The gendering of space and women’s mobility
The Meru (100,000 to 150,000 people) live on the eastern and southern slopes of Mount Meru some ten km east of Arusha town. Understanding processes of urbanisation and peoples’ spatial mobility as well as their economic adaptation to modern changes, the close proximity between the Meru land and Arusha town must be understood as a symbiotic relationship rather than a distinct rural-urban adaptation. Although most people are smallholders, cultivating coffee, maize, beans, bananas and vegetables, as well as keeping some livestock, an ever-larger number of households also draw home income from activities outside their home area. In addition to male labour out-migration, trade, transport and tourism are the most common income generating activities. Thus, dual or rather multiple household-economies have increasingly become a main characteristic of Meru households.
Whereas Meru men have been involved in urban migration for decades, women are now gradually taking part in a wide variety of market-oriented activities and are participating in different income generating activities from outside the mountain farming system. This is particularly the case among young and as yet unmarried women and among women, who for various reasons have remained unmarried.
This gender difference is, in part, a result of socio-economic changes, such as integration into the modern market economy, transformation of the agricultural sector, and overpopulation with a resulting land shortage. But it is also closely associated with the moral principles inscribed in the local conception of space, which tends to curb women’s spatial mobility compared to men. Although Arusha town is close to the homesteads on the mountain and many travel to and fro on a daily basis, the perceived gulf separating the socio-cultural construction of the two areas is considerable—the simple and morally esteemed life of the (rural) Meru versus the immoral and corrupting life of townspeople and town women in particular.
It is also obvious that the (Lutheran) Church, which has had a strong stand ever since the (German) missionaries arrived in northern Tanzania more than a hundred years ago, has had a crucial role in forming gender roles and the notion of a ‘proper woman’. Claire Mercer, writing on the neighbouring Chagga women
‘Prostitutes’ or Modern Women? Negotiating Respectability in Northern Tanzania
and their participation in ‘development’ (maendeleo), argues that the church has strongly promoted the idea that proper women should shun private business and rather participate in development through village-based women’s groups where they are educated “about their roles as house-wives, mothers, and being useful community members” (Mercer 2002:112).
Thus, geographical mobility involves, particularly for women, much more than a shift in physical location. In terms of the gendered dimension of space, unmarried women in towns are conceived of as being socially and economically misplaced and are commonly seen as sexually loose. Studies from other parts of East Africa describe situations which very much resemble the Meru-Arusha area (cf., for instance Obbo 1981; White 1990; Ogden 1996; Wallman 1996). In her recent paper on town women in Kampala, in Uganda, Paula Jean Davis, argues: “The identity of ‘town women’ is constructed by means of a dual process of ‘othering’ engaging two sets of binary oppositions: married woman/prostitute and town/ country” (2000:29). Such perceptions are also commonly voiced among people in the Arusha-Meru area. Whereas men can freely go to town and take on a modern town life, women, on the other hand, are seen as the upholders of traditional ways of life and should be protected from the negative influence of town life. In contrast to the rural wives, idealised as hard-working women and the caretakers of the family and children, townswomen, on the other hand, are stereotyped as ‘bad’, wasting time just gossiping, dancing, and drinking, and often using their bodies immorally to support themselves (Obbo 1981).
As in much of Africa, an increasing number of Meru women are remaining unmarried (cf. Helle-Valle, this volume). Whereas some simply wish to postpone marriage, because they, for instance, wish to pursue further education, or initiate business activities, others have a child (out of wedlock), and thus they often fall outside the rather narrow standard prescription of a ‘marriageable woman’ or a ‘proper wife’. However, whereas some fail to get married, others choose not to. For some the option ‘not to marry’ is part of a more general quest for freedom and a desire to pursue their individuality and to live a modern life in town. By avoiding marriage, women refuse to comply with gender ideology, which subordinates women to men, in their capacity as fathers, brothers and husbands.
Nevertheless, in their pursuit for self-fulfilment and economic independence, they become dependent on another type of attachment to men by tapping into informal loose ‘conjugal’ relationships which are often both fluid and transient. Although such a male-female union may resemble the formalised marriage, it is structurally very different. There is no ‘bill of rights’ (Giddens 1992) sanctioned by parents and kin to rely on, only the commitment of the partners. Yet, trust of-
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fers no permanent support; it must be developed on the basis of intimacy between the two and trust between partners is a scarce resource.
To break away from the (rural) well-known way of life into the less known world of urban life is, of course, exciting but it is also very precarious for most of the women. It requires new types of knowledge, skills and experiences. Furthermore, in the presence of AIDS, women’s spatial mobility and their respectability are at stake. As I have described elsewhere, the single and ‘unattached’ women are faced with yet another threat to their socio-economic and emotional well-being (Haram 1999, 2001). Although much research shows that young women are much more likely to get infected compared to men their age, the stereotypical idea of the single, unattached town woman as sexually loose and thus to be blamed for the spread and infection of HIV/AIDS, is more or less uncritically reflected in HIV/AIDS research and AIDS campaigns. Before I further explore these problems, I will present cases that amplify these issues.