“In Mozambique girls are told to be quiet and pretty" 24 mei 2017
Coming from a rural area in Mozambique, growing up in a humble family and – not to mention – being a girl in a patriarchal society, Farida Mamad has definitely beaten the odds. Since 2014, when she met Professor Petra Foubert (Law), she’s been commuting between UHasselt and Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique to work on her PhD. Another twist of fate in the course of Farida’s life? One of UHasselt-magazines ‘Nu weet je het!’ sat down with her and listened to her remarkable story.
When I ask Farida Mamad why she decided to study law, she smiles. “I’m not sure if I really chose to study law. To be honest: I didn’t even know what law was, when I applied for university.” Social justice, human rights and non-discrimination principles might have been abstract concepts for Farida at the time of her university application. But from a very young age, she experienced discrimination in her own life.
Being raised by a Zimbabwean mother and an Indian father, she was never fully accepted by her father’s family. “My aunt always needed to remind us that we were black”, Farida tells us. “They didn’t consider us as equals, and at the time I taught it was legitimate. Up until now, fairer skin is considered more beautiful in Mozambique. I don’t like that concept.” It turned out to be a big influence on her career: “I always felt that, at some point in my life, I had to address this behavior.”
But then again: law never was your first choice…
When I graduated secondary school, all my friends were getting married and becoming a mother. Going to university was a totally strange thing for me. But some teachers really believed in me and convinced me to apply for university. My father, who owned a small shop, wanted me to study economics. But my teacher told me that I would have a better chance at getting accepted, if I applied for law school. So I did… and I got accepted. I had mixed feelings about it, because I didn’t want to disappoint my father, of course. My extended family gathered to decide if I was really going to university or not. Because, culturally speaking, that would be a big loss for my parents – it meant that I would not get married soon. Nevertheless, my mother was very supportive of me. So my father bought two bus tickets and off we went to Maputo.
How did you experience university?
I was overwhelmed by the city of Maputo – everything looked different, people dressed differently, buildings were gigantic. And I got to live in a university building, sharing a room with five other girls. On the first day, I discovered that I was one of 150 law students. Some were already dressing as lawyers and seemed to know everything already.
Very. I was there on a scholarship, failing one subject meant that I would lose everything. So I started to study. When the first test results came, the professor asked for me in the classroom: Who is Farida Mamad. I was terrified and almost crying. I was scared that I had failed the test. But my grades were so good that the professor accused me of cheating. I even had to take an oral exam to prove I really studied.
So when did you get passionate about law?
I ended up being one the best students in my class. Eventually I started to really like law and I even became a teacher at the university. But when I finally got my law degree, I stopped dreaming about becoming a professor. I had a new one: I wanted to be a judge. Unfortunately, my dream of becoming a judge didn’t come true.
Why, do you think?
Not because I wasn’t good enough, but because I didn’t know the right people. Later that year, a woman came to our faculty and told us about social justice. I think, at that moment, I realized what my destiny would be: studying and practicing social justice. I started to understand that there was elitism in my family, in my faculty, in the court… Everywhere. Those courses were an answer to what I had been looking for all my life.
Soon a seat in the National Human Rights Council followed…
After I did my LLM on human rights and democratization in Pretoria, South-Africa, my Professor suggested that I should run for the Human Rights Council. I was the youngest woman on the list – and the most voted candidate from civil society. (Laughter) But I had no idea how to be a commissioner, it was unbelievable.
How does your PhD contribute to your fight for human rights in Mozambique?
The objectives of my PhD are to examine women’s access to social security schemes in Mozambique. Girls are so vulnerable in our culture. They are taught to be quiet and pretty – and, thus, to not speak up for themselves. They are given away for marriage at a young age, they’re a victim of domestic violence and have a high risk for hiv/aids. They are even used to pay off family debts. It’s an inhuman, degrading situation.
Are things starting to change, you think?
Things are slowly starting to change for women in Mozambique. Two fatal incidents concerning domestic violence in elite families are actually going to court. It’s a sign that women are actually fighting back. I believe law has two important roles to play in society: it should change attitudes and it should be a way of socialization. So we must take this window of enculturation and get people to assimilate to these new ideas about human rights and gender equality. I obviously don’t like the idea of people having to die for a culture to change, but there’s no change without sacrifice.