June 9, 2021
3 Min. Read

Power Women of Zanzaibar

Her 100 days in office are just ending, but Tanzania’s new head of state, “Mama Samia, has already made the island’s woman power more visible

On 19 March 2021, the world witnessed the swearing in of the first female president of the United Republic of Tanzania, the land of Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar. After the death of her predecessor John Magufuli, Samia Suluhu Hassan became Africa's only current female national leader - the Ethiopian presidency is a largely ceremonial. The 61-year-old is affectionately known as „Mama Samia“ and contrary to outsiders who view Zanzibar as a rather conservative society, Hassan’s inauguration can indeed be seen as a continuation of women’s strong standing here. For centuries, Zanzibar has been proud of daring girls that became influential and powerful women nationally and abroad in various spheres of life. 

Breath-taking start

President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s start was breath-taking when she changed the country’s approach to coronavirus and media freedom in her first days in office.. She also immediately allowed pregnant teenage girls to return to school and brought in 6000 new teachers. 

Despite having been vice-president since 2015, and having served as a state minister in the previous government, little has evaporated about the private life of the mother of four, married to Hafidh Ameir, an agricultuiral academic who also keeps a low profile. People in Zanzibar, however, were touched by a rare video she once posted about herself, saying what she misses most as a politician is “time to cook for my family”. Hassan studied public administration in Tanzania and graduated from UK’s Manchester University with a degree in economics. As deputy chairman of a commission to reform the constitution in 2014, she showed diplomatic prudence – and the sort of calm and authoritative manner in the midst of a chaotic debate that has become her trademark. 

Strong role models

Historically, Zanzibar women are strong role models. Even before traders from Arabia, Iran and India visited the archipelago, Zanzibar had its own system of government, and a mythical woman, Mwana wa Mwana, as a ruler. Strong dadas (Swahili for sisters and sisterhood) emerged also in the entertainment sector. Sitti Binti Saad used traditional taarab music to condemn men's abuse of women as early as 1928. When the suffragettes of Europe and the US had just secured equal voting rights, Sitti was recording Swahili protest songs in a studio in Mumbai. A remake by XXX has just won a prestigious award in London.

Zanzibar’s Muslim women are outspoken. Fatma Abdulhabib Ferej received the “Woman of Courage Award” from the US Embassy in Tanzania in 2013. An astute educator and librarian, Ferej, who turns 60 years in July, was the only woman elected through the ballot box in the 2000 general election. In the current government of the isles under President Dr. Hussein Mwinyi, five of 16 ministers are female. Engineer Zena Ahmed Said was appointed Chief Secretary of the government, the first woman in the country to hold that post since the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution. An often used Swahili proverb goes like this: “Mwanamke ni muhogo; popote unapotupwa unaota” (A woman is like a cassava plant; it takes roots wherever it is placed). Sure, president “Mamia Samia”, would enjoy that statement. Just recently she demonstrated her good sense of humour during her first state visit to Kenya by charming the media of the two countries often at odds: “It seems my delegation knows where they can find nyama choma roast meat here. I am worried some of them may remain behind.”

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