By now we’ve all heard that reports of Eritrea requiring all men to have two wives, apparently to remedy the fact that there were too many unmarried women, is a hoax. What is interesting is that prior to this being known, and indeed after it was known, it was thought of as a hilarious – if strange – development. Zimbabweans took to social media to discuss the ‘news’, shared links to Eritrean visa offices as well as screenshots/ images of fake partially completed visa applications, ‘jokingly’ checked into Eritrean airports on ‘national duty’, engaged in casual collective misogynoir, downplayed the horror of forced marriage and commodified women.
There’s nothing amusing about forced marriage, but you wouldn’t know it from the number of memes, skits and articles that circulated since the story was first published.
Laughing off forced marriage
This callous response was particularly disappointing given the conversations around marriage, particularly the importance of being able to consent to marriage, that we’ve been having as a result of the continued fight against child ‘marriage’. The recent Constitutional Court case, that struck down provisions in both the Marriage and Customary Marriages Acts that permitted child marriage with consent of the parents/ a government minister was met with much fanfare but it’s clear that we continue to think about coercion as relates to marriage as an outlier, and not something that we need to be aware of and continuously flag even where children aren’t directly involved.
We do not seem to understand that being coerced into relationships – which is what any edict obligating anyone to wed anyone at all is – is a bad thing. ALWAYS. You’d think that as a matter of principle, we would be able to extend the outrage that we feel over children being forced or obligated to wed to other persons also ostensibly being forced or obligated to wed.
But apparently not.
Instead of concern, there was a definite tone of envy for the men who would get to marry these ‘better’ women. No one seemed to focus on the fact that had this been true, Eritrean women were sitting ducks who were going to be forced to get a straight marriage to whatever dude came round and demanded their hand.
A war on women’s physical appearance
The attractiveness of Eritrean women soon became the main topic of discussion. Men came out of the woodworks to tell us they wouldn’t mind two wives who looked like that. One skit circulating on whatsapp called Zimbabwean women cows, as opposed to the ‘objectively’ desirable Eritrean women who were presented as a homogenous group of caramel skinned women with long straight flowing hair, thin but sufficiently gifted, and with noses that are not flat and wide; and therefore delightfully ‘unAfrican-like’. This framing is appalling as it ignores the diversity of black peoples, and our features, and creates a hierarchy of belonging (who is ‘black’ enough, and what is ‘authentic blackness’?). Zimbabweans’ hypocrisy was also made apparent as in the same breath we had national media houses praising the image they had of Eritrean women and mocking women who choose to bleach their skin and straighten their hair/ wear weaves as though the yardstick of attractiveness being used is not the same. Eurocentric beauty norms are being applied. Clearly, our society while trying to give off a decolonised feel, is plugged into many of the beauty norms that operate globally and regard blackness – particularly of the dark skin variety – as inherently unattractive. There is, therefore, no room for a multiplicity of beauty, or for challenging the idea that there is a single beauty standard that women must achieve or attempt to adhere to in order to validate our gender identities. Further there was the continuous implication that any form of beauty ritual was for the benefit for the male gaze and not perhaps because women found personal pleasure in their adornment.
As conversations wore on, women were continuously objectified and entered into a beauty competition that none of us consented to. The prize was, apparently, to be deemed desirable by men who hold tightly to that problematic idea that the value of a woman lies in whether or not a man deems her attractive, and further whether or not someone can be found to marry her; which is also nonsense.
Women are thought of as things. A wife is apparently a thing. Not a person, not a partner. A possession. A wife is something that you have and you own and you purchase. A wife’s primary function is also apparently to be seen and not heard. The role of women in heterosexual relationships was continuously presented as to be visually pleasing according to an external yardstick wielded by your [male] partner. The entire conversation was quite telling, as not once even in passing was women’s emotional and domestic labour in traditional heterosexual relationships mentioned. All that work continued to go unnoticed, expected as a given and yet still devalued. It was a very clear indication that for all our claims to be fairly progressive in the area of marriage we continue to look at interpersonal relationships with an uncritical eye and are comfortable following patriarchy’s entrenched norms.
Main image taken from www.eastafro.com