Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Supreme Reign: Contrasting the Queen’s Jubilee and the African Women Decade

I find myself particularly annoyed with the incessant coverage of the Queen’s Jubilee and the actions of the Royal Throne to (re)invent itself by sending Prince Harry and Prince William, along with his new wife, all over the globe. All of this hype about Queen Elizabeth and the Royal Crown lacks serious critical analysis. As we celebrate her 60 year reign, we also have to ask at what and whose expense has this reign been allowed to perpetuate through time. Lost in this analysis is what it means for the Queen and members of her family to “pay” homage to their colonial subjects in places such as Jamaica. What’s also interesting to me is that we are now in the second year of the African Women Decade (2010-2020) yet there is minimum conversation about what this means and how we can encourage and support African women to achieve equality.

My annoyance with the Royal Throne is not new. I can remember the Queen’s visit to Barbados when I was an elementary school girl. Like so many other schools on the island, students from my school were to stand along the route the Queen would travel. My only exposure to such an event was via news coverage where they showed boys and girls smartly dressed in their uniforms standing erect and waving; waving to a woman who sat behind a class enclosure looking out upon them with the slightest movement of her wrist. I was not impressed. I asked my dad, “Why do we do this?” I could not understand why this woman was of such importance that I had to stand in the hot sun waving at her. I also asked my father, “did I have to wave?” My dad had a way not with words, but with smiles. He smiled down at me and I knew that I didn’t have to wave. So I stood there on the side of the road hands at my side wondering why.

Maybe I was just a weird little girl. Maybe I sensed the simultaneity of my hypervisibility and invisibility. I was present on the side of the road, but I was not seen for my humanity. I was part of Her Royal’s subjects; although Barbados had been previously “emancipated”. All of the hype around the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee brings to the forefront the tension with the simultaneity of Black women’s hypervisiblity and invisibility. It brings to my mind the subjectivity of Black women. As we celebrate 60 years of reign, we are also in the midst of the Decade of African Women. The Decade of what you ask? 

The African Women Decade is designed to address issue of equity for African women. It’s much more than that but that is a central goal of the mission. As the Queen and her protégés visit her former colonial subjects, we are made aware of the stark contrast of privilege and access—access to health, wealth, and education. Many of the Black girls and women who dance and entertain her Majesty and those who, like me, stand alongside the roadways lack basic human rights. Although the African Women Decade is conceptualized as advancing equality for African women on the Continent, I’m thinking of this decade in Diasporic terms. 

Prince Henry with maids in Jamaica: People Magazine 2012
Prince Henry recently visited Jamaica and ran with Usain Bolt. In his duties, he sat among Black girls and as some in the media said he showed his ability to “connect” and seemed “at home”. What we didn’t see is that behind those smiles are countless Black women for whom the legacy of colonialism and imperialism continues. Black women and men in Barbados harvest the sugar cane for the sugar that is only sold in England, while Barbados imports sugar. In Jamaica “adolescent females (10 to 19 years old) are 2.7 times more likely to be infected [with HIV/AIDS] than males in the same age group. Young women are particularly at risk because they find it difficult to negotiate whether and when to have sex and how to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease.”
A number of African countries, including Sierra Leone, Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland, The Gambia, Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania, Cameroon, Malawi, Uganda, Sudan and Egypt were colonized by Great Britain. Women in many of these nation states suffer extreme poverty and political repression—legacies of colonialism. 

“The face of poverty in Africa is female,” says Obiageli Ezekwesili, World Bank Vice President for the Africa Region. According to her, the typical poor African youth “is 18.5 years old. She lives in a rural area. She has dropped out of school. She is single, but is about to be married or be given in marriage to a man approximately twice her age. She will be the mother of six or seven kids in another 20 years.” African girls and women are in a perilous position and Great Britain with the blessings of the Royal Throne is partly, if not wholly, responsible. 

Yes, Great Britain underdeveloped Africa. And now as an African descended woman I’m expected to stand on the side of the street and wave to a woman who sees me but does not see me.

Instead of serenading the Queen, I’m left to wonder what types of conversations might we have if African women were seen in their totality. What conversations could we have had Her Majesty say, instead of the pomp and circumstance and the millions of pounds spent to recognize the Royal Throne, how about we commit some time centering the lived realities of African women?

African and Arab winners of 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. Source: tibetsun.com
Black women are asserting themselves in the global arena. Just last year, two African women, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first democratically elected female president and her countrywoman Leymah Gbowee, a peace activist who challenged warlords, won the Nobel Peace Prize. These women like countless others who remain faceless are actively fighting for the humanity of African women. Like them we cannot sit back and wait for others to plan our “jubilee”, we cannot sit back and wait for others to simply stop waving at us and sit in critical dialogue with us. We have to do this on our own. We have to celebrate our triumphs and approach, head on, our challenges. We have to reign supreme in our quest for equality. What will you do during this Decade of African Women?

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