sisters in arms: why a million women are marching too

Black women in the US have a problem - the attitudes of most black American men. So why on earth would they look to Louis Farrakhan for help? Aminatta Forna reports from New York
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Louis Farrakhan's anti-semitism gets more publicity than his sexism. The leader of the Nation of Islam has called Jewish people "bagel-eating, hook-nose, lox-eating" and asked "What did you do to Hitler? What made that man so mad at you?" Yet women have arguably even more reason to be mad at Farrakhan.

Last Thursday several thousand black men and women attended a Nation of Islam rally in the UNPlaza, New York, to commemorate the first anniversary of Farrakhan's Million Man March - an event from which women had been excluded. Separation and exclusion of women is a Farrakhan hallmark. As a self-styled Muslim he confines women to their traditional roles: men are designated the "maintainers of women and children"; women cover themselves from head to toe and sit in segregated areas during services.

Farrakhan is also notorious for his pronouncements on women beyond the religious sphere. When Anita Hill gave evidence to Congress against Judge Clarence Thomas concerning allegations of sexual harassment, Farrakhan called her a "tool" of the white man.

The rape of Desiree Washington he blamed on white men and later embraced and welcomed her convicted assailant Mike Tyson into the Nation.

Despite all this, here are some of the women who have endorsed Farrakhan: Maya Angelou; Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King; Rosa Parks, the woman credited with starting the civil rights movement; Winnie Mandela, Dorothy Height, leader of the Association of Negro Women; Cora Masters Barry, wife of the Washington mayor Marion Barry; Betty Shabbaz, widow of Malcolm X. And this year thousands of ordinary women turned up to hear him talk.

"White men can't jump," Farrakhan quipped to his - male - audience at the Million Men March. But the real issue of the day was not white men but black men. And on this subject Farrakhan has the attention of every black woman in the country.

I have read Alice Walker and I've seen Waiting to Exhale but when I came to live in the United States this summer, nothing prepared me for how bad relations between black men and women have become. It's not even that they've reached stalemate, they've stopped playing chess altogether. Not a single one of the dozen or so women I have spoken to in the last few days denied the scale of the problem. Their responses ranged from the cold rage of the single mother - who thought she was in a relationship for life until she found herself alone with a newborn child - to the sympathetic student who watched the boys in her class drop out one by one. Three of the women were seeing white men - which while reasonably unremarkable in Britain, is virtually unheard of in the US. In fact, in many black households it would probably be easier for a woman to tell her parents she was gay than that she was dating a WASP. That's how bad it is. Yet, although I watched much of the coverage of the event and analysis of Farrakhan's appeal, not one black woman was interviewed or even quoted.

Forty-six per cent of black American families are headed by a single woman. It is a simply breathtaking figure. But it was also not always thus. Marriage among blacks is declining rapidly and what black women told me is that the men are so feckless and immature that they would rather raise their children on their own. That's certainly the view of Marie Francoise, a 30-year-old single mother who lives with her parents in Chicago. She says she has had one brief relationship in the last three years, which she walked out of because "he was not capable of acting like an adult". Alexia Brown, a lawyer with a Harvard education, agrees. She thinks many black men lack self-respect and that makes it hard for anyone else to respect them. "I have a hard time finding black men attractive because of the whole pride thing. It's about the way you carry yourself. It's about making a point quietly not yelling." The same story was told to me over and over again.

And the women believe that the response of black men to complaints from black women about their behaviour is to date white women instead. Marie says that she dated a man once who made it clear he would rather be with a white woman. She thinks that black men consider white women more docile and sympathetic than black women.

If the attitude of men towards women they are in relationships with is anything like their behaviour in the streets, then these women really do have problems. African-American culture is saturated in machismo. Young men don't even leave room for women to pass them on the pavement, much less step aside. In any big city it is virtually impossible for a black woman (and it is specifically black women) to walk anywhere unharassed. Never overly tolerant of this kind of behaviour in Britain, I have found the constant catcalls, jeering and comments here the most extreme test of self-control. On my way home a few days ago, briefcase in my hand, I was told by a 13-year-old who almost ran me down on his bike, "Hey, I wouldn't hurt a pretty thing like you, baby!" From a child!

In the midst of all this is Louis Farrakhan with his message for black men to re-shape their lives. Debra Dickerson, a writer, described last year's march and this year's anniversary as "one-day, fear-free grace periods" on which, instead of insulting her, men in the streets treated her with exaggerated courtesy. Another woman I spoke to called Kimberly said that on the evening of last year's march, the man she was seeing called and apologised for the selfish way he had been behaving towards her. This year there were apparently even more tangible results: a 7 per cent drop in black-on-black homicides; an upswing in the number of black men paying child support; in Denver, 200 black men went from door-to-door in search of the killer of a baby; in Buffalo, a group of black men have set up parenting groups; teenage pregnancy has decreased. Who or what the credit for all this should go to is debatable, but a team at Maryland University who have tried to establish the impact of the March are giving at least some to Louis Farrakhan for raising black consciousness on family values.

Black feminists like bell hooks warn women against being seduced by Farrakhan and "the romance of the patriarch": his message is essentially sexist, she says, and if he and many black men could, they would put black women back into the home. But several of the women I spoke to said to some extent that was exactly what they wanted.

Therese, a teacher, commented: "White women may have fought to get out of the home, but black women are still fighting to get into it. We have always worked and supported our families. We want to spend time with our children." Women feel they can, quite literally, afford to take a chance. Fifty-seven per cent of black women compared with 31 per cent of black men hold professional white collar or managerial jobs and many more black women than black men graduate from high school and from college.

"Black women will come to regret their support for Farrakhan," says Berkeley academic Barbara Christian. Yet one year after the Million Man March, a Washington Post poll says one in five African Americans have noticed black men treating black women better. The women I spoke to weren't so sure. Therese tells how, only a few days ago, a meeting of black workers in her office were discussing Spike Lee's latest movie Get on the Bus. One of the men suggested "the brothers" go and see the movie that night. The women were not invited. As for Kimberly, whose boyfriend called her the night of the march: "He didn't change. We split up later." It's going to be a long, hard road.