World view - Michela Wrong doubts if a woman is any better
We should be wary of giving too much significance to what Liberia's new president has, or doesn't ha
If you're a western woman, travelling around Africa is a constant reminder to be grateful. "Thank you," you murmur, as you read that 80 per cent of Tanzania's agricultural work is done by women. "Oh, thank you," as you spot an article about the rapes in the refugee camps of Darfur, or a survey indicating that 95 per cent of Eritrean women are circumcised. "Thank you, God, for not making me an African woman."
A friend of mine, a veteran commentator on African affairs, has long maintained that the single most positive development that could take place on the continent would be the disenfranchisement of the entire male sex. An interesting idea, but one it's hard to see being put into practice.
My own opinion of the African male has never recovered from witnessing the mass Hutu exodus into Zaire that followed Rwanda's genocide. You'd pass them on the road, thousands of families heading into exile. The women would stagger by: a baby strapped to their backs, a couple of children holding on to their skirts, blackened cooking pots in their arms, a rolled sleeping mat balanced on their heads, sweat streaming down their faces. And the men? A few carried battered briefcases, symbol of their educated status. But most went empty-handed across the border. However uncertain the future, nothing could persuade them to carry a household item. That was women's work.
So I sympathise with those who recently rejoiced at the fact that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, winner of Liberia's elections, is shortly to become the first female elected president of an African nation. Writing movingly in the New York Times, a young Liberian writer said that for her abused sisters in Africa - "the worst place on earth to be a woman" - the election carried the message: "Your time will come, too."
I hope she's right. Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated banker who has done prison time under a former regime, certainly comes across in her interviews as someone with a keen practical sense of what needs to be done to turn Liberia into a functioning state again. Her ego seems under control and she has a far-reaching development agenda which includes plans to woo back diasporan talent.
Amusing as it might have been to see a former football star in the shape of George Weah attempt to run a West African nation, Liberia has already had more than its fair share of surrealism. But we should be wary of pinning too much significance to what Johnson-Sirleaf has - or rather doesn't have - between her legs.
It only takes a moment's thought to summon up a number of examples proving that ruthlessness in pursuit of personal ambition has never been an exclusively male characteristic. While certainly rarer, the powerful African female, when she emerges, is often deadlier than the male.
Most historians reckon that Agathe Habyarimana played a far more central role in laying the foundations of Rwanda's genocide than her weak-willed president husband. Like Winnie Mandela, she hardly conforms to the stereotype that women in power are more intuitive, more subtle and less confrontational than their testosterone-crazed male counterparts.
As for demonstrating empathy for the downtrodden, a bevy of first ladies (Grace Mugabe, Mariam Abacha and Bobi Ladawa spring to mind) gave new meaning to "bling" during their Visigoth-style raids on the shopping arcades of London and Paris.
Looking beyond the continent to other male-dominated cultures where women unexpectedly seized the reins, it's hard to argue that any shattered the mould. Did Benazir Bhutto break with Pakistan's political traditions? How about Cory Aquino in the Philippines? Here in Britain, you won't find many takers for the notion that Maggie Thatcher opened up the workplace, let alone British politics, for her own sex.
It's a safe bet that Johnson-Sirleaf got to the top by using "masculine" political skills to master a male-dominated system. Hardly an establishment outsider, this former finance minister has adapted to her society's reality, rather than obliging it to adapt around her "feminine" strengths. Her success in crushing Liberia's culture of warlordism is more likely to depend on her ability to get down and scrap with the boys than any softer, more cuddly womanly qualities.
In this context, it's interesting how many commentators remark of Johnson-Sirleaf - and it's meant as a compliment - that the future president is "not really a woman". For those who have had dealings with her, stuck in the age-old paradigm which dictates that decisions in Africa are taken by men, Johnson-Sirleaf's sex and her new role remain so much at odds that one element must be eliminated for the equation to make any intellectual sense.
As a bunch of homophobic rugby players might say of an old schoolmate, "He's not gay, he's our Simon", or National Front-voting residents might think, "He's not Asian, he's just Dilip", of the friendly local newsagent, these officials have had to neuter Johnson-Sirleaf, turning her into a category-less, sexless being, in order to accord her any respect. Like the Queen in Saudi Arabia, she has become a token male.