Revolution, War and Feminism

Against the Current, No. 24, January/February 1990

Janet Siskind

And Still They Dance:
Women, War, and the Struggle for Change in Mozambique
By Stephanie Urdang
New York Monthly Review Press, 1989, $11.

AND STILL THEY DANCE by Stephanie Urdang is a remarkable book, combining a socialist consciousness with a feminist perspective to present a powerful description of today’s Mozambique. A South African, who left the country she still thinks of as home in 1970, Urdang has been actively engaged ever since in writing, speaking, and working for progressive change in southern Africa.

Her first book, Fighting Two Colonial-isms (1979), was full of the hope of the newly liberated colonies. Her first visit to Mozambique in 1980 was during this time of hope. Her fourth visit in 1987, after seven years of South Africa’s relentless attack, is a time of “hardship, of war and hunger, of devastations.” Yet the picture she paints shows also the real progress and the strength of people.

The continuing destabilization and devastation of the country by South Africa’s “contras”—the Mozambique National Resistance (MNR)—is clearly portrayed as Mozambique’s overwhelming problem, which makes survival the focus of Mozambicans. Urdang strongly supports and identifies with this newly liberated nation’s struggle. She is critical of the government’s policy toward women precisely because she believes that freeing the energies and productive minds of women by encouraging their efforts to end the legacy of patriarchy is an essential part of the nation’s struggle to survive.

Historically and currently FRELIMO, the governing party, has in words and actions included the elimination of women’s subordinated status among its goals and programs. However, its official position is to “speak kindly to men and encourage them to change. The organization for women encourages harmony within the household and teaches women to be better housekeepers. Class struggle is part of the necessary process of change, gender struggle is not.

Through interviews carried out over several years with women in various settings, Urdang presents a rich picture of women’s lives and struggles. She worked with peasants, workers, administrators, young and old. She conveys the variety of problems as well as the rich human potential of the country. There are many conflicting needs to be dealt with—urban vs. rural, workers vs. farmers, older generation vs. younger, and, overwhelmingly, women vs. men.

Her easy descriptive style builds on a solid analytical foundation. The complexities of traditional cultural patterns that maintain women’s subordination are discussed in a context related to the distant past as well as to the colonial past. The importance of women’s work in a peasant agricultural setting is related both to polygyny and the payment of lobola. Polygyny provides a man with sufficient workers to produce for him and his children.

Lobola transfers control over a woman from father to husband. It is a repayment for taking a worker from her family. These customs are regarded by the government as harmful to women, and most Mozambican women agree, though some still regard lobola as providing a measure of security to the marriage.

The problems of development schemes come to life as Urdang describes how Mozambique repeats the standard pattern in which men are given technical training in agriculture in preference to women, despite women’s continuing importance as agricultural producers.

One important example of how the patriarchal mindset stands in the way of desired change shows up in the government’s definition of “family.” Aid and encouragement to family stability are offered to polygynous as well as nuclear families, but the large number of families comprised of single, female parent and her children are excluded from consideration, and the women are frequently censored rather than aided, though they are the ones who take responsibility for their children.

Urdang’s criticisms are serious yet they are balanced by an appreciation of both the promises and actions of the government to improve women’s position, and they take into consideration the effects of living in a continuous state of war aimed at destabilizing and devastating the country—a war aimed specifically at destroying projects that improve people’s way of life.

She describes progress and hopefulness as well as struggle. Particularly impressive is her description of people’s increased ability to cooperate on a village level and those times and places where some men have begun to help their wives and show respect for women’s work and words.

One topic that is not touched upon is birth control and, given the difficulty of raising many children in this time and place, it seems relevant—is it too threatening to traditional thought or is population increase desired? Another topic, which would, of course, take another book based on interviews with men on similar themes, is the question of why so many of the men are self-centered and irresponsible?

The notes and bibliography provide not only a glimpse of the author’s credentials but an extremely useful guide to further reading on Mozambique. And Still They Dance will be used in a multitude of women’s courses, including my own. It also deserves a broad readership of all those who are interested in southern Africa and the struggles of Third World countries for development and for political and economic liberation.

January-February 1990, ATC 24

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