What Western Women Should Know about African Women

What Western Women Should Know about African Women

By Rees Chikwendu

Rees Chikwendu
Rees Chikwendu

In many Western discourses – either in the media or other mini forums of intercultural discussions – there are those with the warped idea of feminism. And always this kind feminist group portrays African women as those who do not yet know their fundamental rights and therefore must be educated and co-opted to fight for women rights. At the same time, they also adopt the usual worn-out clichés – or the Western template – often used in labelling African men as aggressive and abusive. In their eyes, African women are not yet ‘civilized.’

But is it true that African women (or in general black women) are weak and are the most among women to be pitied? Can it be said that African women are too submissive to their men and allow them to wallow over their existence by subduing and abusing them at ease? And is it true that African men (or black men in general) are aggressive and abusive to their women? Do they take undue advantage of their women?

Whichever perspective taken, the perceptions, body language, and connotations of Western discursive cultural contents often reek of contempt for African men and women. Even those who show some level of ‘sympathy’ for African women try to package the discourse in such a way that presents African women as those that desperately need to be rescued from the oppressive hand of their men. Also, this group of ‘sympathizers,’ in their attempt to frame this battle of sexes, perceive and label African men as good-for-nothing, assailant savages. But the truth is that they have failed to grasp the reality that goes on within African family system and culture. And because of this lack of knowledge and/or deliberate attempt to demonize, they label African men as bullies.

No doubt, there are African men deserving of whatever arrows that can be found in the quiver of this type of labels. And I mean those African men that indeed abuse our women in any form, and who consider women as not worthy to be treated as the queens they are, or accord them respect as mothers, daughters, and sisters. These are the kind of men still holding on to the twisted and outlandish traditions, which actually are not found within the real African traditions. Such men deserve to be buried in underneath prison for degrading women.

However, the question here is: Are such kind of men only found among African men or the black race? On the contrary, I think there is no racial confinement to the bad behaviour of mistreating women. It would only amount to distortion of truth and facts to assume that any form of aggressive behaviour and mistreatment towards women are something peculiar to Africans or Black race. In fact, many White women who have had issues in their bi-racial relationships with Black men often use this template to demonize such men in order to gain certain advantage. In custody battles between Caucasian women and African men, such labels are often used against Black men to take their children away from them, and judges that are racially biased buy into it.

The truth is that there are certain kinds of people in the West who fan the flames of the wrong type of feminism. They are also those who fail to grasp the reality that goes on within other cultures and family system. Such feminists have misinterpreted the issues of gender equality and how genders perceive and perform their roles of within other cultures.

If there is something the principle of cultural relativism has taught, it is to understand a person’s beliefs and customs in terms of that individual’s culture. Therefore, we must discuss African culture from that perspective, although there is no one African culture, but a complex and multifaceted cultures. It will somehow be a misnomer to create the impression that African culture is one and uniform. But for the sake of simplicity, we will assume there are lots of cultural aspects Africans have in common.

According to Blumer, culturally speaking, the issue of gender equality (or inequality) in Africa cannot be defined and understood from Western ideas and perspectives. Rather it should be based on how it is collectively conceived and defined within African society, and how it is shaped by their own public discourse). This is because the priority and values placed on issues differ across cultures. But it does not mean (maybe) that such culture places less value on the importance of gender equality. It is a matter of construction. In some cases of bad example, the problem has often been with the people and in how they interpret and practise culture, and not with the culture itself. This same principle applies to religions, politics, and businesses. The problem often lies in the practice of their ethics, influenced by ideological and philosophical dispositions.

True African traditions hold women in high esteem and do not denigrate them. Besides, gender roles should be complementary rather than competitive. The former is what African traditional system represents. That form of gender roles brings extra features and beauty which originally were not present in either the male or female gender. The latter – which characterizes today’s Western feminist ideology – is often driven by unhealthy ambition to surpass or be better than the other. This has placed serious wedge on gender roles in many Western homes and societies. Today, this ill form of feminism is severely affecting many families.

