Why do governments adopt women’s rights policies?
That’s the main question driving Alice J. Kang’s research in her new book, “Bargaining for Women’s Rights: Activism in an Aspiring Muslim Democracy” (ungated introduction chapter here). Kang’s book offers an engaging, detailed look at how women activists played a vital role in Niger’s adoption of women’s rights policies.
In this week’s installment of the African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular, we present a Q&A with the author.
Kim Yi Dionne: The vignette that opens your book is really captivating. You tell how the president of Niger’s largest women’s organization used the opportunity made possible by the 1999 military coup to advocate that Niger ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The transitional government ratified CEDAW by military decree four months later. How did you learn the details of this story — and the other interesting political insights you share in your book?
Alice J. Kang: The process of finding information for the book was intensive. I tried to obtain, read and take notes on everything related to women’s rights, politics and religion in Niger. A mentor of mine, Christina Ewig, told me that if I met key individuals, to interview them multiple times, even better if over the course of years. That was invaluable advice.
For that opening vignette, I was on a Fulbright Hays fellowship in 2007-2008, interviewing activists, parliamentarians, ministry officials and foreign donors in Niger for months. In May, toward the end of that stay, a contact at the largest women’s organization told me how to get in touch with the group’s former president. I went to her house. We discussed her career and history of activism. When I asked if her organization had worked on the ratification of CEDAW, I learned the gist of the story. After that, I met with this leader at least three more times over the next three years. New information emerged with every conversation. Interviews with other activists helped corroborate the details.
KYD: A journalist recently wrote about the rise in naked protests in Africa. While there’s a long history of naked protests, which capture international attention through their sensationalism, these protests are only one — somewhat uncommon — tool women activists use to push for greater representation and equality. In fact, there was no mention of such a protest in your book.
Rather, I learned a great deal about Niger’s May 13, 1991 protest from your book, and how important it was for women’s mobilization for a gender quota — even if it took another decade to materialize (pp. 89-92). What can you share about the May 13 protest or other women’s protests in Niger?
AJK: The May 13 protest was the largest women’s demonstration in post-independence Niger. It was over the near-exclusion of women from a committee organizing the country’s transition from a military regime to democracy. The protest leaders drove around Niamey with loudspeakers, calling both women and men to join a march. It was a peaceful protest — and yes, they wore clothes. The police commissioner at the time was a women’s activist and helped ensure the police’s cooperation.
The organizers named, blamed and claimed: They named the underrepresentation of women as a public problem. They blamed the prime minister and leaders of the political parties, pinpointing those accountable. Last, the protest leaders presented national leaders with a clear list of demands, some of which were met, like including more women on the committee.
Through the course of my research, I learned about other types of women’s protests, including protests over the imprisonment of opposition leaders. One time, during Ibrahim Baré’s presidency, women activists put on a play during a march, enacting national political tensions. Women in Niger have also organized protests for peace. (Aili Mari Tripp talks about women’s peace movements in her book, scheduled in this series next month.)
KYD: I found compelling your argument that international influence in countries adopting gender quotas is insufficient on its own. Your analysis shows that if international factors alone could explain adoption of a gender quota, we should have seen earlier adoption in Niger. Instead, the timing of reform coincided with women activists’ call for a quota in 1999. What prompted women to make this call in 1999 and not, for example, in 1991, when thousands of women took to the streets in Niger’s largest cities?
AJK: Yes, I argue that while international influence is important, it doesn’t provide the whole story. In 1999, women’s activists were fed up with the lack of women getting elected to office over the course of the 1990s. The numbers, in fact, declined, even though women were active in the political parties.
But it’s a good question: Why didn’t women make a stronger push for a gender quota law in 1991? While they called for more women to be on the organizing committee, their focus at the time was on the process of the democratic transition itself. In 1991, not many countries in the world had gender quota laws. Some women’s activists learned about quotas after the May 13 protest, in the mid-1990s. In this way, the international dimension is crucial. Ultimately, however, it was women on the ground who proposed, drafted and pushed for the gender quota law in 1999.
KYD: In reading your book, I thought of the possibility for domestic backlash against international movements when you wrote, “International pressure and discourse had an unintended consequence of providing fodder to conservative religious activists, who framed international women’s rights treaties as ‘foreign impositions’” (p. 146).
I struggle in advising students who want to advocate for marginalized populations in other countries. While I want to support their pursuit of equality for all, I am attuned to the potential backlash for the populations for whom they want to advocate. Given what you’ve learned in your research, what do you say to your activist students who want to improve the condition of women in other countries?
AJK: I was not unlike your activist students when I was in college. I learned that to improve the condition of women in other countries, I needed to find out who is already there advocating for women and what political factors impinge upon them. As sociologist Ashley Currier shows very well in “Out in Africa,” which is about LGBT rights organizing, sometimes activists intentionally choose to operate under the radar. But they are there.
What I try to achieve in the book and as a teacher is a better understanding of the presences. Many people in the U.S., and not just students, see Africa as a place of absences: no rights, no governance, no state, no politics. Conservative activists in Niger are highly aware of these negative stereotypes about Africa, and about Islam.
In my African politics course, I like to ask my students to imagine if the Chinese government or Chinese activists came to the United States, saying that they want to help bring economic development or (Chinese) literacy to Lincoln, where I teach, or to a small town in Nebraska. What would the students think? Under what conditions might there be backlash? Often, my students say it depends on how the Chinese government or activists go about it. Nuanced thinking about foreign aid is possible.
Alice J. Kang is assistant professor of political science at University of Nebraska at Lincoln and author of “Bargaining for Women’s Rights: Activism in an Aspiring Muslim Democracy.” Her next book project is a collaboration exploring why some countries have appointed more women to high courts than others.
READ MORE in our annual African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular: