A few weeks ago, I wrote my first installment looking at feminism and marriage from an African perspective. In that piece, I raised the question; can the two go together? Here is the second part of the article in which I further interrogate this.
This article continues exploring how young, African women feel about feminism and marriage. For the most part, my interviewees have been university-educated (on the Continent and abroad) but live in a mixed-values society. And so they and their husbands have devised and/or chosen strategies to navigate marriage in a way that makes sense to them. These women are doing the legwork to assert space for themselves. Their spouses are also engaged in actions that seek to legitimise being with feminists and navigating the associated perceptions of their weakness.
These women are engaged in a logical management of internal and external spaces since the results of one space tend to influence success in another. So even though they maintain some gendered norms like male-headed households that are unacceptable to some feminists, for the young women I spoke with there is no problem at all – they are comfortable in their arrangements.
All the women affirmed the reproductive role of women within marriage – some are parents and those who are not, plan to have children. For these feminists, a woman choosing to place herself in a reproductive role through marriage does not mean that she is oppressed or that she is not a real feminist. Similarly, it is important to acknowledge that marriage is not always harmful or steeped in inequality. Important questions to consider when interrogating marriage are 1) has the woman (and man) chosen the current marital status? Meaning does she have the power, means and support to exit her circumstances if necessary or desired and 2) does she have ownership of and control over her own body, voice and mind within that relationship and even outside of it since divorced women are governed by perceptions of their former marital status?
Feminists embracing roora or lobola
Within the southern African context conversations around marriage would be incomplete without mention of roora/lobola also known as bride price. Given the controversy surrounding the marriage of feminists, roora, especially in light of its commercialisation in the present day, is an added element I felt was important to address. Formerly understood as a cultural practice of family unification, it has now morphed into a monetised transaction of valuing women as though they are commodities on the market. Sandra K, Win F and Itumeleng K all acknowledge that societal changes have distorted roora, especially given the negative impact this change has had on women’s lives:
“I think I romanticise [roora] more than anything. We need to address the issue of abusing roora in order to rectify it.” – Sandra K
“A woman’s position is sometimes weakened by lobola and when combined with biblical teachings on submission can be disastrous. Some women end up in violent situations.” – Win F
“… I recognise that in some facets of society it can be a degrading thing, an issue of transaction, which classifies you based on what you can afford.” – Itumeleng K
Yet, these women still value and take pride in, aspire for, and seek to maintain a cultural practice that might seem unfathomable in some understandings of feminism because, as explained by Sandra K, “In completely doing away with [roora] we lose part of who we are as a people.”
“Getting lobola paid for me was a moment of pride and glory. I don’t feel like it was transactional or that I was being bought. For my father it was a moment of pride.” – Itumeleng K
“I have an institutional experience of lobola, I witnessed it growing up so I always wanted it for myself and was proud to go through it.” – Win F
“Roora is a part of [my] culture. There are some aspects of culture and religion that I need to accept as they are. But in the same token I need to educate myself more on the roots of roora.” – Chipo M
Roora is about family and community connections, as multiple actors have a say in the negotiations. In fact, one of the women suggested that perhaps one way to tackle the commercialisation of roora is to have specific, transparent standards for setting parameters of the gifts exchange, which can be applied universally regardless of a marrying parties’ level of education or economic status. Similarly, one interviewee suggested that negotiations need not be secretive and that they could perhaps include the young women being married so that they can safeguard their future. This to me epitomises Everjoice Win’s assertion that African women can do away with or change unjust elements of their culture and embrace elements that are freeing. Being able to enjoy and participate in modified roora ceremonies then becomes a form of liberation in the face of criticisms of roora.
The cultural and religious expectation of the submission of women to men in marriage conflicts at face value with the ideals of feminism. Yet for the young women I spoke to, this is a fallacy precisely because they make and defend their choices to afford their husbands the position of head of the family or household. Drawing on the biblical reference to submission (Ephesians 5:22-25), there is a sense that women defer to their husbands trusting that their husbands have the families’ best interests at heart. This is based on the idea that men love their wives and families and must be willing to make sacrifices for them. There is an obvious tension here because women are depicted as being dependent on their husbands’ benevolence. And yet in this apparent manifestation of patriarchy there is an element of women having the choice to defer.
