It is interesting how religion and culture are often brought up when the rights and sexualities of women are being taken away. That and the frankly reductive idea that ‘Women are their own worst enemies’ and must somehow be saved from themselves.
Over the holidays, a friend and I discussed this very sentiment, a discussion that spiralled from very trivial beginnings. As we talked about while on the surface it might seem like a lot of the policing of women’s bodies and sexualities is done by women, it is very much entrenched in the patriarchy he brought up anecdotal evidence and his personal experience with older Igbo women and the backward practices that are still very much revolve around their interactions with other women in their societies. Especially how older Igbo women age groups act towards young and old widows.
Igbo culture expects outward displays of contrition following a husband’s death, requiring the widow to show her loyalty and utter dismay at her partner’s death through a series of public displays of grief which includes and isn’t limited to shaving her head, sleeping next to her husband’s corpse, public humiliation and a year of isolation where she is expected to dress simply and mourn. Compliance with all of this is enforced by the women of the dead husband’s age group or the town’s older women. It is often a psychologically and physically traumatic experience on a women who has already experienced major trauma via the death of her spouse. Hard to justify, or even condone.
He, like many other men have tabled this practice, along with other practices like Breast ironing in Cameroon, Female Genital Mutilation across Africa as literal examples of how women are just as bad as men when it comes to the marginalization of disadvantaged women, as justification for why women are their own worst enemies. And they are right, women can be actively and indirectly committed to the marginalization of other women, especially when it comes to sexuality and sexual agency. But no one ever bothers to ask why?
The language of patriarchy is violence.
The primary tool for amassing power in a patriarchal society is violence.
When you look at many of these savage injustices against women perpetrated by other women, you will find that these women are merely operating in the system in which they were raised. When Igbo female elders (many of them widows themselves) harass a new widow, they are merely operating in a system that has told them repeatedly to gain any respect or power, you have to oppress the person more marginalized than you. When a mother in Cameroon irons her daughter’s breasts, she is inflicting violence on her child so others will not. She is conditioned to believe that her motive (love) justifies the violence. When a village cutter mutilates the genitals of an infant, she does so because she was mutilated herself and has been conditioned to believe that men can tell the difference between a woman who has been circumcised and one who hasn’t. When you look ultimately at who this violence benefits, you find the silent recipient is a man.
The Igbo practice of widow rites boils down to a public performance of undying loyalty to a corpse through forced or voluntary deformation so garish that the woman becomes sexually undesirable to any other man. Being forced to shave her head and wear rags or white for an entire year, being forced to forgo bathing; taking away beautification rituals and hygiene as a way to limit a woman’s sexual agency. Controlling a woman’s sexuality is that important.
On the 27th of December, the Sultan of Sokoto made a statement officially rejecting the Nigerian Gender Equality bill currently being put through its paces in the Nigerian senate. As always with Nigerian religious/spiritual leaders, he had nothing concrete or well articulated out to support his stance, other than he didn’t believe that he doesn’t believe that women should be given more than Islam allows them. Islam allows women own and inherit property and as well as the right to well being which includes sexual health, in case you were wondering. The Nigerian constitution doesn’t.
The Gender Equality Act would have protected women from violence by other women as well as violence by men. It has been in the Nigerian Senate for far too long; edited, amended, lobotomized to fit narrow expectations of women and even then it still hasn’t been passed. Men chosen to protect the rights of women in constituencies across Nigeria have made rape jokes while this bill was being debated in senate to raucous laughter and the ever handy ‘It is not our culture’ has been evoked to explain away the reluctance to give women agency, especially that includes sexual agency.
Still think women are their own worst enemies?