My View on the BBC’s Discussion on Motherhood and Equality

By Corey Gilkes
October 30, 2013

Dr Noel KalicharanOn Friday there was an interesting and important discussion on the BBC as part of its week-long commemoration of 100 women. The discussion explored the question “Is motherhood and impediment to equality”? Well with a title like that it was clear from what cultural context someone was thinking, but more on that in a lil bit. It was clear that many in the room felt the same way as the initial vote showed that 73% believed that it did and at the end of the discussion that figure only decreased by 3%.

Now there is no denial on my part that in the patricentric outlook that shaped the societies of Europe, the Americas, post-colonial Africa and Asia, the home and the women in it have diminished value. This comes from what I call the Ancient Greek/Athenian model; the domestic sphere is nowhere near as important as the public spaces where goods are traded, political policies are determined and agreements made (even if much of that is done in private golf or country clubs). Motherhood, childbirth and rearing are considered hindrances to the dynamic pace societies “should” be functioning. I guess that’s why agrarian cultures and civilisations found themselves swept away and/or viewed as primitive by the early and still influential sociologists, anthropologists, economists and historians.

But do WE need to?

We in the Caribbean with our enslavement and colonised legacy, plus the fragility of our economies – not to mention the possibility of a serious food shortage in the not too distant future – might want to re-examine and define our realities, ideas of development and progress. We may very well find ourselves being the model others wish to follow. It was evident that most of the speakers not only subscribed to the Athenian model but held an assumption that it was universal, which comes back to a problem I have with many feminists and social thinkers coming out of North America and Europe loaded with intellectual imperialism. We all know that the West spread its culture across the globe forcing it down people ‘sophagus, but come on nah allyuh. THIS is how we should be utilising history in we schools (insofar as it’s still being taught at all but that’s a next bag of worms for some other time).

The lone voices in the “wilderness” came from Uganda and Nigeria if memory serves me right. They pointed to something some of us older ones may be able to recall: the existence of extended families and communities providing support structures. As I gathered information for my book project and drew on memories as a child growing up in the 1970s, I remember what one researcher called the houseyards. Houses built on lots of land headed by matriarchal figures (the model for Paul Keens-Douglas’ “Tante Merle”) and occupied by family members and/or close-knit women in the community or from houses close by. There, children were reared even while young mothers went back out to work or study.

Our modern societies are indeed fast-paced and rapidly evolving. The military competitiveness of Ancient Eurasia has gone through several transformations from Athenian politics, Jewish intellectualism, European commerce and expansionism from the Age of “Discovery” to our own digital times. But given the problem most scholars have identified as its side-effects, isn’t it time we started to slow down or at least provide some sort of practical counterbalance?

One of the points discussed on that programme was paid domestic labour and duties. I know that that was something our own activists like Clotil Walcott and Elma Francois have been clamouring for since the 1930s. I suppose this can be explored as a possible option. I’d like it though, if we started re-examining the use of the domestic sphere as a serious means of production in order to empower (an over-used word of late) rural areas, women who may or may not be mothers or wish to opt out of the urban rat race and restart the economic and political autonomy that once existed among working-class women.

And it’s not like we’ll be re-inventing the damned wheel, there’s a lot of information out there waiting to be fused together. The Grenadian women’s co-operatives which were developed under the government of the late Maurice Bishop; where’re the studies done on that? The Ujamaa experiments of Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere; the agricultural writings of Guinea’s Amilcar Cabral; the Guyanese co-operatives of the 19th century; what happened to all of this? How did they fare? Where did they falter? What can we extract from them still?

Ifi Amadiume, for one, showed how motherhood was viewed in the exact opposite way among the Nnobi people of Nigeria’s Igbo. The same thing has been found among many other ethnic groups in Africa and Asia before European cultural and religious contamination (more on THAT later). We need to start back tapping into that if we are to get anywhere in this place on our own steam or if we serious about developing this “new” politics.