Woman, shut your mouth and know your place—but perhaps there is a different and better way for African men to be 'real'?

The holding back of women on the continent is more common than we think, yet validating them makes more of a man than their subjugation.

WHILE many men profess they adore their mother, and no doubt many do, this seemingly does not always translate into seeing past the traditional maternal role that she plays in his life—as regarding her as an individual.

Many will fight for her honour, but will not defend it, the same way that a father might stand up for a child because they are the weaker one, but not support their self-formed aspirations, as if reiterating the old African saying that a child shall be seen but never heard.

This paradox is perhaps a manifestation of how men emulate patriarchy as modelled in African society. Like the alpha male his father is, the son also sees his mother merely as a nurturer instead of an equal, by virtue of her being female despite her age seniority. It is a reflection of the disparities in gender relations, now found even between a mother and her male child.

To him, she is there to serve and obey by seeing to his needs even into adulthood. As his father would do, he will to an extent instruct her as the “man” of the house. How he treats his wife is also a manifestation of the admiration he holds his father in, finally affirming his position as “a man, the head of the house”.                              

Recently, I asked a male friend: “Do you know what your mother wanted to be when she was a little girl?”

“I don’t know”, he answered. Had he been curious about it? “I’ve never been interested.”

As I told him, my reading of this is that even sons, like their fathers, only see women as one-dimensional and lesser beings whose major role is to bear children and make the home.

They are voiceless, their worth measured by obedience and how happy she keeps her man. She further models subservience for her daughters, and for her sons, of what a good woman “should be”, by being pretty and strong on the outside.

But inside, she is broken up, with no one to turn to in times to internal turmoil. Even her mother turns her back on her, because she too is hiding her own pain. You are a woman, she tells her, and “we women just have to be strong, we have no choice, this is our cross to bear, that’s the way things are.”

“You are not going to be the first to change them, otherwise you will lose your husband, your children will suffer, and you will lose the respect of your peers, you will put us all to shame.” 

So she lets the status quo be, unable to recognise the person that she once was and resenting both the person she once dreamed of being and the shell that she is now. She is a good submissive wife as culture and Scripture dictates, and gets along with everyone especially her in-laws. But she dares not to be herself or express her view, for that is not how a good African woman should behave.

Recites faithfully
She recites this socio-cultural script to herself daily, even as the inner shards of her pain cause bitterness. She is a good African woman, and as long as she is liked by those around her, how she feels about herself is immaterial.  But every day she wilts and dies a bit, her dreams hidden deep inside her, with no one to ask after them, not even her most “intimate” partner, her husband.

I asked an intelligent, beautiful, professional woman – the ultimate “superwoman”, how she does it: get the kids ready for the day, drop them off to school, work from 8-5, attend school meetings (her husband in absentia), get back home early enough to make sure that everyone is fed and bathed, help the kids with homework - again with little help from her husband…and oh, still perform her conjugal duties.

Her reply was that her husband reminded her that being a career woman was her choice, and that it should not in anyway interfere with her wifely duties. Yet, he still expects her to contribute financially, in a twisted dual existence of sorts that is more common than you think for a lot of African women of all statuses.

Women of all leanings find the going hard in Africa.

It is a near-accurate reflection of the lives lived by many black women across the continent, caught between traditional gender roles, the demands of modern life, and the need to self-actualise and achieve their life goals, yet shorn of support structures in a world increasingly content to cut loose once-strong familial ties

While the African worldview is slowly changing, certain aspects of our cultures continue to hold us back to the detriment of our progress as a people. The boy child is given leverage and is afforded the right to be, whereas the girl has to fight just to be seen for who and what she is – intelligent, able and worthy of respect and celebration. We teach her to be likeable, pretty, obedient. But when she expresses her sexuality she is frowned upon and given ugly labels—except when it is done to please the man. She must be kept under control, for she is a dangerous specimen.

Notable disconnect
Curiously, we get all frenzied when terrorists seize our girls. We shout “bring back our girls, say that they too have a right to education, are human and deserve to be whatever they want to be”, yet in our very homes and communities we fail to raise girls to be the best that they can be, failing to protect that right to be! It is a significant disconnect.

Renowned author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie articulates this eloquently: “We teach girls to shrink, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you will threaten the man.’ Because I am female I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage, and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors – not for jobs or accomplishments, which can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are”.

Thankful, it is not an entirely blanket situation—there are self-assured men out there, men that see no need to subjugate women to validate their masculinity, men that advocate gender equality and push for women’s empowerment. I can say I was proudly raised by such a man, to be not only a human being but also with the essence of woman. It is very liberating.

But such men are still the minority. For those who are not convinced, ask yourself again, do you know what your mother wanted to be when she was a little girl? Do you know what you wife or partner’s aspirations in life are? What does your daughter dream of becoming? Are you man enough to let them be?

Go on, it won’t break you, it will only make you a great black African man worthy of respect and admiration, a force to be reckoned with in a progressive African society—and that does not imply the blind uptake of Western values.

A good architect knows that a building will not hold if its foundation is not strong and its pillars are unequal – would you trust somebody that lacks such knowledge to build your home? Think about it.

—The writer is an avid traveller and commentator on social issues in Africa. She lives in Johannesburg.

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