Deconstructing the antagonism between feminism and society in Madagascar 3/3 (Re)conciling feminism and society, the new militant challenge in Madagascar

 

21.08.2020

Written by Koloina Andriamanondehibe
Translated by Aurélie Bugnard 

It is difficult to define feminism exactly today. It is too “heterogeneous and complex1]LOKE Jaime, BACHMANN Ingrid et HARP Dustin. Co-opting feminism: media discourses on political women and the definition of a (new) feminist identity, Sage Journals, 2015. », as a notion, according to Jaime Loke, Ingrid Bachmann and Dustin Harp. It is to such an extent that the authors do not  dare not to establish a universal definition. In this article, the simplified definition proposed by Le Petit Robert will be used : “Feminism :  A doctrine which advocates equality between men and women, and the extension of the role of women in society”.2]Le Robert. « Féminisme », dans Le Robert, online French dictionnary : https://dictionnaire.lerobert.com/definition/feminisme ».

In the first two parts of this dossier, we have reviewed the various events that have transformed relations between men and women in Madagascar. As in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa, the matriarchal system, also carried by an Austronesian heritage, has managed to be maintained over a long period in the territory. Its final end  and the systemic downfall of Malagasy women are marked by the French incursion and Christian evangelization. The West has brought with itself values of male domination. As we have looked to the past, it is now inevitable to question the complex legacy of matriarchy and patriarchy, as well as the consequences of the globalization of feminism regarding the struggle for the status of women in Madagascar.

The globalization of feminism: what place for Madagascar?

Feminism as a concept first appeared in the 19th century, with the advent of the Suffragettes in France and England, followed by anti-slavery feminist activism in the United States. Although the start of this movement really took place in the West, some values claimed by these feminists were not unknown to women in the rest of the world. For example, we saw in the first part of this dossier that the first matriarchal and matrilocal systems were set up in Madagascar as soon as in the 5th century, before being considerably reduced during the French colonization.

Today, several Western ways of thinking are trying to expand themselves to the world by conveying values ​​and modus operandi which cause a rejection of nations which intend to find or regain their identity after painful years under foreign influence. Thus, fear of what is called “colonial feminism” is the main obstacle to accepting gender equality in non-Western societies. Paola Bacchetta refers to colonial feminism as a movement perpetuating colonialism through what she calls the “displacement and epistemicide3]Epistemicide means a civilisation’s sciences or practices which fall into disuse because of another culture’s influenceof indigenous knowledge4]BACCHETTA Paola. Décoloniser le féminisme: intersectionnalité, assemblages, co-formations, co-productions. Les Cahiers du CEDREF n°20, 2015, available online at : https://journals.openedition.org/cedref/833?lang=en ». According to her, it is manifesting itself on the one hand through external mobilization, which is a paternalistic and moralizing position adopted by some groups or individuals, mainly Westerners, who ignore local particularities. This criticism of the globalization of feminism and the donor-recipient dynamic between North and South, which is similar to what we observe in the economic or political spheres, follows the controversies surrounding the phenomenon of “white- saviorism5]The “white savior complex” designates the actions of a privileged person from Europe or North America performing humanitarian volunteering in developing countries in order to nurture a certain image of benefactor without having a  significant impact in the communities visited.» in Africa. On the other hand, the devaluation of indigenous knowledge can also be encouraged by local actors who reproduce analyzes from abroad, even when the latter are insensitive to their realities and experiences.

In Madagascar in particular, the term “feminism” is just beginning to be popularized but is already receiving mixed perception from the public opinion. The reason is that apart from restricted circles of insiders, a part of the Malagasy instinctively associates the word with foreign radical demonstrations, such as those of the FEMEN, known for demonstrating naked or even certain groups labeled “sextremist6]Sextremism is a neologism designating the radical faction of the feminist movement. According to FEMEN activist Inna Shevchenko, sextremism “is a new type of female activism that is, admittedly aggressive, but still non-violent, provocative but delivering a clear message” (SHEVCHENKO Inna. “Sextremism: the new voice of feminism ! ”, The Huffington Post, 2013, available online: https://www.huffingtonpost.fr/inna-schevchenko/feminisme-femen-sextremisme_b_2628489.html) “. Malagasy culture and education gives a particular importance to the values of “henatra” (modesty), “hasina” (sacredness), “fahendrena” (wisdom, circumspection), without forgetting the predominant religious principles. Mialisoa Randriamampianina sums up the portrait of the feminist in the imagination of the Malagasy: “hysterical, misunderstood, bitter and anarchist 7]RANDRIAMAMPIANINA Mialisoa. Il suffit d’une crise, l’Express de Madagascar, 23.01.2017, available on at : https://lexpress.mg/23/01/2017/il-suffit-dune-crise/ », which is the opposite of what is morally accepted in society.

