Society and Gender Identity need to talk

Why revisiting our precolonial past can help us better understand and accept gender identity in the future

According to various historians, gender fluidity was part of a common culture in many places across the continent.

A fond memory of being a child is the colourful road trips to my grandparents’ home. Their house, carefully etched along a steep hill in the rocky village of Bobonong, was surrounded by three mud huts – huts which I grew to learn were architected and built by the hands of my grandmother. My granny, affectionately known as Mma Basi, was among many things a builder of homes.

Culturally, her construction work isn’t necessarily a novelty. Women in her time were known for ploughing hectares of field, reaping turfs of harvest and placing them in homes which they meticulously designed and decorated. The entire process of making a house a home was a norm with Batswana women.

Mma Basi grew up in colonial times, Botswana was one of the unicorn nations of Africa in being a protectorate – the agreement with the British Empire was to protect the state from colonial rule against Germany. However it wasn’t absolved from facing the impact of the violent socio-political and economic climate from its neighbouring African countries.

My grandmother’s impressive skill set which could be adapted into the economy didn’t necessarily translate well. Construction work and farming are economically male dominated in the industry. Unfortunately, her skill set was rejected due to formal education being a right afforded only to men. This of course serves as a symptom to what we know today as the system of patriarchy.

Through the centralisation of empowerment of man in receiving education, making men the direct beneficiaries of the economy, it has psychologically, politically, emotionally and mentally displaced the role of women in this society. This process has created a centralism of privilege granted to men, creating a clearly set margin of oppression towards the female gender. The current system has forcefully set clear definitions of the roles of only two definitive gender identities, being cis-gender male and cis-gender female, and has placed a violent blanket on the various gender identities our continent hosts.

The unrepresented community of transgendered, non-binary and intersex people has become marginalised. And often includes recipients of harsh realities of patriarchal gender norms, with many being bearers of human rights violations. And while our country has valued itself in the practice of humanity that we call botho, the current status quo doesn’t offer spaces for the transgender and intersex community to have a fully-fledged voice and practice their autonomy. There is a need for the community to allow dialogue on gender identities on a grassroots level.

Unfortunately, the only time we generate dialogue on gender identity comes at points of discrimination – where severe cases make the news. It becomes a conversational topic for a short period until we fall back into forgetting the marginalised community, dressing them in the same blanket that leads to violations of their human rights.

This was the case for Paul Morama, a Paralympic gold medalist whose career went under siege when he fathered a child while being female presenting having been raised female and introduced to the sports fraternity as Tshotlego. Due to Morama being intersex and identifying as male, he was pulled from being active in competitions by the Botswana National Sports Council and went to receive counselling.

A similar case exists for a trans student who alleged being groped by the police while detained earlier this year in Gaborone. According to the Washington Blade the student was detained by the police with the groping motivated as an attempt to assess her gender – to determine whether she should be detained in the male or female cells. They could have simply asked how she identified, instead they tried to justify this heinous violation.

The Rainbow Identity Association is the only association in Botswana that advocates for the rights of transgendered and intersex people. To reduce stigma the conversation on gender norms must open up.

According to various historians, gender fluidity was part of a common culture in many places across the continent.

In precolonial Sudan, male same-sex marriage was recognised among the Azande people. In similar fashion, Meru people of Kenya as well as the Zulu culture tolerated transgender men and allowed them to marry other men. More feminine men in the Langi tribe of Uganda were allowed to marry men.

While we are only able to track pockets of our history through extensive archaeological and historic research, our knowledge of what happened in the past lies in the untold stories of our ancestors. We are aware of gender fluidity in the precolonial context of our land, and it can assist in not only reducing discrimination of and inequalities in marginalised groups.

There needs to be a reversal – a revisiting that offers genuine communicating, and sharing stories on aspects of our culture before independence. Sharing these personal stories allows one to humanise political issues. Growing up with my grandmother’s hard work and tenacity granted me a clearer understanding of gender issues in Botswana. Of what it would take for me to make it as a woman.

If society can, on a grassroots level, speak on past gender norms in our diverse cultures we could get some insight into how progressive we used to be and really regain the practice of botho. While ultimately becoming holistically inclusive to the various gender identities in Botswana.





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