Now to buttress the point I mentioned before on how African traditions esteem women, we have to see through some of its traditional systems where women are portrayed as goddesses. Africa is filled with traditional system of female goddesses that are being worshipped by both men and women in the society. An example can be found among the Igbos of Eastern Nigeria, where the “Earth Mother” (called Ala or Ani) – the highest goddess of Igbo pantheon responsible for many aspects of its civilization and guardianship – is loved and worshipped.

In addition, the “Lady of Yams” is another goddess responsible for yam, which is a major root crop in Igbo diet, and the Igbos in Eastern Nigeria worship this goddess every year. Similar female goddesses can also be found in other African traditional systems. In the Yoruba traditional system, there is the Oshun or the river goddess of fertility.

Thus, in essence, African traditional systems generally recognize women as among those deserving of worship and not denigration. So, those who think ill of African tradition or hide under it to perpetuate evil against women are inexcusable.

Furthermore, to explicate my understanding of African cultures and traditions, I have decided to use a small-scale model of the African family to examine the powerful role of its women in the society. The politics and transactions that take place within an African family reveal more than what we already know about gender roles and the not-too-often perceived powers of women in the society. To do this we have to understand the informal process that important issues take to come on to the family agenda.

It is informal because it is a process full of understated elements of surprise and chance, and its subtlety is what in fact makes the role of the actor fascinating and powerful. It follows the principle of agenda-setting, which is politically very important – where the political actor indirectly move issues on to the agenda. The actor, often in politics, responsible in the evolution and process of moving an issue to the agenda are considered very powerful. This is because it is what is often brought on to the agenda that receives the attention of policymakers. That is to say, the outcome of a policy process is a consequence of the agenda. Thus, this process that also occurs within African family cannot be an exception to the powerful role of women within it and in the larger society.

Understanding why and how issues are either on or off the agenda is vital to understanding decision-making in African family, because making an issue to receive attention is an important condition to acting on it. We very often consider those in the forefront of leadership as the powerful, but fail to recognize the even more power role of those behind the scene. In many African families, the women (or wives) play very powerful role, but remain out of the scene. Many African women are not the type that want to be in competitive positions with their husband, rather they complement them. They would not easily opt for publicly making known the weaknesses and failures of their husbands, instead they would choose to dignify and respect them. This does not mean the opposite cannot be possible.

Nowadays, some African women are adopting the Western culture that allows women to compete (unhealthily) with their husbands. And this has come in between the ties that hold family members together.

There is almost no decision within a model African family that somehow was not moved on to the family agenda by the woman (mother or wife). Being those that are highly emotionally present in the family, African women are quick to pick up the needs of the family and move them to the attention of the family head. Think and tell me how many times you observe your mother inform and remind your father certain things that need to be done in the family. Maybe paying the children’s school fees? Buying them new shoes and clothes? Repainting the house? Saving for the rainy day? Etc.

African women understand the nature of their men. Men who take pride in playing their role as the head of the family. Therefore, to keep the family together and avoid the rampant divorces in Western society as a result of its anti-family culture and unhealthy competition, African women have assumed their feminine role and have learned to carry out its functions almost perfectly. An African woman would observe the ‘political mood’ and knows when to move an issue on or off the agenda for her husband to do something (or not do something) about it. The success does not lie in telling the man what to think, but in telling him what to think about. It cannot be achieved by show of power or equality, but through humility and love. Usually even the most stubborn man falls for this form of soft power.

Although some people may not see the power hewn in the seemingly negligible role of African women, I do see it differently. This applies even to the influence the wives of some powerful African leaders have on their husbands, except where the wife is not loved. Looking at African family from this perspective, I would rather think that African women are not weak as Western discourses depicts. African women, in according their men honour, are the most powerful women on earth.

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