What Suluhu presidency means to Muslim girls

It seemed unlikely thanks to glass ceiling of patriarchy

In Summary

• Her rise will be inspiring to the many hitherto daunted by the harsh realities of politics

Screen-grab of Samia Suluhu as she is sworn in as Tanzania's President
Screen-grab of Samia Suluhu as she is sworn in as Tanzania's President
Image: TBC

On Friday March 19, the whole world bore witness to the first of many… The first female President of Tanzania was sworn in after the sudden demise of President John Pombe Magufuli.

Samia Suluhu Hassan is not only the first female head of state in Tanzania but also the entire East Africa community. She is also the only head of state in Tanzania to hail from the semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar.

She joins the paper-thin list to make the tenth female head of state in Africa, most of whom were interim or acting presidents. Samia Suluhu Hassan and Sahle-Work Zewde of Ethiopia are currently the only two female heads of state in Africa. Although Zewde’s post is arguably ceremonial as power resides with the Prime Minister in Ethiopia.

President Suluhu is also the first Muslim female head of state in East Africa. A phenomenon most of us, Muslim women, believed we would never live to see. To be born a female and a Muslim in East Africa comes with its own set of unwritten limitations. We hardly ever saw female leaders during our childhood years, and although there are more women in government positions currently, we never imagined we would see the day where a Muslim woman would hold the highest position in East Africa.

Surely, it is not because we are incapable. Rather, it is because we have witnessed how years of patriarchal leadership in most African as well as Muslim cultures have hindered women from achieving ambitious aspirations. Muslim women have never been able to voice their opinions freely and publicly without the fear of being shamed or quieted by the voices of men who believed themselves superior, using religion as their shield.

However, Islam has never really stopped women from being leaders. While scholars debate on who said what and how to interpret Hadiths that touched on the subject matter, there has never been conclusive evidence supporting the claim of not allowing women to hold leadership positions.

Moreover, Muslim women have never let the opinions of men deter their determination to pursue their ambitions. They might have had to work twice as hard and grow thick skin to work side by side with their male counterparts. There have been a fair share of Muslim female leaders in the world, some even emerging victorious in Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

President Suluhu might have become Tanzania first female Muslim by default, but her years of dedication to public service prove that she got there by hard work and sheer determination. She started out as a clerk in Ministry of Planning and Development before deciding to run for public office in her hometown of Zanzibar. What ensued was years of dedication to her work and her people.

I cannot help but draw similarities between President Suluhu and myself, we are both Muslim women born in the islands of the East African coast. We each had to fight our own adversities to be the people we are now; we both have postgraduate education, and are wives and mothers.

While President Suluhu dedicated most of her career to public service, I spent the better part of my youth debating whether I should join public service and, thereafter, be the example of a leader I had wished to see most of my life.

I had at one time had the improbable dream of seeing my community flourish under steadfast leadership that worked only for the benefit of its people. The realities of the political sphere made me abandon my optimistic youthful dreams. I wasn’t prepared for the backlash I would face in public service; the condemnation that would have mostly come from people far close to home would have shattered my will to serve.

Seeing Samia Suluhu Hassan holding the Quran in her bright red hijab, taking oath as the first female President of Tanzania, lit the flame that I had extinguished a long time ago. Even if I do not get a chance to live those youthful dreams I once had, I know that somewhere, someone else was watching, and their journey to being a formidable Muslim woman leader is already starting to take shape.

Edited by T Jalio