In the spirit of Domestic Violence Awareness month, I want to write about African cultural practices. Growing up in Africa, in Zimbabwe to be precise, it is the norm to follow certain practices and rituals according to culture. From as young as three years old, a little girl learns how to sit properly, especially when sitting on the floor. She learns how to greet grown-ups properly and by the age of six, a young girl knows her way around the homestead carrying out domestic chores. Those are the “cute” aspects of growing up as an African girl-child if you like. However, many other practices treat young and old females, like commodities and dehumanise them within the culture. For example, once a girl reaches puberty age, all teachings are directed towards pleasing a husband in the future, as well as being a gentle, obedient and submissive wife. No body puts any thought into other factors such as sexuality because it is already expected that the young girl will be a wife, therefore she is taught how to make use of her feminineness for the benefit of the male person.
Most Shona women will remember being taught to prepare their bodies for the future as married women by their paternal aunts. Even if they are not Shona women, most African women will be familiar with practices such as chinamwali- this is the female initiation to sex where girls are taken away from school or playing time to learn how to be good wives; then there is female genital mutilation (FGM), labia elongation, virginity testing, all these practices are often performed in unhygienic conditions, increasing the risk of infection and transmission of disease. Breast ironing, forced marriages/arranged marriages are amongst the numerous other African cultural practices. In my opinion the experiences that the young women go through during “lessons” are borderline physical/sexual abuse, they take away childhood innocence and whether or not these girls end up with happy fulfilling marriages is a different debate yet to be had.
These practices are often carried out and encouraged by the elderly women within the clans. I personally feel that our people need to be encouraged to think deeply about what messages the older paternal aunts and community elders send across when they advise and teach young girls to prepare their bodies for marriage. Girls are taught that a good woman should always respect her husband and never air her views. She should keep quiet and recognise her place no matter how much discomfort she experiences in her home or with abuse, otherwise she is branded unworthy. So, for fear of being branded disrespectful and becoming a disgrace to the family, these young girls are trained to tolerate and put up with domestic abuse.
In my opinion, there is something very disturbing to me about the decisions made by women about other women and what their position should be within a society that is dominated by patriarchal practices. Without realising it, our community elders and paternal aunts influence and encourage gender inequalities and inferiority, so much so that they contribute to other women not being able to make their own choices and speak up for themselves. If we as women play a part in promoting such practices, we are stifling our own emancipation and creating a pathway into domestic abuse of our own daughters, nieces and grandchildren. These practices also create a lack of confidence in women, which then filters into wider society such as educational establishments, workplace environments etc. These women become so stifled to the extent that they don’t bother to reach their fullest potential in this ever-changing world.
Another aspect of culture to examine is kneeling. Across the spectrums of the Shona society it has been compulsory to kneel before your elders. The purpose of kneeling within Shona culture must be understood as a sign of humility and respect.
Shona culture is very rich, women in Shona society have powerful positions within the society, they are givers of life, keepers of the home, custodians of family, even spirit mediums. In respect of this let’s bear in mind that even the men have their way of showing respect and kneeling before certain women, who have positions of spiritual or familial seniority, therefore, it is very important to not misunderstand the traditions. The issue about kneeling is not so much about the act of kneeling itself and its purpose, my issue is when women are backed into submission in the face of abuse. The world is evolving. We now live in a world rife with cases of domestic violence, rape and other forms of abuse. The men in our culture (some not all) are hungry for respect, they love a woman to kneel before them, to be addressed a certain way, and greeted by their totem names (“Maswera sei Shumba”) etc., it makes them feel good, yet some of them are very abusive. A woman may now find herself in the position of kneeling down to greet or serve a meal to her abusive husband, just because culturally he is regarded as the head of the household who must be respected. If we should examine marital issues in the home for second, think about this; how can respect be given to a man who leaves his wife at home to fraternize with girls young enough to be his children? how can respect be given to a man who leaves his matrimonial home to share a bed with a woman other than his wife? how can respect be given to a man who abuses his wife and kids daily, physically and emotionally? how can respect be given to a man who refuses to work for his family?
The issues that I have raised are about females being prepared and taught to be the best wives that they can be to their husbands. With the rise in infidelity and abuse in marriages no matter how good the wife, it is safe to conclude that these practices have not served their purposes in most cases. We have to question what the value is in putting our female children through all the stresses of preparing for a husband at such an early age? Some practices much as they are cultural should be scrutinised carefully because they do more harm to our children than good. In Africa, diseases such as STDs HIV and AIDS are common and so are children born out of wedlock because of the forever trending “smallhouse” (side-chick that had children with a married man). Moreover, Shona women are frowned upon and judged when they attempt to walk away from marriages, as are other African women. In this respect, western women have it better because they don’t have to put up with the psychological messes of being trapped in infidelity and emotional abuse because they can simply walk away without judgement.