21/10/20: Malawian women with disabilities: performing ‘radical’ traditionalism 

Monday 19 October 2020

Please join us for this week’s GOSSIP session on Wednesday at 3pm. Sarah Huque will be presenting her research on disability advocacy in Malawi (see abstract below).

Women with disabilities in Malawi face different and often worse marginalisation than men with disabilities or women without disabilities. The Federation of Disability Organizations in Malawi’s (FEDOMA) members claim the organisation is committed to addressing issues faced by women with disabilities, intentionally integrating ‘women’s issues’ into the ‘general’ disability rights movement. Much of this is the work of FEDOMA’s women advocates. In this presentation, I discuss findings from my PhD fieldwork regarding the work of FEDOMA’s women activists. These findings are part of a broader project centred on FEDOMA’s grassroots membership. The focus on women is a subset of findings about performing advocacy within, through and despite existing cultural norms, including normative roles as resources for social change-making. In Malawi, women are associated with home and care-work, though women with disabilities are widely considered ‘unable’ to perform normative ‘women’s’ roles. However, the women in my study embraced and reclaimed these roles. Reclamation is in itself a radical act, underscoring the politicisation of ‘private’ spaces and the development of a ‘feminine’ politics of care that incorporates the ‘traditional’ (inclusion, caring, nurturing) and the ‘modern’ (individual rights, women’s empowerment, hybridity). In this way, ‘feminised’ public performances of action by disability advocates counter mainstream Malawian political discourse’s association of women with a purely apolitical traditionalism. Instead, care-work is connected to ‘modern’ Malawi, incorporating individualised human rights into an ethics of community nurturing and inclusion of the oppressed and marginalised. While engagement in normative roles may reinforce existing gendered divisions, this same engagement also alters conceptualisations of ‘Malawian womanhood’, contributing to on-going change processes. The empowerment processes which enable women with disabilities to seek roles structurally denied to them do not end when those roles are ‘achieved’. Seeking neo-traditional roles may be for many a step in longer processes of empowerment and social change.