I got along to a session at the Melbourne Writers Festival a couple of weeks ago called ‘Writer As Activist,’ which featured Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah on the panel. Her debut collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly, is published by Faber. Gappah won Zimbabwe’s Mukuru Nyaya Award for comic writing, and was a runner-up in the SA/PEN HSBC short story competition judged by JM Coetzee. She has law degrees from Cambridge, Graz University and the University of Zimbabwe. She lives with her son Kush in Geneva, where she works as an international trade lawyer. She speaks English, German and French, as well as her native language, Shona.
I’m still trying to figure out when on earth she finds time to write fiction.
In the panel discussion, Gappah came across as an extremely intelligent, funny and sensitive woman. She did point out that she struggles with being referred to as “The voice of Zimbabwe” in the media. She also mentioned that she doesn’t necessarily consider herself an ‘activist'; rather, she identifies as a short story writer whose fictional characters inhabit contemporary Zimbabwe. She lamented that because of the nation’s current political situation and the overwhelming interest in Mugabe, she had never been asked, as a non-fiction writer, how she crafted her characters. (Later, during Q&A, a lovely man up the back did ask her this, which was met with appreciative laughter from both the audience and Gappah).
Anyway, I decided to have a look at her blog. She had posted about a story which appeared on the BBC news website regarding a new law in Mali which gives women equal rights in marriage. Here’s Gappah’s post in its entirety.
First they want an education, now this. This, right here, is exactly why women should remain poor and illiterate.The irony of this story, pinched in its entirety from the BBC news website, is that the woman inveighing against “intellectuals” in this story will never appreciate the irony of that last sentence.
Tens of thousands of people in Mali’s capital, Bamako, have been protesting against a new law which gives women equal rights in marriage.
The law, passed earlier this month, also strengthens inheritance rights for women and children born out of wedlock.
The head of a Muslim women’s association says only a minority of Malian women – “the intellectuals” as she put it – supports the law.
Several other protests have taken place in other parts of the country.
The law was adopted by the Malian parliament at the beginning of August, and has yet to be signed into force by the president.
One of the most contentious issues in the new legislation is that women are no longer required to obey their husbands.
Hadja Sapiato Dembele of the National Union of Muslim Women’s Associations said the law goes against Islamic principles.
“We have to stick to the Koran,” Ms Dembele told the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme. “A man must protect his wife, a wife must obey her husband.”“It’s a tiny minority of women here that wants this new law – the intellectuals. The poor and illiterate women of this country – the real Muslims – are against it,” she added.