2016 was the year I realised how truly messed up this world can be for me – an African woman. More specifically, how deeply patriarchy is entrenched in our society and in African culture. I’ve always had a sense that things weren’t quite fair regarding gender relations, but the more I was confronted with everyday real-life situations in the workplace and in public spaces, the more I realised how patriarchy is very much a part of our lives and our thoughts – it forms a big part of how we have been conditioned and brought up. As Ananya Roy said in her TEDxMarin Talk on patriarchy, “sometimes patriarchy is a phrase, a name, a stereotype…” (2014) It was this realisation that made me more vigilant in always choosing myself - not as a wife in waiting, childless, a Jezebel, or a “blessee”. But choosing me first, the way I am in every decision I make regarding my life.
Ananya Roy also quotes an Adrienne Rich poem, “…we have no familiar, ready-made name for a woman who defines herself, by choice, neither in relation to children nor to men, who is self-identified, who has chosen herself” (1996). From my own experience, I can attest that this woman is often ridiculed, looked down upon, misunderstood and pressured into becoming what she has been brought up to aspire to - a respectable domesticated, mother and wife. I say this because even though we are living in the 21st century where opportunities are seemingly abundant to everyone, I have been approached more than once by men who were baffled by the fact that I am 32 and childless. I admit that these were KZN Zulu men of a particular class, but on the other spectrum I’ve also had an outspoken, self-professed well-read, modernised 33 year old woman doctor, audaciously rub in my face what a failure I am because I am not married and have no children.
These along with many other incidents where I witnessed women being shamed simply for being women, got me questioning my so-called role as an African woman in our uniquely South African patriarchal society. We know patriarchy as a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it. Ananya Roy goes on to define patriarchy as “a social system of male power exercised not only through domination but also through benevolence and protection, even love.” (2014)
In my recent writings and discussions on gender relations, it has been brought to my attention that the concept of patriarchy is not and has never been authentically African. Like many unwanted Western ideas, African culture has adopted a patriarchal system over the centuries and our roots are in fact matriarchal. Be that as it may, I’m sure I speak for a lot of modern African women and girls when I say; many African beliefs and traditions still oppress African women. We have some extreme South African practices like ukuthwala, particularly in rural Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. This is a practice where girls, sometimes as young as 9yrs old, are abducted and forced into marriage. These ‘abductions’ often happen with the consent of their parents. Sadly, we have also normalised teachings in our homes that prepare girls to value ownership in relationships, marriage and subordination.
Siyanda Moutsiwa boldly states, “the most dangerous thing is many Africans’ inability to separate African culture from systems that oppress the freedoms of African women. It is this inability to see a future where African culture isn’t tinged with patriarchal undertones that is the biggest threat to the Black Consciousness Movement.” (2012) I wholeheartedly agree, in order to truly preserve the core meaning and values of African culture we need to firstly, vigilantly dissect African culture’s many sexist practices and secondly, stop practicing them in the name of, “it’s our culture”. The sooner we do so, more modern African women and feminists like myself will be keen to look at African culture as something worth proudly upholding and passing down to future generations. How am I expected to maintain the purpose of African culture if I continue to feel marginalised? It is therefore important that we no longer focus on the origins of patriarchy related to African culture but to accept patriarchy as an aspect of it that is ruining its livelihood in modern society and remove it.
I’m not only speaking to men to join in the banishing of the blatant gender inequalities in African culture. Yes, the systems and structures of patriarchy in African culture have been difficult to dismantle because they have worked in favour of men. But another reason why patriarchy has been difficult to get rid of in African societies, according to Goddess Bvuktwa, “is because it has managed to be as deeply entrenched as it is by using women as its guardian.” (2014) I, along with many other African women, can share how we are all too familiar with that older aunt who randomly gives advice on how a respectable African girl should dress and carry herself. “In the same way, that slavery in the Americas used other slaves whom they elevated above other slaves, (like butlers, stewards, and housekeepers) to keep the whole machinery of slavery well-oiled and functional…” “Patriarchy has used women, older women mostly, to be its guardian and keep its systems functioning.” (Bvuktwa, 2014) To maintain itself over the years, patriarchy has cleverly used and continues to use women to suppress and oppress other women.
What’s more disturbing about patriarchal ideals in African culture, is its continued stifling of the African boy child. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s hugely popularised TEDxEuston Talk by Beyonce’s hit Flawless talks of this; “we define masculinity in a very narrow way…” “Masculinity becomes this hard small cage. We teach boys to be afraid of weakness, fear, and vulnerability. We teach boys to mask their true selves.” (2013) This is a tilted view on the age-old patriarchy debate, which moves us away from boxing African women as the only victims of patriarchy in African Culture. But allows us to see how we are all victims of a very complex and difficult system.
So what’s the way forward? I believe that we (as African men and women) need to start raising African boys to be righteous men who enable gender equality from an early age, and allow our African girls to be themselves and not teach them to be good pretenders at being “wifey material.” Otherwise, African culture will continue to be deemed as the main culprit in the oppression of African women and will therefore, fade into the past.
Citations Reference Lists:
Roy, A. (2014). Patriarchy-power and gender in the 21c. [video]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6oOevLDtPJo [Accessed 15 June.2017].
Rich, A. (1996). Of Woman Born: Motherhood As Experience and Institution. W.W. Norton & Company, 352 Page(s)
Moutsiwa, S. (2012). Patriarchy is the parasite that African culture must rid itself of in order to survive. Siyandawrites.com [online] 1 Page(s) [Accessed 29 May.2017].
Bvukutwa, G. (2014). Gender equality is not a western notion. Thisisafrica.me [online] 1 Page(s) [Accessed 29 May.2017].
Ngozi, CH. (2013). We should all be feminists. [video]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg3umXU_qWc [Accessed 15 June. 2017].
Illustration: Thulisizwe Mamba
Writing: Kholofelo Mokgata