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Invisibilia: No One Thought This All-Woman's Debate Team Could Crush It

Akilah debate team members (from left) Phylis Kabano, Sonia Rugwiro and Mireille Umutoni Sekamana prepare to compete in a debate tournament.

Editor's note: This post is an adaptation of the latest episode of the Invisibilia podcast and program, which is broadcast on participating public radio stations.

In high school, Mireille Umutoni Sekamana aspired to be a club president rather than just secretary. And why not? She lives in a country where women seem to face no barriers, no discrimination.

In the Parliament, for example, women hold more than half the seats. No country has a better record than that.

And in a ranking of countries by how they had narrowed the gender gap, Mireille's homeland came in sixth in the world. The U.S. was No. 28.

There's just one problem: Mireille lives in Rwanda. And even though Rwanda is arguably the most pro-woman country in the world, feminism is not seen as a good thing. In fact, it's something of a dirty word.

In high school, Mireille found that teachers and students took for granted that the head of a club should be a boy. When she would stand up in front of her class and ask, "Why can't the head be a girl?" they would tell her, "That's for Americans. You're trying to be an American."

Being "American" was shorthand for being too aggressive, too liberated, too selfish. The message was clear: You're doing this for yourself, not for the good of your country. "They'd say, 'You don't belong in Rwanda,' " Mireille recalls. " 'You don't even belong in Africa!' "

And when she did finally become head of a club — the debating club in her all-women's college — she faced another struggle: Could she and her team members succeed in the male-dominated world of collegiate debate?

When it comes to the roles of men and women, Rwanda is clearly a complicated place.

How the genocide changed gender roles

Following 100 days of slaughter in 1994, Rwandan society was left in chaos. The death toll was between 800,000 and 1 million. Many suspected perpetrators were arrested or fled the country. Records show that immediately following the genocide, Rwanda's population of 5.5 million to 6 million was 60 to 70 percent female. Most of these women had never been educated or raised with the expectations of a career. In pre-genocide Rwanda, it was almost unheard of for women to own land or take a job outside the home.

The genocide changed all that. The war led to Rwanda's "Rosie the Riveter" moment: It opened the workplace to Rwandan women just as World War II had opened it to American women.

In America, most WWII opportunities were short-lived. Millions of men came home after the war to claim their former jobs while women returned to domestic roles or jobs like nurse, teacher or secretary.

It wasn't until the 1960s that a new generation took up the call for equal opportunity.

In Rwanda, that's not what happened.

The call for equality was led not by thousands of women but by one man — President Paul Kagame, who has led the country since his army stopped the genocide. Kagame decided that Rwanda was so demolished, so broken, it simply could not rebuild with men's labor alone. So the country's new constitution, passed in 2003, decreed that 30 percent of parliamentary seats be reserved for women. The government also pledged that girls' education would be encouraged. That women would be appointed to leadership roles, like government ministers and police chiefs. Kagame vowed to not merely play catch-up to the West but leapfrog ahead of it.

The country embraced Kagame's policies and even went beyond his mandatory minimum. In the 2003 election, 48 percent of parliamentary seats went to women. In the next election — 64 percent. Today Rwandan politics is cited as a model of gender inclusiveness.

This change from the top down was possible partly because of the nature of Rwanda's leadership. Kagame had a broad popular mandate for sweeping change — he had led Rwanda's army to stop the genocide. He's a strongman military ruler who allows little dissent or free speech. His word — and his vision — are often the country's command.

But even though the change was dramatic and swift, how deep was its impact? Can a country truly transform its core culture from the outside in?

If the example of the American women's movement is any indication, it was only after decades of women comparing experiences, envisioning what a different life might look like and then launching a movement, that change could occur. And never without struggle.

So what happens when a country skips the social upheaval and goes straight to the pro-women policies? When you take an aggressive shortcut through history, what do you leave behind?

When empowerment ends at the front door

Justine Uvuza wondered that, and decided to find out. A Rwandan herself who had grown up in a refugee camp in Uganda and then moved back to Rwanda in 1994, after the genocide, she worked for a while for the Kagame government promoting Rwanda's pro-women policies. She was curious how much progress had been made. So when she was getting her Ph.D. at Newcastle University, she returned to Rwanda to interview female politicians about their lives — not just their public positions but their private lives, with their husbands and children. She found with rare exception that no matter how powerful these women were in public, that power didn't extend into their own homes.

