Last Friday we joined Cameroon in her celebration of International Women’s Day. In the US, March 8th is pretty much a day like any other, but in Cameroon it is a giant celebration of women.
“8 Mars” commences with the annual Women’s Day Parade where dozens of women’s organizations converge on Yaounde’s Centre Ville to showcase their work. The women in my study abroad group chose to march and upon reaching Centre Ville we were immersed in a sea of thousands wearing matching pink and blue. We walked through throngs of women laughing, eating, and drinking, all wearing beautiful hats, elaborate makeup (the woman with gold glitter in her eyebrows and hair was my favorite), and individualized dresses. It was like a huge, formal tailgate party throughout all of downtown. Overwhelming in its awesomeness.
We marched in solidarity with the women of MUFFA- a local micro-finance organization- and were warmly welcomed by all. During preparation for the parade the energy in the air was palpable as we stood hand-in-hand with these strong, beautiful women. While we were getting into formation, a man with MUFFA and a government official began yelling at us to get in better order- “Get in line! What do you think you are doing?! NO 12 to a line, not 14!”
I was taken aback by the actions of these men. Questions raced through my head… Why were they yelling at us- wasn’t this a day to celebrate women’s strength and leadership? Wasn’t the female leader of our group doing a good job before they came and took over? Was is possible that these men just saw a need and took the lead? Was it also possible that those in our group were not following the direction of our female leader? Why did we all follow the orders of these men without question?
After the parade I asked my french professor if the actions of these men were normal on a day like “8 Mars.” She chuckled as she said that, had she been in our situation, she probably would not have noticed that the men took charge- “C’est la vie au Cameroon.”
One of my friends here reminds me that it is easy to play the “gender card,” and I agree. Genuine social analysis takes more time and is more difficult to perform than simply writing off a problem as a product gender. After much thought, however, I believe that this situation was evidence of patriarchy at its most elemental.
The “8 Mars” celebration is actually quite controversial among many women and men that I have talked to. One of my Cameroonian friends will not march in the parade because she does not believe the celebration represents true emancipation of women. Some see the festivities as a way for women to “act like men for a day,” as March 8th is the only day some of these women are allowed out of their homes to drink with their friends. The next day it is back to normal, and they are expected to fill their traditional role in the home. If that is the case, then what is the celebration for?
After the parade we went to MUFFA headquarters to share food and conversation with members, and I continued my quest to hear more opinions on “8 Mars.” I sat by a woman named Catherine who joined MUFFA in 2009. There she received a micro-loan to start a small convenience store in the local market. She has since grown her business and can help support her family with her income. Catherine continues to receive support from her community at MUFFA and joined them in the parade. I asked her what she thought of the celebration and she said, “There will always be women who just want to drink and go wild on 8 Mars, who do not care about women’s rights or economic empowerment. There are also women like me who want to see women advance, who march because they want women’s voices to be heard.”
Catherine, like so many other women I have met while here, is a warrior. Whether working for the welfare of their family, working for equal opportunity, or working to end patriarchy, these women are determined and strong. And although some view the “8 Mars” celebration negatively, I believe despite its pitfalls it gives women an opportunity to dance, eat, drink, and fellowship with one another- all necessary activities to continue fighting the good fight, whatever that fight may be.