July 3, 2012 § 2 Comments
Men here are typically dominant over women. In homes, you’ll often see at dinnertime that the men are served first, then the women, then the children. The women and children will wait to start eating until the man has begun. Men will also typically be seated on couches or chairs, while women and children will sit on the floor if there aren’t enough chairs for everybody.
To me, this benign example illustrates a much deeper, more pervasive attitude here that men are first, women are second and children are sometimes last. It’s flipped from the common attitude in the West where it’s “Women and children first.” You know. You’ve all seen The Titanic.
Women here have different, more restrictive expectations. I rarely see women wearing pants. Most women wear skirts, dresses, or wear pants with a sarong wrapped around over them. Women, even those that aren’t Muslim, are usually covered from neck to mid-calf. I, too, make an effort to be modest – I don’t wear tank tops or anything too tight or low-cut.
Women are also held to more repressive sexual and relationship standards. For example, I saw a man publicly and violently beat a woman in the middle of a crowded bar while nobody moved to stop it or even really reacted. Upon further questioning of my African friends, I’ve learned that that is not entirely uncommon here. Nor, to my chagrin, did some (not all) of them seem particularly offended by the thought of beating a woman. I was given a lot of potential explanations for why he was beating her, but all I heard was, “Here, it’s okay for your man to beat you if he feels you deserve it.”
DV is not really something I’m particularly understanding about and the attempts to explain it in a way that makes it sound not-so-bad just sound meaningless to me. Violence is unacceptable and it’s not something I’m likely to budge on anytime soon, cultural differences or not.
Women here are also expected to guard their sexuality more closely. Casual sex happens here, but it seems women are expected to pretend – ? – to put up a bit of a fight before they consent. Not like physically fight, but more just pretend to need a lot of convincing before they finally allow themselves to be persuaded.
As such, it seems like maybe men here are used to playing a more persistent, aggressive role in their attempts with women. Or maybe the attitude just comes from the arrogance and confidence of living in a society where your dominance is so clearly evident. It’s also completely possible that my experience has been tainted by the stereotype that Western women have in much of the world, and definitely here, that says we are fast, easy and loose and available for sex. I’m not sure I’m entirely offended by that stereotype, since I believe I should be able to do it if I want to do it nor am I ashamed of sex. Still, that doesn’t make women from more sexually permissive cultures available to anyone who asks.
Further confusing this issue for me is the fact that, in Tanzania, physical affection is common, even among platonic relations. It’s normal here for adult men to hold hands as a gesture of friendship. The same is true for women and for male and female friends to some extent. People here are just very physically affectionate. What makes it confusing while learning this new culture is that there seems to be some invisible line between acceptable, platonic, friendship touch and romantic, flirtatious touch. I myself am very physically affectionate and very comfortable and happy in this touchy-feely culture. BUT, it becomes very confusing very quickly when I think someone is being friendship-affectionate and then I realize they are being flirtatious-affectionate.
There’s not much point in really getting mad about any of it. Almost all of it is miscommunication and misunderstandings, with only a small fraction of it being people that are unkind or aggressive. Realistically, I am probably making plenty of cultural missteps, and until I understand the culture enough to intuitively know normal from abnormal, it’s not fair for me to get mad every time I get uncomfortable.