This is where the divide lies: an intellectual minority, committed to the cause of gender and under the guise of feminism pleads for a more effective women’s rights in Malagasy society. However, against these decisions, standards and public policies resulting from these initiatives is opposed the confusion, even the challenge, by a dominant conservative base. This is evidenced by the unexpected imbroglio that surrounded the adoption of the law on combating gender-based violence in Madagascar in 2019. Presented by the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry Population, in collaboration with civil society and the National Gendarmerie, the text was initially rejected by the National Assembly. The reason is due to a poor understanding of the concepts discussed. They have pushed parliamentarians, but also influential religious leaders, to see an opening to inter-sex marriage. Regarding one of the articles providing for the punishment of “any act of sexual penetration (…) committed on the spouse8]Law 2019-008 concerning the combat against gender-based violence, article 6 », the opposition MP Fidèle Razara Pierre expressed himself as follows: “Why was the word used referring to the male spouse and not the female spouse (…) Does this law already recognize the possibility of having only male spouses in a union?9]France Info Afrique. A Madagascar, une loi contre les violences faites aux femmes “sème la zizanie”. France Info’s website, 2020, online : https://www.francetvinfo.fr/monde/afrique/madagascar/a-madagascar-une-loi-contre-les-violences-faites-aux-femmes-seme-la-zizanie_3768581.html ». After that, the government made a series of changes to get rid of any overtones deemed too progressive, in order to pass the bill.

Recognizing and valuing the diversity of the female experience: the key to inclusiveness

In the previous articles in this dossier, we have initiated the discussion on Madagascar as a nation, mainly dealing with the historical, political and cultural journey shared by the entire population, which marked the end of a true matriarchy. Although this approach goes is compatible with the national unity that is so much claimed today, the diversity identities living on some 587,042 square kilometers of the island cannot be ignored. Like the African and Asian populations, the Malagasy culture places great importance in tribalism and ethnicity. There are currently about 18 ethnicities and almost as many types of social dynamics. The chronology describing the arrival of matrilineal models with Austronesian-Bantu immigration, and their fall following French colonization, is not linear; we must also recognize the experience of some groups, although their in-depth study is not the subject of this article. We can mention, among other things, the experience of ethnic groups in the northwest of the island, strongly marked by Arab immigration. Settled in the region of Mahajanga as early as the 7th century, the Muslim Arabs imported a patriarchal system there, thus anticipating other Malagasy feudal societies by a few centuries.

The consequences of this diversity of heritages, coupled with other factors such as the environment, the level of education and the availability of resources, have meant that some issues have been prioritized depending on the region. The OHCHR study on Violence against Women in Madagascar reports the weight of traditions in the effectiveness of women’s rights in certain communities and reports that despite the current laws, customary law is still very present znd encourages discrimination against women10]HCDH. La violence contre les femmes à Madagascar : Rapport sur la mise en oeuvre du Pacte international relatif aux droits civils et politiques, s.d., online : https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/MDG/INT_CEDAW_NGO_MDG_42_9595_E.pdf . For example, one in three Madagascan girls begins her reproductive life before she turns 1811]NIAINA Noro. Grossesse précoce : une fille sur trois, enceinte avant 18 ans, Newsmada, 2016, online : https://www.newsmada.com/2016/03/24/grossesse-precoce-une-fille-sur-trois-enceinte-avant-18-ans/ . However, disparities can be noted :  the prevalence of forced and / or early pregnancies is higher in some western communities, where 10% of mothers are under 19, compared to just 2.3% in the capital12]BINET Clotidle, GASTINEAU Bénédicte et RAKOTOSON Lina. « Fécondité précoce à Madagascar : quel impact sur la santé maternelle et infantile ? », Madagascar face au défi des Objectifs du Millénaire pour le Développement, IRD, 2010, p. 292.

