Discussion: Expanding 'Civil Society': Women and Political Space in Contemporary Uganda

In Civil Society and Democracy in Africa, several authors question the notion of civil society as it is conventionally understood, particularly in the context of African politics. Viewing the traditional definition of civil society as restricted to "voluntary organizations between private life and the state" (Kasfir 5) as restrictive, these authors debate how the concept of civil society ought to be understood. In Expanding 'Civil Society': Women and Political Space in Contemporary Uganda, Aili Mari Tripp considers these notions as insufficient to understand African political life. In particular, traditional concepts of civil society tend to undermine women's roles in African politics, as the usual definition of civil society does not include the forums in which these women generally participate and impact the political process. Tripp proposes a broadening of the definition of civil society to eliminate the sharp distinction between the 'public' and 'private' spheres, allowing for recognition of the 'private sphere' as a factor in political life.

According to Tripp, conventional notions of civil society underestimate women's roles. In defining civil society as existing exclusively in the public sphere, theorists ignore the links between public and private, minimizing women's role in shaping public opinion as well as overlooking the constraints that prohibit women from participation in that arena.

"Liberal theory seeks to insulate the public sphere from the private sphere in all respects and protect the public sphere from the influences of the economy, the family, and everyday life... It fails to recognize that these inequalities, like gender subordination in the private realm, will be manifested in the public realm and thus provoke efforts to organise in response" (Kasfir 87).

Such a perspective inevitably makes it impossible to account for the influence that family politics exert on participation in civil society. Constraints placed on women within the private realm have a large effect on their actions in the public sphere; women who are castigated as gossips by the community or who have overbearing husbands who harass them for expressing opposing views are obviously unable to become active participants in civil society. Women who do play an active role in the public sphere also face challenges that do not exist for their male peers. They have greater difficulty balancing their public and private roles and are often given less respect by men in politics. Women in local councils were discouraged from participation. ""Women who attended meetings tended to keep quiet. When they did speak, they felt that their concerns were inadequately addressed" (Kasfir 88).

Additionally, inflexible definitions of what makes up civil society tend to exclude organizations such as churches or parent-teacher organizations, in which women play a part and which have an affect on political life. By overlooking these organizations, theorists largely erase women's roles in civil society. Women are often able to exert more influence in such organizations than in those that more closely fit the standard definition of 'civil society'. Women's actions in urban organizations are often ignored by the state. In one case, a demonstration by women's organizations in Kampala against the abuse of women by soldiers was greeted with indifference and contempt. "At the seminar the General told the women that they deserved to be raped and blamed the army looting on the women themselves" (Kasfir 96). The Domestic Relations Bill, drafted by the Ministry of Women, "has languished at the Ministry of Justice for years without action" (Kasfir 97). However, women have been able to exert political influence at the local level at the margins of 'civil society'. One example of this is the Ekikwenza Omubi Women's Project, which gathered much of its strength from organizations nominally in the private sphere. The organization, which had its foundations in a group within Uganda's Protestant church, gained support from women across religious, class, and educational boundaries. The collective mobilization of the women in the community, extending beyond kinship, religious, or class ties, allowed for changes to take place. Significantly, this movement demonstrates how women can interact with the government without taking part in conventional civil society. "The Jinja conflict was a significant political struggle even though it did not involve 'engaging the state'" (Kasfir 102). Women are thus able to exert influence on politics by means outside of traditional civil society.

For Tripp, the definitions of 'civil society' need to be extended beyond those posited by liberal theorists. Such definitions do not seem to accurately capture women's roles in civil society, instead nearly erasing them from the picture of civil society. To construct a truer picture of civil society, it is necessary that organizations normally relegated to the private sphere be examined. Such organizations are often able to exert as much or more influence on policy as those that are placed under the umbrella of civil society, as was the case with Omubi's movement. For these reasons, it is important that traditional understandings of civil society be reconsidered.

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