Theoretical deconstruction of Muthi Nhlema’s article: ‘Maybe women just can’t lead!’

Disclaimer: I am not a supporter of PP, MCP, UDF, DPP, PETRA, NLP, PPM, AFORD or any political party nor any figure in Malawian Politics, neither am I a defender of their ideologies and policies. What I am, however, is a theatre and performance, culture and gender studies scholar who is interested in how masculinities and patriarchy construct national (public and private) discourses in Malawi within social, political, economic and cultural spheres.

A few days ago as the ‘unofficial election results’ were being broadcasted, I found myself engaged in an intellectual discussion with a friend of mine (a feminist scholar) herself, our discussion centred on whether Joyce Banda presidency’s ‘shortcomings’ during her two year term might have impacted the number of female MPs who have failed to win parliamentary seats in their respective constituencies in 2014 Tripartite elections.

President Banda
President Banda

The question arose due to the fact that both of us are interested in the performance of gender politics in Malawi from a social, cultural, political and literary point of view. We both quickly realised that any conclusion might be problematic since it was too early to tell and hence we agreed to investigate it more. To this end, we agreed to examine all the elections from 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014 to see if we could identify a pattern (we are currently working on this).

However, I would like to bring to your attention a disheartening trend which has been developing in Malawi that being; an increasingly anti-woman discourse, taking on the forms of gender based violence (violence here being both physical and non physical) and among others. Whilst GBV has been problematic in Malawi for a very long time, what is alarming about this trend is its shift from the private to the public sphere.

Perhaps if we construct our argument based on the number of female MPs between 1999 to 2014, Nhlema suggests that gender equality in Malawi was at its ‘peak’ between 1999 to 2009 and 2014 has dawned its demise and Joyce Banda, as a female president ought to be blamed, because her short comings have influenced male voting behaviour in the 2014 elections and has only affirmed mens’ fears that ‘Women Just Can’t Lead’. However, one does not determine the success of gender equality on the number of female MPs in Parliament, whose numbers even between 1999 to 2009 were nowhere close to half required number of equal representation in the August House. I will let you be the judge.

Turning to the article “Maybe Women Just Can’t Lead” written by Muthi Nhlema, I am alarmed by the writer’s choice of words. While he might not be aware or he deliberately chooses to ignore it, the narrative in the article stripped of all disguise is a very misogynist, patriarchal, and anti- woman discourse. Allow me to edify. Nhlema writes, “the past two years have…done very little to convince Malawians of the value women can create if given the reins of power…Joyce Banda, almost single-handedly, managed to turn this national goodwill and positive energy…into a national joke” (Maybe Women Just Can’t Lead).

Firstly, he presupposes that the Malawians who must be convinced are Malawian men. Take note of the line, “the value women can create”, here the writer makes broad brushes about women’s contribution to the Malawi nation based on one woman’s ‘shortcomings’. When we unpack this narrative it suggests that Joyce Banda is representative of all women in Malawi. If that is not the discourse of patriarchy here, I don’t know what is. The writer further notes that the decades’ worth of gender advocacy work by the likes of Vera Chirwa, Seodi White and others have been destroyed in a short time. He mistakenly goes on to state “and men had nothing to do with it”. Now my question and probably yours too is, what does Joyce Banda or Ms A,B,C,D (any female) being president (good of bad) have to do with their sex. What is sex and what is gender? Sex is determined by biology and gender is socially constructed. So for instance, women are groomed to occupy domestic roles and men are associated with formal employment, mobility and among others.

The struggle for gender equality in Malawi has been on going, and significant efforts have been made, however, much remains to be done. Nhlema’s argument is that Joyce Banda’s presidency ought to have ushered in social, political, cultural and economic changes in Malawi, in respect to the gender discussion. However, this thinking presupposes that if she excels as president then women also excel and gives them impetus to via for political positions, including the presidency, but if she fails all women, have failed. Now to labour one woman with that kind of responsibility is outright madness and unfair. When Kamuzu Banda, Bakili Muluzi and Bingu wa Mutharika, all former male presidents made huge political blunders, was the gender question ever raised? Were male Malawians doomed and where these presidents’ ‘shortcomings’ ever an issue in determining whether both female and male Malawians voted for a future male presidential candidate? I will allow you to draw your own conclusions there.

Gender advocates will argue by stating that I am missing much of the point because Joyce Banda’s ascendancy to the presidency was indeed a victory for women in Malawi. Yes, that could be true, nevertheless, Nhlema’s entire argument in the article is based on the assumption, famously uttered by some Malawian men, “Malawi is not ready for a female president”. Therefore, from the beginning Joyce Banda’s every action was scrutinised from a gender point of view by both men and women. To this end, any failures or successes were quickly quarantined within those gender parameters. Unfortunately, she has been judged from the perspective that she is a woman and not on the basis of being a human being capable of making mistakes.

This brings about more questions as to why this is the case? Theorists of patriarchy view males as controlling access to institutional power and they argue that males create ideology, art and religion to suit their needs. Hence the exercise of male power is viewed as conspiratorial and women whatever their economic status are perceived as an oppressed class (Mirkin 41-42). Adrienne Rich, in her seminal text Of Woman: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, she argues that patriarchy’s “power of the fathers has been difficult to grasp because it permeates everything, be it the language in which we try to describe it…it is diffuse and concrete; symbolic and literal; universal and expressed with local variations which observe its universality (41, xviii).

