Feminism VS African Culture
Over the past few weeks I have witnessed or been party to the conflict between the tenets of feminism and African culture. African culture particularly Shona culture is by its very nature very patriarchal. To say Shona culture can be a little misleading because Shona is an umbrella term which encompasses at least 7 different tribes. However, because of the similarities in many aspects of their customs I will use the umbrella term Shona to include all these tribes.
Arguably the advent of Western civilization played a role in further marginalizing African women. To examine this a bit closer, I would say this was specifically limited to the fact that Western civilization/’industrialization, if we can call it that, introduced the monetary economy, not only that but the settlers acquired farms and built factories which required specifically male labour. What did this mean for women? Before the advent of colonialism men and women played different but equally important roles to fend for the family but now it meant that men became the only breadwinner and women were reduced to housewives who stayed back in the reserves to take care of the children and any farming they did was subsistence farming. This as I said further marginalized African women although in all fairness the culture was already largely patriarchal.
First and foremost, a man could marry more than one wife, in fact as many wives as he wanted and could afford to, but it was and still is unheard of for a woman to marry more than one husband (on a side note Malawian culture is said to be matriarchal, I don’t know how far true it is but my mother’s paternal grandmother reportedly had two husbands). Secondly, after marriage a woman would leave her home and go live with the husband’s extended family rarely the other way round. Furthermore, the family, clan or village’s main decisions were taken by men on a platform they called “padare” no women or children were allowed padare. Sometimes even men considered as “weak” were not allowed to participate in the decision-making proceedings. There are countless examples but the one that strikes me the most is the double-standards which were and still are employed when judging men and women for the same behaviour or circumstances. One such example recently had me in a heated debate with a few male Facebook friends. This is the fact that when women indulge in sex or have children outside wedlock or marry and then get divorced there is a certain stigma attached to it.
These women are all indiscriminately referred to as “mvana”. I do not know the origins of this term, but it is a derogatory term which implies that when a woman has had sexual relations or has had a child and/or gets divorced she loses her value as a woman. This insinuation has no biological basis because after a woman loses her virginity nothing physically diminishes her physical appearance. You are only able to tell that she is no longer a virgin when you conduct virginity tests or have sexual relations with her. Furthermore, when women give birth if they eat well and exercise regularly they get back into appropriate shape not only that but men who do not exercise or pay attention to their diet lose shape and become unattractive as well. As for divorce, it is basically one spouse giving the other a token called “gupuro’ in the form of a coin in the case of a customary marriage or one or both parties filing papers for divorce in the case of a legal marriage. In what way does this process physically diminish the value of a woman? If it diminishes the value of a woman what criteria is used to exempt men from this downgrading? After examining this entire system, I realised that there is no valid reason to subject women to this kind of scrutiny and harsh judgment except that it keeps men in control.
The fact that men are required to pay lobola for women and not the other way round is traditionally viewed as means to establish and strengthen relations between two families but due to commercialization and abuse it wounds up smelling like a system designed to keep men in control while ensuring women remain under the thumb of patriarchy. Why do I say this? There are certain conditions and stipulations that are set aside for a married woman “mukadzi akaroorwa” to follow or to meet failure of which brings disgrace upon herself and often ultimately leads to divorce. Examples are child bearing, fidelity and dressing and behaving with modesty and decorum. The same rules do not necessarily apply to men. Long ago if a man failed to bear children a close male relative would secretly sneak into his quarters and impregnate his wife without his knowledge. He was then made to believe that the offspring was his and cushioned from ever knowing that he was sterile, but the woman was not spared of this disgrace. She was labelled “ngomwa” meaning barren woman and could be sent back to her family for being unable to fulfil her “duty”. It is as if people marry not for companionship but for procreation. To this day though the dictates are no longer a harsh as before given that women are more independent and financially self-reliant, there is still stigma attached to a woman’s failure to conceive in a marital situation. When it comes to infidelity a man can stray as many times as he wishes and never be viewed as a deviant but if a woman strays once she is shamed and labelled and sadly this shaming has extended to social media at alarming levels
On the other hand, there are some aspects of Shona jesting that taken out of context may be misconstrued as aimed at disrespecting or marginalizing women but in fact they are harmless. A few weeks ago, there was an uproar after Presidential candidate Nelson Chamisa jestingly said he would offer his 18-year-old sister to Emmerson Mnangagwa if he (Mnangagwa) won the upcoming presidential election. A few women’s rights activists felt it was disrespectful to all women in general because it commodified women. On this aspect I beg to disagree, in my view it was just a figure of speech to indicate that in Chamisa’s opinion the chances of Mnangagwa winning the election were next to nothing. One needs to really understand the context of Shona jesting in order to appreciate the harmlessness of such utterances. Let me give an example. My grandmother was a housekeeper in Highlands suburb in Harare employed by a white family. AMurombo (Mr. Murombo) was a gardener or what Zimbabweans prefer to call a garden boy next door. I was really very young 5 or 6 years old but I remember AMurombo because of the smell of the tobacco he smoked “chimonera”. The point I’m making is he and my granny had a running joke about pledging me to him in marriage. This doesn’t mean my Granny intended to sell me, one of her only two granddaughters to an elderly gardener. This is one of the ways Shona people jest with each other in harmless discourse it has nothing to do with violating women’s rights or marginalizing the girl child.
Another controversial issue is the practice of “chiramu”. This is when a man refers to his wife’s sisters or nieces (brother’s daughters) as his wives in jest. I do not know much about the ancient practice but nowadays it is practised in a very moderate respectful form. There are no sexual implications or sexual innuendos whatsoever. Therefore, it would be misrepresentation to say the practice of chiramu encourages rape and child sexual abuse. There is a danger in that sometimes as we try to stand up for girl child and women’s rights we may inadvertently demonize harmless cultural practices by applying Western standards. Many aspects of Shona and by extension African culture are impracticable in Western society but that does not mean they are wrong. If anything, some of the tenets of Western feminism are different from those of African feminism, but that is a topic for another blog. Western culture should not be a yardstick with which Africans judge themselves.
In conclusion, although society and by extension culture has evolved and women have become more independent and assertive, in many aspects of life we are still marginalized and downtrodden. Both women and men need to work together to eradicate stigma and prejudice against women and duplicitous standards of judgement. Having said that, African culture has many beautiful aspects that we should all continue to embrace and celebrate without undue foreign interference.