-flyers and a work ethic that brings to light my own laziness in high school. The mentoring sessions that I, and other fellow mentors, follow is one that was planned by both the Imbuto Foundation and the mentors themselves to give the young students the tools needed to get ahead in the world. Last week’s session was guided by the wish to teach the students ‘intergenerational communication’ skills. In other words, how to talk and truly communicate with older people.
The session went on swimmingly until the question and answer session. One of girls, who’d been quiet for the entire session, threw a grenade in the midst of the hitherto easy going session. “I want to dress the way I choose, in jeans and a tee-shirt, but my mother wants me to dress more feminine; what am I supposed to do”? A fellow mentor, a well-accomplished young woman I respect, shocked me. “Listen to your mother, she advised, she loves you and wants the best for you. Wearing what she approves will show her that you respect and love her”. To say that I was dumbstruck is an understatement. And while I’m sure that we mentors weren’t supposed to clash outsight, I couldn’t take her statement without rebuttal.
I told the girls, in very clear words, that nobody loved them more than they loved themselves. That no one, not their parents, not their teachers, not their society had the right to dictate to them what they were supposed to do with their lives. “As long as you don’t break any laws or grievously hurt yourself or your family with the decisions you make, you have full rein and control of your destiny”.
Living in Rwanda since 1994, I’ve watched this society change in many astounding ways. The development that this country has undergone has changed the way Rwandans deal with so many things. However, I think that our society can do a lot better in terms of giving girls the freedom to do what they choose. Why should it be okay for a boy (or man) to dress the way he chooses, to choose the career path they want, to live life the way they choose? And what makes it even more unfortunate is the fact that it isn’t necessarily us, the men, who make life difficult. When it is a woman that tells an impressionable young girl that her wishes mean nothing, I get worried about the strides that Rwanda is making in terms of gender relations and roles.