For as long as the institution of marriage has been around, there have been people who see unmarried women as failures. For many, an unmarried status signifies unworthiness – no man has deemed you a suitable mate, so you have no value.
It’s as if marriage is the highest accolade a woman can add to her list of achievements.
This archaic mentality is perpetuated by the false notion that women spend their entire lives grooming themselves for marriage – and if they never make it down the aisle, they have failed at life.
I’m convinced that this must be the reason why wedding speeches seem to be more about giving the bride advice on “how to keep him” instead of advocating for companionship and love.
Brides are bombarded with the idea that they should cook for him, wash his clothes, let him be the head of the household and consider his needs in the bedroom, because apparently women don’t have needs of their own.
For a long time I’ve believed that in a heteronormative union, marriage is tailored for the man. Often, sacrifice and loss of self and autonomy are imposed on women – not only in wedding speeches, like I’ve mentioned – but also in some African wedding traditions.
A Shona woman in Zimbabwe is expected to curtsy when serving her husband a meal. If a Zulu bride-to-be loses her virginity to the groom before the marriage his family has to pay a fine. Polygamy is often practiced with the man’s interests at heart, and young brides often become slaves to their mothers-in-law.
Of course traditions vary from family to family and are practiced differently within cultural groups.
Taken at face value, a lot of wedding traditions can be misconstrued as simply oppressive when in actual fact there is some symbolism behind the act.
Such an example is the foot washing ceremony.
Watch: Would you wash your husband’s feet at your wedding?
And yet, black girls are raised to be good wives. You’re woken up in the morning to make breakfast, clean, do laundry and even wash the windows, because who’s going to marry you if you just watch series on the couch?
When it comes to domestic chores, I can comfortably say I am lazy, so the above early morning to-do list doesn’t actually apply to me because I have mastered the art of just avoiding it. This is the reason why many people in my family have said they feel sorry for my future (hypothetical) husband.
To be honest, I also feel sorry for this guy who at his age apparently still doesn’t know how to prepare dinner for himself or wash his own work shirts. The poor thing!
I have encountered so many African men who were raised with no pressure to be domesticated because somewhere out there a woman has been trained since birth to look after him.
Apparently carrying out domestic duties in the house that you are now old enough to buy is emasculating.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a “men are trash” piece.
It’s just a necessary observation on the cracks in the nail polish of a Xhosa wife who’s been washing pots at her husband’s homestead for an entire weekend.
I’m not saying some women aren’t happy to cook and clean for their husbands. It’s perfectly fine if they do. At the heart of feminism lies the principle of choice and neither choice makes the one more or less feminist than the other.
What I’m saying is that given the history of African marriages it seems that African culture often rejects feminism. Very few women have been given the freedom to figure out what kind of wife they want to be.
There are exceptions, of course, but they don’t even make a tiny stain in the fabric of patriarchal wedding traditions.
So can you be a feminist and an African wife?
A young man who was pursuing me, said that feminism is a “Western ideology that cannot be implemented in Africa” and that we as black people have bigger issues than trying to fight patriarchy. LOL.
I’m not sure how far he thought defending patriarchy would get him with me, but I guess he found out pretty quickly.
I’ve always said I don’t really want to marry into a Xhosa family (I can’t really speak for other cultures) because I think taking on the role of being umakoti is the oil to my water when it comes to feminism, career goals and sartorial freedom.
I mention sartorial freedom because I’m the kind of woman who truly believes in self expression through dress, and being told to suddenly stop wearing shorts and backless dresses when I become a wife is something that unsettles me a bit.
It’s not because I disrespect African culture (there are very necessary and important traditions that need to be performed on the road to marriage), but I don’t believe in the rules which are particularly stifling to women for the mere sake of the ill-disciplined male gaze.
Also, the process as a whole seems a bit inconsistent with the demands of a liberated and working 21st-century woman.
Some families are more lenient, which means that many African wives are happy to switch between both roles with ease.
But there are still a number of traditional wedding customs that seem to render the women voiceless at the mercy of the love of a man. But as more African families adopt certain Western lifestyle choices it means that we are finally moving towards a time where you can wear your jeans to your mother-in-law’s house and possibly chat equal rights without feeling like you’ve sworn in church.
I mean, at the end of the day if your husband approves of you enough to spend the rest of his life with you, who else matters?
You would think it’s as simple as that, but when you marry it’s not just one person that you’re marrying. It’s an entire family.
My concerns about the muffled voice of feminism in African marriages doesn’t mean that I don’t salute the women who have successfully owned the best of both worlds for decades.
I simply don’t want women to feel that marrying a man means you must divorce your rights.
By Afika Jadekweni