"One told me how her husband expected her to make sure that his shoes were polished, the water was put in the bathroom for him, his clothes were ironed," Justine says. And this husband wanted not only his shoes laid out in the morning, but his socks placed on top of the shoes. And he wanted it done by his wife, the parliamentarian.

Justine heard countless stories like this — women were still expected to perform even ceremonial domestic duties. It was rarely an option to outsource such tasks to a maid or get your husband to shoulder more work at home. Some women feared violence from their husbands if they didn't comply with these expectations, and one said that she had felt so trapped, she had contemplated suicide.

Justine says that for some of these women, the very real strides that they were making outside the home could feel less like liberation and more like a duty to be fulfilled. Being a "good Rwandan," as she termed it in her research, meant both being patriotic — serving her country through her public work and career — but also being docile and serving her husband. As a result, Justine said, a female politician could stand up in Parliament, advocating for issues like stronger penalties for sexual violence and subsidized maxi-pads for the poor, but find herself scared to speak out about the oppression in her own home.

And so Justine would end each interview asking these female legislators what seemed to her to be an obvious question: Would they support a Rwandan women's movement? A movement to change not just the public roles for women but to re-evaluate gender relations on all levels? Would these powerful Rwandan women be willing to stand under the banner of feminism?

Almost all of the women said no. Feminism? "That's not Rwandan," they told her. "That's for Westerners."

Justine was not shocked. In fact, she had held the same views earlier in her life. She says that because of the way that gender equality came so rapidly to Rwanda, from the outside in, with no psychological buildup or women's lib movement, it was harder for these politicians to talk about equality without appearing disloyal, not just to their spouses but to their country.

She wishes a debate over the limits of equality could take place in Rwanda.

The next generation

And that's the debate that Mireille Umutoni Sekamana found herself part of.

Born in 1995, she was frustrated by the anti-woman attitudes she faced in high school. When it came time to pick a university, she applied to the Akilah Institute for Women, Rwanda's first all-women's college, which was established in 2010 as a three-year vocational school. Akilah wasn't as prestigious as the four-year universities that some of her peers elected to attend. But Mireille wanted to be in a place where girls could lead clubs and ask a lot of questions in class without worrying about sounding too selfish, too American, too foreign.

When Akilah launched a debate team, Mireille volunteered as captain. It would be the first all-female college debate team in the country's history. In March 2015, barely two weeks after the debate team was formed, the female debaters of Akilah arrived at their first competition. They lasted 45 minutes, whomped in the very first round by one of the best schools in the country, the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, or KIST. As Mireille's teammates saw it, they had lost for two reasons. One was that they hadn't yet mastered the debating rules. The second, more embarrassing reason was that they had acted like "girls" — specifically, the traditional stereotype of Rwandan women.

"They were 'acting like women' ... shy, quiet, and the voice does not go too high," says Martine Dushime, the one woman on the opposing KIST team. "[Rwandan women] have to be humble, speak slowly and all that. And that does not match with debate, seriously!"

If they were going to stay in the game, the Akilah team's women needed to find a way to be as confident onstage as they were in class. They had to change how they saw themselves — "to make sure that [they] feel powerful enough to take on anybody," said Samiah Millycent, an English teacher at Akilah and the debate team coach.

Power posing

Samiah would later call it "the power game." One by one, before their weekly debating practice, each debater would walk to the front of the room, strike a "power pose," and say something to remind everyone in the room that she is powerful. That she is a winner. Week after week they repeated these phrases — "I'm a debater and I'm the winner today" — willing themselves to believe that it was true.

In a way, the girls were doing what their country had done: taking on a new pose, looking in the mirror and declaring themselves to be new, better and hopefully more successful.

Three months later, after weekly practices and doing mock debates, they returned for another countrywide competition, brimming with confidence.

The other contestants weren't buying it. They were literally pointing, laughing, saying "Really? They're back?" And Samiah says that even when the emcee was introducing the schools, saying, "Welcome to the debaters from this school ... and the debaters from that school" — he introduced the Akilah team not as the debaters but "the ladies from Akilah."

"And he said it in a sarcastic way," Samiah said. "And we were like, 'God, why do people just have to look at us and feel like we don't deserve to be standing on the same podium with them?' So I told the girls, 'Girls, the task that we have today is to show these people that we didn't come to just grace the occasion, we came to take the trophy with us.' "

Each team was assigned an opponent. The Akilah team was pitted against KIST — the same team that trounced it in the previous competition. Next, the judges picked the topic the teams were to debate, out of eight possible topics announced the night before. The one topic that the Akilah team wanted, the topic the women knew they were going to rock, was, "This House Believes That Developing Countries Should Adopt Western Feminism."

So when the judges announced that the topic the team would debate was the very one they wanted, the Akilah team could barely contain its excitement.

For them, the phrase "Western feminism" symbolized all the ways they hoped to challenge gender relations and advocate for genuine equality.

That is, until the women went off to draw a piece of paper that would state which side of the debate they would have to argue. And they found out they had to argue ... against.

To win this debate, the first-ever all-women's team had to make a persuasive case that Rwanda would not be better off if women were as free as men to choose how to live their lives.

In other words, to win, the team would need to argue for preserving many traditional gender roles — the opposite of what the women believed.

A daring moment of truth

The first team to take the stage was not Akilah but the KIST team, which argued for adopting Western feminism in Rwanda. Martine Dushime, the team's only woman, argued that Western feminism really means that women must get involved in their own movement: "Women standing their ground and saying, 'We want this,' not hiding behind the government policies."

The time was at hand for Akilah to figure out how to be winners. In the minutes before the teammates took their place onstage, they dug down deep into their own lives. They started to remember phrases they had heard over the years, phrases flung at women who stand up for themselves: "The man is always the head." "A marital spat is the woman's fault." An attention-seeking woman is "bad for her family."

The Akilah team boldly and confidently took the stage to spout phrases about why Rwandan women shouldn't be too bold or confident. "Copycats never learn" became the team's catchphrase, summing up all of Rwanda's anxiety about Western influence. "Why should we adopt something that is taking away our own originality?" Mireille said. The crowd roared.

And that's when, Mireille says, she had this moment onstage — looking out over the sea of mostly men's faces, knowing that there were government officials in the audience. She could tell that her team's argument was striking a chord. And she had this moment of thinking, "Uh oh."

Was it true that being a "good Rwandan" would always feel at odds with being an outspoken Rwandan woman? Would she herself always feel like an outsider — an interloper — in her own country?

The women won that debate. But they did not know: Had they won because they were superior debaters with newfound confidence? Or because they were so confidently arguing for the status quo? And did it matter?

"Ahh, it feels good when you actually convince the judge so the judge says you are the winners!" says debater Francoise Nyiratunga in our interview several months after the victory.

In the end, Francoise, Mireille and the rest of the team decided they didn't care how they won. Francoise says that, like any powerful debater, they got a confidence boost from arguing precisely what they did not believe: "Like to say a shoe is not a shoe, and you convince someone that a shoe is actually not a shoe!"

That confidence carried them to victory. They won the next round, and the next. That afternoon, they took home the trophy. And now, more than a year later, as the team has continued to compete, it has gained a substantial following of young women, some of whom have joined the debate club. Others have launched their own all-women's teams at other schools. "When we won," Mireille says, "it was a motivation to other girls."

The story of the Akilah team suggests that these young women found a way to be true to themselves as winners, not just good Rwandans.

But what about Rwanda? What about a whole country?

Can a nation at odds with its own values eventually change itself from the outside in?

The answer Justine gave me is that real change takes time. Taking a shortcut can get you somewhere fast, but it leaves the next generation to circle back and address changes that were left undone.

She told me that after all her interviews with the female politicians, she had to destroy the transcripts of those conversations. It was part of the rules of her university research. But it was more than that. For some of the women, this promise of anonymity was the only way she could get them to talk to her with candor.

Justine not only erased all the tapes; she took the typed transcripts and, page by page, set them on fire.

But she didn't follow the rules to a T. She kept a single copy of the interviews in a place that only she knows. She hopes that one day, these kind of stories will be heard by the people of Rwanda. Then, she says, the whole country will finally be ready to have that debate about how to move forward.

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