Does African culture oppress women?

Lovemore Ranga Mataire
SEVERAL calls have been made to rescue women from the clutches of male dominance, but none of these calls seems to have made significant headway in improving women’s lot.
Cases of women being harassed in the streets, raped, indecently assaulted at workplaces and brutally treated by their spouses seem to be the order of the day leaving one wondering where society is headed.

There is definitely need for a complete overhaul of both the discourse and ideological framework on gender issues in order to change the psyche of both men and women in realising the fundamental positive ripple effects of a fair and just society to economic development.

But this is not to undermine the efforts made so far by the Government and several organisations in placing gender issues at the forefront of most national economic planning initiatives.

One of the shortcomings of the struggle by women to improve their lot has been the total exclusion of men in the whole discourse resulting in some kind of indifference which stalled most of the well-intentioned and well-meaning policy submissions to transform the male-dominated social, political and economic order.

Inevitably, it is crucial that the discourse on women’s emancipation must be rid of some misconceptions about African culture as the medium of oppression, a perception that is deeply rooted in our social fabric.

While most women are convinced that African culture is based on patriarchy, most men also view culture as the basis upon which they derive the right not to stand on equal footing with their female counterparts. Both views are blatant misconceptions.

It is misleading for the women folk to view and label men as mere oppressors. On the contrary, women should instead view their oppression as a result of a crude, repressive and oppressive colonial system and even our own pre-colonial societies. It is also unwise and the height of hypocrisy for men to use the Bible and our culture to justify their dominance over women.

In any given culture, there always exist some undesirable elements but it is a generalisation that our culture prohibits women from exercising the same rights as men. The problem is that our conception of our culture has been distorted by colonialism which denigrated everything African.

Who is not aware that our ancestors recognised the equality between sexes and emphasised a spirit of togetherness and community work, which commonly referred to as nhimbe?

The concept of nhimbe was meant to foster communal cohesion and was no discrimination on the basis of gender.
Women were equally powerful and respected just as men and a good example is that of Queen Nzinga of Angola, who led her people and successfully repelled successive Portuguese imperial aggression between 1554 and 1556.

Other aspects of our culture that extolled women include the rain-making ceremony in which women played an active role with men being in the background. The symbolic importance of the rain-making ceremony cannot be underestimated as was water is the source of life.

If women were really downtrodden, how could it have been possible for the spirit of Nehanda to have felt so comfortable to settle on Mbuya Charwe (a woman)? And how could the same spirit on a woman be the guiding torch for freedom fighters in both the first and second Chimurenga?

The idea of viewing a woman as a second class citizen is more of a Western creation rather than African. A perusal of the Jacobean, Victorian and Elizabethean periods will show the degraded status of women and how they were viewed as mere sexual objects.

Classic literature works like Charlotte’s Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Jane Austin’s Emma, are all typical examples of how women were raised to be “docile, soft, gentle, agreeable and well-mannered” in preparation for matrimony.

While in the African cultural context expressing one’s sexuality was a virtue, in Europe one was considered a pervert if she openly expressed her sexuality as a woman.

There are other various aspects of African culture that promoted tolerance within and between sexes and it is important that non-governmental organisations and pressure groups clamouring for the emancipation of women revise their approaches and desist from just labelling African culture as the source of the debasing situations that women found themselves in.

 

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