Besides the ethnic factor, the way of life of women in Madagascar is also conditioned by their environment. Currently, nearly 80% of the population lives in rural areas, but there is a significant development gap between women in the city and those in the countryside. For example, less than 2% of women living in cities cannot read, compared to 29% of women in rural areas. Rural women are also more fertile than others, giving birth on average to 5.7 children during their lifetime13]Institut National de la Statistique et ORC Macro. Enquête Démographique et de Santé, Madagascar 2003–2004 : Rapport de synthèse, Calverton, Maryland, USA : INSTAT et ORC Macro, 2005.. In general, people living outside urban centers are more disadvantaged in terms of access to education, health or employment. This adds an additional burden on rural women, who then face systemic barriers as women, to which are added those experienced by rural populations.

This is where the notion of intersectionality is involved. Movements for the rights and interests of women in Madagascar benefit from its highlighting. Introduced by the American Kimberley Crenshaw in the early 1990s, the concept of intersectionality refers to the analysis of the accumulation of discrimination or domination that an individual may suffer within a given society. It would be wrong to claim that equal opportunities between men and women are already effective in Madagascar, but also to consider that all Malagasy women are equal among themselves. The recognition of this plurality of experiences makes it possible to attribute to the women concerned a certain power of agency. According to Diana T. Meyers, this is a theory according to which women in a patriarchal society should be able to express their needs and problems through the criticism of social and political institutions 14]MEYERS Diana T. « Feminist Theories Of Agency Britannica », in Britannica, online: https://www.britannica.com/topic/philosophical-feminism/Feminist-theories-of-agency . An interesting point is highlighted by this author: this power of agency can only be accomplished when the actors do not go beyond their social point of view so as to let the women concerned develop and take charge of their resistance. In other words, a group should not seek to appropriate claims that are not endogenous to it, to the detriment of the space of expression of the group mainly concerned.

What Malagasy feminism has to offer

It is undeniable that the full integration of gender into the spheres of politics, economy and society in Madagascar still has a long way to go. Many challenges remain, whether they are the result of the obsolescence of ancestral customs in modern society, or the legacy of the violent colonial period. However, we must get rid of certain feminist prejudices regarding developing countries to let Malagasy women define their own priorities. Indeed, the strong inequalities present in society in Madagascar do not prevent the country from presenting better statistics compared to the average for southern countries, or even industrialized countries in some cases. Recognizing and acknowledging these strengths allows us to break away from a one-way dynamic with the North, while working to improve the condition of women.

The Malagasy Gender Development Index (GDI), which measures the gap between the HDI of women and that of men, is remarkable enough to be studied here. Madagascar does well in sub-Saharan Africa with a score of 0.946 and with some female rates higher to that of men in some categories, such as life expectancy at birth (68.3 years for women opposed to 65.1 for men) or the average length of schooling. (6.4 years opposed to 5.8)15]PNUD. Rapport sur le développement humain 2019 : les inégalités de développement humain au XXIème siècle, PNUD, 2019, online : http://hdr.undp.org/sites/all/themes/hdr_theme/country-notes/fr/MDG.pdf . Obviously, this indicator only takes into account a limited number of factors, namely life expectancy, income and education, and ignores other considerations, such as the violence against Malagasy women to which they are strongly exposed. Despite these encouraging but incomplete figures, there is a tendency to fall into a stereotypy of the countries of the South, fed by many Western international NGOs. This is a potential anchor point for Malagasy feminism, and an opportunity for activists to shine the light on the non-white experience and deny the systematic paternalistic discourse from the outside.


It may seem anecdotal, but it is interesting to note that there some are rights claimed by women elsewhere that are already acquired in Madagascar – even which have never been questioned. This is the case for breastfeeding in public, which provokes heated debate in industrial societies, but which is a common practice in Madagascar.

In short, feminism in Madagascar is analyzed here in its narrowest meaning, in other words the fight for the development of women’s rights in order to achieve gender equality. Despite this, it is a label that continues to frighten part of the public opinion, provoking in the process debates whose depths are often lined with misunderstanding and misconceptions. Should women’s rights movements then dissociate themselves from this name, even if they meet this definition, for fear of placing unnecessary barriers with the community? In any case, it is clear that more and more Malagasy organizations are seeking to reclaim feminism and to break it down into several sub-types to include a growing number of identities.

