Isata Kabia: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 20 November 2021:
Silent, polite and obedient women can’t change the world for the better. So why are these the norms young girls everywhere are taught to follow? (Photo above: Isata Kabia).
At the end of October, I attended the Amujae Leadership Forum – a three-day event convened in Monrovia, Liberia for the Amujae Leaders, a group of 30 African women leaders who are aiming to shift the landscape for women in public leadership in Africa. We agreed that we would continue to refuse to leave the room; to demand our place at the table; to fight for women and girls across Africa who need their views represented at the highest levels of public leadership.
It was a ray of hope and a source of strength to experience women working together to change the mindset that is drilled into us from birth—that “good women stay silent; bad women make noise.” Teachers, parents, partners, and even other women teach us to be “good girls”: polite, obedient, and silent.
For many, this conditioning stays with us our entire lives. Even as we grow up to become women with aspirations of changing the world, doubts and fears persist as we continue to challenge these norms.
There are of course many who contradict this narrative: Teachers who see potential before gender; parents who encourage their children to grow and thrive; and some women who boldly speak out against the chains of conformity, even at the risk of putting their own lives on the line like we’ve seen the brave women of Afghanistan do.
But for every widely lauded story of one woman breaking into a traditional male space, there are 10 women potentially held back by this persistent and toxic ideal that women should be silent.
If we’re serious about achieving gender equality, we need to come together as a collective, amplify each other’s voices, and unlearn the silencing.
What we teach
In her Ted Talk on “7 beliefs that can silence women—and how to unlearn them,” author and social scientist Deepa Narayan explores how girls grow up to become “well behaved” women: “This is how girls are silenced and their dreams are crushed. They are taught to be powerless, become invisible and leave more space for boys and men to own the world.”
It’s critical to understand that silence is not only something imposed on us from society; it’s also something we learn to police in ourselves and in other women around us.
We support the patriarchy because it is familiar to us, and in turn we become active practitioners ourselves. We pass it on to our daughters. We justify it as mothers, under the pretence of protection, that girls must do all that is expected of them to be successful. We suppress and alienate women who don’t conform because we classify them based on what we have been taught is ‘good’ and ‘right.’ We become collective oppressors of each other, even though we suffer the resulting shame alone, and in silence.
How do we then unlearn this behaviour? I hereby propose five habits of great women as a daily instruction for collective power:
Daydream to nurture your curiosity
All change begins as a dream or a creative vision for a better future. But as we grow older, women are taught not to be curious. And uncurious minds can’t dream big. (Photo: Isata Kabia).
With the challenges we face today — particularly as we seek to build back after the COVID-19 pandemic — can we really afford to lose out on the creative potential of half the world’s population? Absolutely no.
Thus every woman, every girl has had some dream snatched away from her, directly or indirectly, by her parents, her circumstances, and her environment. We must therefore encourage girls to dream big and support them to dare to reach for the sky.
Find our collective voice
The silence of women only serves to maintain the status quo. So what happens when we find our collective voice? It leads to a mass escape from the ghosts of the past and liberation from the negative stories we tell ourselves. We cannot escape one woman at a time, we must collectively break free from these prisons we now guard.
As an Amujae Leader, part of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development’s Amujae Initiative, I am privileged to be part of a network of African women leaders who are determined to support each other and pave the way for other women to raise their voices and take their rightful places in leadership. (Photo below – African women including Isata Kabia, arrive in Liberia for Amujae forum in October).
Celebrate the small wins—and do it with loud applause
We all want to achieve big things, but sometimes moving the needle just a little bit is the best way to get there. When one person breaks their silence, we should celebrate it; when one girl wins, we should celebrate her; when one man builds allyship with a gender equal mission, it is progress that must also be noted.
We need to celebrate our wins and do it with applause. If you don’t think this makes a difference, I dare you to try it. A small word of encouragement, a nod to say “well done,” or any recognition of somebody’s effort makes a world of difference—and could just be the push someone else needs to take their next steps.
Just do it
They say perfection is the enemy of the good. This can hold women back: we don’t apply for jobs unless we feel certain we are almost overqualified. Or we hold back on aspirations for fear of failure. We need to learn that making mistakes is part of the road to success. Only those who don’t dare to push the limits have perfect track-records.
Expect more from men and boys
Let’s face it: while women bear the brunt of this system, men benefit from it. And those who benefit control it. We need to build allyship with men—to create male agents of transformative change who will recognize women’s participation as an untapped national asset the injustice and will commit to changing it. This is a mission to change the world, not a social club. If we are serious about gender equality, we should build as large a coalition as possible, not gatekeep based on gender.
As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Likewise, we won’t suddenly wake up tomorrow in a world that doesn’t hold women back. But if you only take one thing away from this piece, I hope it’s this: that we all have a voice, however small you think it might be. I hope you use yours in service of change.
About the author
Isata Kabia is the Founding Director of Voice of Women Africa (VoW Africa), a network of female leaders which aims to amplify women’s voices and inspire collective action, writing exclusively in the Sierra Leone Telegraph. She served as a government Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs and as the Minister of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation in Sierra Leone.
Ms. Kabia is an Amujae Leader ’21, of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development’s Amujae Initiative.