In other words, it does not matter what a woman does, Rich argues, be it a head of state, a single parent, or one who washes the underwear of a millionaire’s wife, she lives under the power of the fathers and she has access to privilege or influence as the patriarchy (the power of the fathers) is willing to accede to her (Rich 41). In other words, where patriarchy exists women’s participation in society is defined by men through force, direct pressure or through, ritual, tradition, law and language, custom, etiquette, education and division of labor (see Adrienne Rich 1976).

In paragraph number two, I stated that Nhlema’s language is filled with patriarchal discourse, let me explain. When we talk about language and its ability to create or destroy, perhaps most of us think that it is just superstition. Or perhaps, we do it without being aware of its significance. Language for most of us is one of the mediums through which we construct and understand our world. In Nhlema’s article, his argument is located within male constructed discourse of women’s identities and narratives in Malawi. What do I mean by this? When he argues that she (Joyce Banda), “has only confirmed the many stereotypes that Malawians, including women themselves have had about women in leadership and that is: ‘women can’t be leaders’, he perpetuates a male narrative that has been indoctrinated in Malawi society for years.

Although he attempts to disguise his misogynist voice by stating even “women themselves”, these being fellow Malawian women, as a way to validate his position that ‘women cant lead’, he fails to realise that patriarchy in Malawi has been responsible for the construction of women’s narratives and identities from the colonial epoch right through to that of Kamuzu Banda, Bakili Muluzi, Bingu wa Mutharika and Joyce Banda respectively. These narratives, Nhlema claims, have taken on the forms of, as he mistakenly admits ‘many stereotypes’. Who are the constructors of these stereotypes? Women or men? I will leave you to draw your own conclusion.

What is important to note here is the very fact that even Nhlema’s choice of wording
revolves around the male dominance and female subordination narrative in language. Thus, “women just can’t lead” is a male constructed narrative and whether other Malawian women echo this narrative it remains the same. This narrative only points to a larger systematic problem in Malawi, where women have been ‘moulded by the patriarchy into a stereotype that implies hyper-emotionalism, passivity, self-abnegation’ (Daly 27). In other words, this systematic problem is not the fault of women, but of a larger structural problem in society. It is for this reason Daly asserts, “it is all too easy and basically misleading to say that it is woman’s fault that society is sexist, this is as fallacious as saying that it is the fault of blacks that society is racist or the fault of the poor that poverty exists… when I write of woman’s complicity, I mean a complicity that has in large measure been enforced by conditioning…it is the inherited burden of being condemned to live out the role of ‘the Other’… the fault should not be seen as existing primarily in victimised individuals, but rather in demonic power structures which induce individuals to internalise false identities” (27). Of course Nhlema might argue that what he means by ‘including women themselves’ is a publicly available narrative and not entirely his own.

However, what he fails to appreciate is that women’s compliance in this discourse is a result of male construction and conditioning that argues, ‘women cant be leaders’. The very fact that Nhlema tries to distinguish between a woman leader and a woman in leadership is still framed within the same patriarchal discourse that has different standards for judging women and men. When he further argues that it is only in Joyce Banda’s pre-presidential life that she had substance and gravitas to lead, it becomes apparent, that Nhlema’s argument that ‘maybe women just can’t lead in Malawi’, reveals just how far these false narratives have been internalised in both men and women. In his argument Nhlema does little to bring to attention Joyce Banda presidency’s failures and successes, instead of offering us tangible evidence, he makes broad strokes that dismiss her as a leader.

Even if we were to call on Nhlema to articulate more on these stereotypes, we will discover that at their core is the same patriarchal discourse. ! The question of leadership in Malawi, should not be compounded with issues of one’s gender. It should be about competency, qualification, integrity, ability and other admirable qualities. Every daughter and son of Malawi has the right to be President, lawyer, economist, doctor, philosopher, astronaut, theatre practitioner, literary scholar and what have you, because they are bonafide citizens of Malawi and as the Constitution of Malawi rightfully articulates, ‘all persons and people have a right to development and therefore to enjoyment of economic, social, cultural and political development and women, children and the disabled in particular shall be given special consideration in the application of this right’ (Constitution of Malawi 3).

However, when narcissistic misogynist rhetoric as articulated by Nhlema and others are permitted to circulate in the public and private domain, they only reinforce that old backward thinking that women were born to occupy certain positions, professions and careers. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking stripped of all disguise is the narrative that believes women are a subgroup in a man’s world.!

Cited Works!
Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston 1973!

Daly, Mary. Gyn-Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Boston 1978!
GOM. Constitution of Malawi. PDF!

Millet, Kate. Sexual Politics. New York 1969!

Mirkin, Harry, “The Passive Female- the theory of Patriarchy” PDF 9 May 2014!
Nhlema, Muthi. “Maybe Women Just Can’t Lead”. MalawiVoice, 2014. 26 May 2014

Rich, Adrienne. Of Women Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York 1976

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