In my view and in one of the interviewee’s view, the call to submit is a recommendation as opposed to a requirement. My interviewees stressed that although they give their husbands ‘their place’ as heads of households they do not feel disempowered because of the ways in which they negotiate their marriages. Itumeleng K shares, “My husband is the head of our household and I proudly give him that platform. I’m not any less empowered. All the decisions are still being made by both of us. [Feminism] shouldn’t be an abstract theory – I don’t think feminism says it’s wrong to have the man as the head of the household.”
Similarly, the other women stress that those who choose to submit to their husbands must do so contingent on their husbands respecting them as partners operating within agreed-upon roles. Chipo M states, “I believe in respect on both ends. I would not do well with a man having the final say in everything. I would not thrive in such an environment”. Yassin goes further, highlighting the importance to these women of living out their feminism within the social structures of their lived realities: “The idea of submission may vary depending on where the marriage takes place. Context and environment make a difference… In a marriage, just as in [other] relationships there are different domains where each partner submits as agreed with the other based on strengths and interests.”
Sandra K’s comments drive home my observation that, submission or the notion of submitting in the controversy around feminists marrying needs to be articulated using different language.
[M]arriage is about compromising- women compromise and men compromise and it works when the partners look at each other as individuals and understand and uphold each other’s strengths.
Ultimately, what is viewed as submission might in fact be acts of compromise and concessions in the process of co-heading families.
My friends’ positions reinforce the fact that not all feminists subscribe to the mainstream, often anti-marriage thinking that seeks to turn society and its norms upside down. In fact, their positions demonstrate the diversity of self-defined feminisms in which young African women are aware of themselves and their changing roles in society. These young women choose marriage and recognise the importance in negotiating within that institution to get buy-in from their husbands where necessary. These women also actively work to change gender stereotypes starting with their child rearing approaches, which sometimes impact their husbands’ mind-sets.
My friends’ collective lived experiences highlight the importance and need to engage with men in order to realize a better world for women and girls and indeed all people. These young women, especially those who are married know that they get to be activists and advocates for equality and gain traction when the so-called ‘enemy’ is supportive, particularly when he cooks and cleans the house and helps with child and elderly care. He is ultimately a helper and partner, and in some cases a self-identifying feminist.
Ultimately, the commonalities that came to light in the conversations with my friends point to the phenomenon where young African feminists are redefining or fine-tuning feminism for themselves. They/we believe that:
- Yes, a feminist can marry provided she chooses the right man – a man who approaches life as she does.
- Women are still marginalized and it is therefore our collective responsibility to advocate for women’s rights in all spheres of life where oppression manifests.
- Feminism is not a theoretical concept. Rather, it is a way in which to approach daily living and interactions with all people, rejecting attitudes and practices that diminish any woman, man, or child.
- Marriage does not preclude women (and men) from claiming feminism for themselves. In fact, marriage can be a domain in which stereotypical gender roles that perpetuate the subjugation of women and girls can be interrogated and changed. We can use our cultures to change harmful practices and attitudes.
- The assumption that men are “the enemy” is counterproductive and minimizes the contributions to feminist goals that some men are making.
The incredible enthusiasm of all five women to have the conversation about feminism and marriage signalled to me the importance of opening up or establishing spaces to have these types of conversations on a larger scale, especially in informal settings, in order to affirm and continue to strengthen our position as definers and refiners of feminism.
Many thanks to Chipo M, Itumeleng K, Win F, Yassin J, and Sandra K for trusting me with their experiences, and to Fumani M, for being a trusted and always thoughtful sounding board.
Chabata, Takunda 2012. ‘The commercialization of lobola in contemporary Zimbabwe: A double edged sword for women’, Buwa! A Journal on African Women’s Experiences Third edition pages 11-13
Cornwall, Andrea, Elizabeth Harrison, and Ann Whitehead 2007. ‘Introduction’, in Cornwall et al (eds), Feminisms in development: contradictions, contestations and challenges (London and New York: Zed Books)
Gaidzanwa, Rudo B 2011. ‘African Feminism’, Buwa! A Journal on African Women’s Experiences Second edition pages 7-10
Hooks, Bell 2000. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (London: Pluto Press)