Africa Today 47.2 (2000) 218-220
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Finally, a book that takes gender in parliamentary politics seriously. Sylvia Tamale's When Hens Begin to Crow moves beyond the body count approach to studying women in politics, into the arena of gender and gendered practices. Tamale follows female politicians through their initial entry into politics, to their campaigns for election, into Parliament, and on to politicians' home districts. She also explores the gendered nature of media portrayals of Ugandan politicians, and seeks to evaluate the impact [End Page 218] of these different images on women's political careers. Men are never out of the picture. They are there at every step, and their impact is both demonstrated and evaluated. Tamale does not let us forget that women politicians live in a highly gendered world, where political power and male identity are seen as "natural," and women are often seen as intruders, despite the 1989 regulations establishing women's affirmative action seats in Parliament.
The impact of gendered cultural practices on women's political careers is initially explored through the life stories of five women politicians. These stories "demonstrate the different styles and strategies women politicians employ to resist male dominance and to empower themselves in the face of patriarchy and underdevelopment" (p. 41). They also remind the reader that women are not an undifferentiated group, but rather, like all social groups, are often divided by class, religion, education, and ethnicity. Despite the variations among these five women, Tamale concludes that they share the fact that "they all have to execute their political agendas within a historically entrenched male paradigm" (p. 63). The next chapters reinforce this conclusion. During the 1996 election, for example, powerful males often handpicked women candidates, although some women acted on their own. When women campaigned, femininity and gender issues assumed center stage. "In fact, the campaign trail for female candidates resembled a court martial wherein they had to defend their sexual morality." While men endured accusations of corruption, political ineptitude or ideological stance, women "encountered slurs regarding their marital status, sexuality, and (in)fidelity" (p. 93). Often these were issues on which women could not win. If you were married, you were neglecting your husband. If you were a widow, you killed him, and if you were divorced you didn't keep him. And such reservations were held by many women as well as men. Women who managed to get into Parliament discovered that the hostilities had just begun. Tamale describes subtle, ongoing abuse and hostility by many male parliamentarians. Men dominate debates, and "when a woman is on her feet, she is more likely to be met with noise and inattention in the House than a man is" (p. 121). When Victoria Mwaka became Deputy Chair of Parliament, she encountered significantly more hostility and disruptions from the floor when she was chairing. She was vilified and abused by the press as well. The lengthy quotes from male parliamentarians in the book, particularly the sexual innuendos toward women colleagues, are devastating reminders of the many subtle ways patriarchy seeks to reinforce male privilege and power.
This material leaves one wondering if women can make a difference in Parliament, and this is one of the questions Tamale seeks to answer. She discovered that women are often intimidated by the bureaucratic, formalistic, and very male nature of parliamentary debates and, indeed, the parliamentary Hansard records relatively few comments by women in that forum. However, women did speak up and play more decisive roles in the smaller, more intimate committees. Moreover, in all fora, women consistently [End Page 219] brought up issues related to social justice, gender equity, and the well being of marginalized groups. Women benefited from the larger numbers of women, although solidarity among them could not always be counted on. Nevertheless, Tamale concludes that women altered both the tone and substance of parliamentary discussions, particularly in regard to the poor and women. Moreover, Tamale discovered that...