My stay here in Stone Town is almost coming to an end. Having spent more than seven weeks here, I’ve reflected a bit surrounding gender equality, prejudice and preconceived notions about Africa and developing countries in general. Before coming here, I, like perhaps many others, assumed that I would be going to a country where gender inequality was highly prevalent. I spent a lot of time thinking of how I would respond if somebody questioned why I travel alone as a female, why I’m not yet married or have any children etc. I also mentally prepared for the eventuality of males trying to hush me down, ignore my thoughts and undermine my ability as a woman and, worst case scenario, how I would behave when experiencing sexism or harassment without jeopardizing my own safety. I believe these thoughts have developed because of a narrative that has always been presented to me about developing countries and how they are far behind when it comes to gender equality and how the Western world is advanced in this area.
Instead, my prejudices have been challenged and many times, gotten a big slap in the face. In the second week of being here, I had a conversation with my Swahili teacher (who is a male) about gender inequality. We started talking about the subject when he told me about something interesting he had come to find out somewhere, which he found shocking and disturbing. He told me that he had heard that over in the US, women with the same education and work experience as their male counterparts were not receiving the same salaries as the men. I still remember his surprised reaction when I explained to him that this unfortunately, is the case for many other countries, including countries in Europe. He went on to say that it would be impossible for that to happen here in Zanzibar and even illegal. We later continued on having a long discussion about gender inequality and how it manifests itself differently depending on the country.
Now, I am no expert in Tanzanian/Zanzibari policies and regulations, nor am I saying that Zanzibar is without flaws, because that’s far away from the truth. But one thing I do know is that ever since I came here I’ve seen women in top leading positions, giving out assignments and orders to their male colleagues and employees. Something I honestly did not think I would witness prior to coming here. The head dean at my university is a woman, several of the people in charge that I met at different ministries and institutions while applying for a research permit, have been women. I’ve seen a majority of female doctors at hospitals, many of the police officers I’ve met have been women and, even in my hostel where I am currently living, there is gender parity in housekeeping, reception and in the restaurant. I say all this to say, that in a developing country that is predominantly Muslim, I have witnessed a gender parity and a sense of equality that I would not have expected before coming here. I also believe, that my own country of Sweden who prides itself in being the first feminist government in the world, has a lot of inspiration to draw from this small island off the coast of East Africa.