Consent remains one of the issues often not discussed by young women and femmes in Tanzanian society.
The denial of the bodily autonomy of young people and people who belong in marginalised communities is a global issue. In Tanzania, this issue, as in most parts of the world, is not given the gravity it deserves and is perpetuated in a variety of ways. Young people and people who belong to marginalised communities are often taught that it is not “acceptable” to speak up when they are denied bodily autonomy by those that hold social power. Silencing of people who are being denied bodily autonomy makes it difficult to pinpoint and deconstruct a system that sanctions gender-based violence (GBV).
In the rest of this post, we provide a breakdown of some of the cultural attitudes and systems that allow patterns that lead to GBV to occur. Practising consent and honoring another’s bodily autonomy within all interpersonal interactions is at the core of any healthy community. We must be vigilant in looking for solutions to combat the toxic attitudes and systems that have created a widespread crisis of GBV and rape culture.
Children & Bodily Autonomy
A fourteen-year-old girl opens the door of her parent’s house to let her grandmother in. She greets her Bibi (grandmother), and as a reply, her Bibi touches her breasts and tells her how she has grown. In this scenario, the girl has not given consent to be touched by her grandmother.
Situations like these are not uncommon in Tanzania. Consent, which is one’s voluntary agreement to another’s proposal or desire, is rarely communicated in these interactions. The message that anyone with more authority or power does not need to ask for consent when interacting with someone with less authority or power starts at a young age. Weight is almost always given to concerns and needs voiced by the adults or authority figures in any given situation. This leads to a repression of the voices of those most impacted in an interaction.
Children are arguably the least listened to members of our society. To explore how consent shows up in the greater Tanzanian contexts, we must examine the ways children are viewed and treated with regards to bodily autonomy and their right to choose. Most children in Tanzania are required to adhere to what an authority figure tells them without question, as speaking up is seen as rude and disrespectful. Children tend to be viewed as a vessel for their parents and/or guardians’ hopes and dreams in a way that hinders their self-exploration and makes them think that their choices for themselves are inherently misguided and wrong. Thus, it is difficult for these children to distance themselves from situations that make them uncomfortable. The adults in their life fail them by not teaching them about consent and not treating their children as complete human beings.
Our childhood experiences inform the way we move through the world as adults. If we are taught that our bodies are not our own or that another’s body is ours for the taking, we will act accordingly.
A culture is born where when harm is perpetrated, there is minimal accountability and the person harmed is categorically silenced to maintain the status quo. A culture where consent is so far removed from the collective psyche that acts of sexual abuse are all too common, yet they are not seen as that.
Although the road to a culture of giving and receiving consent is rocky, progress is being made. Consent is slowly entering conversations in a variety of settings and people are beginning to question some of the ideas they were taught as children. People have been speaking out against and about sexual assault they have experienced. This has led to conversations on the importance of asking for consent to ensure the comfort and safety of everyone involved in the interactions. Children are slowly being given the language and the space to exercise their right to give and receive consent. Local children’s shows like ‘Ubongo Kids’ which is airs on weekend mornings through the Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation (TBC) channel has episodes that explore the issue of consent from the perspective of children. Thus showcasing the slow but sure entrance of consent into mainstream media and with time, the collective psyche.
Culture & Patriarchy
Teaching young Tanzanian children that to deny their aunties and uncles of physical touch and affection means that they are being disrespectful, programmes their psyches into believing that it is disrespectful to refuse physical touch and affection from authority figures for the rest of their lives. Young people, especially those who identify as women and non-men, grow up to become adults who have little autonomy over their bodies because of what their culture has instilled in them.
This conditions people to accept certain acts of interpersonal violence because touching people without their consent, even in a non-sexual way, breeds violence. Sexual violence becomes emblematic in a culture that does not see consent as a necessity. We don’t often consider the nuances and complexities surrounding the issue of rape culture and consent until an assault occurs, and even then, society often doubts and questions the victims.
Rape culture thrives through certain beliefs and customs that, in turn, produces entitlement and impunity. Almost all issues surrounding consent and rape culture that stem from patriarchal systems beget a deep-seated sense of entitlement and impunity to survive and thrive.
In our society, men are often socialized to feel entitled to demand physical affection. A refusal to accept their demands is often seen as disrespect and many men feel entitled to respond with violence.
There is usually a belief that sexual violence and force are appropriate responses to rejections of sexual advances. It took a village to create these attitudes around consent. It took the uncles who stayed silent when the grandfather adultified and sexualised his 6-year-old granddaughter by referring to her as ‘mke wangu’ (my wife). The teacher who blamed the girl for having a curvaceous body when one of her male classmates slapped her buttocks. The mother who blamed her married daughter for experiencing domestic violence, saying she deserved it because she couldn’t give the man children. These acts of gender-based violence did not appear from thin air. They ultimately stem from our beliefs about how we see and treat women, femmes, non-men and people who belong to other marginalised gender identities.
The patriarchal system in which cis-gendered heterosexual men operate within is at the core of many of the problems we seek to tackle. If we are serious about change, we will confront these behaviours wherever we see them. Due to patriarchy’s entrenched presence in cultures and institutions around the world, the patterns we find in Tanzania can be found in other communities.
Misogyny and patriarchy are deeply ingrained into the metaphorical psyches of school systems, workplace cultures, personal and domestic lives in Tanzania.
Ultimately, the people who perpetuate gender-based violence do so for multiple reasons. The perpetuation of gender-based violence is often about the assertion of power and the need to dominate or control. Additionally, socialisation can occur in which gender-based violence is normalised and seen as an acceptable way to interact with people who are non-cis gendered straight men. We must start to address these problems so that real accountability can be taken, and steps to find ways to embrace Tanzanian culture while addressing traditions that are problematic and harmful.
How do we challenge rape culture moving forward?
Create a culture of enthusiastic consent
Consent is the recognition of another’s autonomy and humanity and thus crucial in the building and maintenance of relationships. It is a necessity in any relationship, and it is at the core of any community that acknowledges the humanity of its members. In mainstream media, consent is usually only associated with sexual acts. However, consent should be an essential tenet that guides all aspects of our lives. Anyone at any age can start practising consent in small ways, daily. Practising consent ensures safety and it leads to a society where people’s needs can be met.
Challenging sexist thoughts & rhetoric
It is also important that we take an active role in confronting sexist and misogynistic attitudes in our personal lives. We can start practising this in safer spaces, for example, amongst close friends, peers and colleagues. The idea is to get them to question their line of thinking.
Kwa nini una fikra hizo? Why do you think this way?
Allow them the space to ponder upon the futility that lies at the root of their bigoted views.
It’s also important to redefine the concept of masculinity through feminist principles. This can look like; not putting the majority of the domestic burden on women and dividing it equitably between the men and the women within a household, not punishing young boys for expressing their perceived femininity through speech or dress, and even making space for men to be emotionally vulnerable by letting them know that it’s healthy to do so.
Another way to challenge rape culture and patriarchy is by not blaming the victim when assault does happen. Remember that there is rarely ever a “perfect victim’, and no matter what the victim was wearing, doing, or where the victim was located, it is not their fault that they were assaulted, and the onus should always be placed upon the perpetrator of violence.
Engage with our Work!
Lastly, we invite everyone who has read this blog post to use this article as a prompt to engage critically with more Black feminist thought. This is so you can build and cement your knowledge on the politics of building a world that is safe for everybody, especially those who have been neglected and marginalised for far too long.
Written by Leticia Maganga & Junayna Al-Sheibani and edited by Rosebell Kagumire & Msia Kibona Clark