This article closes this dossier devoted to the deconstruction of the antagonism between the Malgasy society and feminist values. Social relations between men and women have continued to evolve for centuries, allowing Madagascar today to enjoy a dual matriarchal and patriarchal heritage. Like other human rights demands, feminism is currently an identity issue where conservative and reformist forces continue to clash, damaging the ideal of an egalitarian society. This is a superficial  discord, however, the solution of which is on both sides, to delve into the real history and reality of the country.

References   [ + ]

1. LOKE Jaime, BACHMANN Ingrid et HARP Dustin. Co-opting feminism: media discourses on political women and the definition of a (new) feminist identity, Sage Journals, 2015.
2. Le Robert. « Féminisme », dans Le Robert, online French dictionnary : https://dictionnaire.lerobert.com/definition/feminisme
3. Epistemicide means a civilisation’s sciences or practices which fall into disuse because of another culture’s influence
4. BACCHETTA Paola. Décoloniser le féminisme: intersectionnalité, assemblages, co-formations, co-productions. Les Cahiers du CEDREF n°20, 2015, available online at : https://journals.openedition.org/cedref/833?lang=en
5. The “white savior complex” designates the actions of a privileged person from Europe or North America performing humanitarian volunteering in developing countries in order to nurture a certain image of benefactor without having a  significant impact in the communities visited.
6. Sextremism is a neologism designating the radical faction of the feminist movement. According to FEMEN activist Inna Shevchenko, sextremism “is a new type of female activism that is, admittedly aggressive, but still non-violent, provocative but delivering a clear message” (SHEVCHENKO Inna. “Sextremism: the new voice of feminism ! ”, The Huffington Post, 2013, available online: https://www.huffingtonpost.fr/inna-schevchenko/feminisme-femen-sextremisme_b_2628489.html)
7. RANDRIAMAMPIANINA Mialisoa. Il suffit d’une crise, l’Express de Madagascar, 23.01.2017, available on at : https://lexpress.mg/23/01/2017/il-suffit-dune-crise/
8. Law 2019-008 concerning the combat against gender-based violence, article 6
9. France Info Afrique. A Madagascar, une loi contre les violences faites aux femmes “sème la zizanie”. France Info’s website, 2020, online : https://www.francetvinfo.fr/monde/afrique/madagascar/a-madagascar-une-loi-contre-les-violences-faites-aux-femmes-seme-la-zizanie_3768581.html
10. HCDH. La violence contre les femmes à Madagascar : Rapport sur la mise en oeuvre du Pacte international relatif aux droits civils et politiques, s.d., online : https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/MDG/INT_CEDAW_NGO_MDG_42_9595_E.pdf
11. NIAINA Noro. Grossesse précoce : une fille sur trois, enceinte avant 18 ans, Newsmada, 2016, online : https://www.newsmada.com/2016/03/24/grossesse-precoce-une-fille-sur-trois-enceinte-avant-18-ans/
12. BINET Clotidle, GASTINEAU Bénédicte et RAKOTOSON Lina. « Fécondité précoce à Madagascar : quel impact sur la santé maternelle et infantile ? », Madagascar face au défi des Objectifs du Millénaire pour le Développement, IRD, 2010, p. 292
13. Institut National de la Statistique et ORC Macro. Enquête Démographique et de Santé, Madagascar 2003–2004 : Rapport de synthèse, Calverton, Maryland, USA : INSTAT et ORC Macro, 2005.
14. MEYERS Diana T. « Feminist Theories Of Agency Britannica », in Britannica, online: https://www.britannica.com/topic/philosophical-feminism/Feminist-theories-of-agency
15. PNUD. Rapport sur le développement humain 2019 : les inégalités de développement humain au XXIème siècle, PNUD, 2019, online : http://hdr.undp.org/sites/all/themes/hdr_theme/country-notes/fr/MDG.pdf

Check the rest of the series “Deconstructing the antagonism between feminism and society in Madagascar”
1/3 Matriarchy in Madagascar: myth or reality? Back on the pre-colonial society. : https://igg-geo.org/?p=1569&lang=en
2/3 Western acculturation and social gender relations in the 19th century: breaks and transformations : https://igg-geo.org/?p=1686&lang=en

To quote this publication : Koloina Andriamanondehibe, “Deconstructing the antagonism between feminism and society in Madagascar 3/3 (Re) reconciling feminism and society, the new militant challenge in Madagascar”, 21.08.2020, Institut du Genre en Géopolitique.

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