Samia Suluhu Hassan – Tanzania’s First Female President
The morning of March 19, 2021, was a historic day for Tanzania. Like many others that day, I tuned in to watch Samia Suluhu Hassan sworn in as the first-ever female president. I could sense a feeling of anticipation, confusion, hope, and disbelief in our home's sitting room—all weaved into one. The swearing-in happened two days after the untimely death of former president John Pombe Magufuli which sent shock waves and ripples across the country. Nothing had prepared us for this moment of transition that came along with it, consequently installing a polarized atmosphere. People had a lot to say about having the first female president, with most of them—including women—questioning the readiness and capability of a female being president. For a country like Tanzania, this type of reaction was inevitable. Because I’m not another average misogynistic individual, I chose to the situation in an entirely different way: while people chose to debate over the coincidental nature of Samia’s presidency, I chose to reflect on how gender inequality is such a pervasive problem in Tanzania, one that seems not to merit consideration from the majority of the Tanzanian population.
The extreme under-representation of women in crucial areas such as leadership and education has never been a Tanzanian problem alone but rather of the entire African continent. Africa is known for its remarkably conservative nature; however, the caveat to all that is the inheritance of outdated practices and a backward mindset that has been entertained for a long time. As of late, Africa has only had 22 female heads of state, with Tanzania having its first-ever female president in 2021. What is more alarming is how Tanzania significantly lags in a dynamic, globalized world that engenders the exchange of ideas and beliefs whilst terminating the outdated or oppressive ones. The relative stagnation of mindsets and perspectives is what makes Tanzania such a peculiar case, one worth discussing, exploring, analyzing, and, if possible, rectifying.
Being born and raised in Tanzania, I have witnessed how machismo and misogyny were—overtly or covertly—embraced as the “standards” for Tanzanians. Deeply invested in patriarchy, Tanzania has always empowered men to take charge and lead in different political, social, and economic avenues whilst encouraging the attitude of submissiveness amongst young girls/women. It is even more astonishing to think that not so long ago, women were once not allowed to access formal education. With such outdated practices, women far less excel—with limited opportunities—compared to their male counterparts who are given more freedom to be aggressive, chase opportunities, and fight for their dreams. While a lot has changed over the years, there still are remnants of outdated practices and expectations that prevail in the minds of the majority of the Tanzanian population—the reaction toward having a female president is a big indicator that things need to change especially the way women are thought of in Tanzanian society.
The special-seat system for women in Tanzania was established in 1985 as a way to increase women’s parliamentary representation in Tanzania. Currently, women occupy just over 30% of the seats in the Tanzanian parliament; without this system, women would only account for 7% of the legislative seats in the Tanzanian parliament. Thanks to this system, a precedent was set, and women started taking some of the important leadership positions such as parliament speaker(s) and cabinet ministers. You would think having these women would not only inspire the younger generation of females but also instill confidence and trust in Tanzanians that women could also get the work done; however, the latter is more of a dream than reality, indicating a failed attempt to address the problem that the Tanzanian population has on—individual or collective—perception and mindset.
In a world where we try so hard to keep up with the pace of any sort of change, Tanzania seems to embrace every sort of change except the most important one: a change in ways of thinking. If we truly value change and exposure, we need to change the way we think so that we can see things and act differently. In her very own words, during the burial of the late president Magufuli, Samia said, “For those with doubts if this woman can be the president of the United Republic of Tanzania, I want to tell you that the one you see standing before you is the president.” It’s high time that Tanzania starts thinking and doing better.