“A man dies. But it is the widow who lies in state!”
Those are the opening lines of Ozioma Izuora’s award winning book Dreams Deferred. It captured for me in a nutshell the extreme discrimination and gross inhumane treatment of women in many of our cultures especially around death and mourning.
The loss of a loved one, a life partner in this case is a greatly depressing event. Coping with this loss is psychologically difficult. Anyone who has lived through the pain of such a loss will understand how anything to ease the loss is a welcomed. It is therefore a wicked irony and a retrogressive practice, one that should not be heard of in the 21st century, to have women still subjected to such barbarism in the name of mourning.
In most cultures here, a woman who losses a husband is an object to be punished. Indeed in most cases she is the chief suspect for his death and must endure degrading rituals to prove her innocence, or satisfy every onlooker that she has paid full respects to her deceased husband. This makes mourning some kind of forced exercise, not a spontaneous natural reaction in response to a loss. Women are forced to shave their hair, be clad in ridiculous looking attires often times black in colour and must be without any kind of Jewry for extended periods depending on the prescriptions of the culture. Even more, they lose their right to freedom and must not be seen outside the house. During her confinement, in some communities she is not expected to bathe or change her clothes. In some other climes, she is expected to drink dirty and potentially toxic water used to wash the corpse of her late husband.
At the funeral, she is positioned at a corner like some statue. She is not expected to speak more than a few words. She is even shielded from those who come to pay condolence and responds in nodes and sighs. We effectively make her dead while she is still alive. And all the while, she is being monitored lest she does anything that will be adjudged as being offensive to the soul of her late husband.
While it is ironical and downright appalling that this should be happening in this age, it is even a greater irony that it is her fellow women who enforce these rules. It is her fellow women who stand guard around and insists she does everything their memories can recall that is in the culture books no matter how archaic.
Now, the mistake should not be made to say all our cultural practices are negative and should be abandoned. Indeed,I personally believe that the rich morals values, deep respect for family bonds and the sanctity for life and marriage which is sacrosanct in African societies together make Africa the sanest clime under the sun to exist in today. But then, some of these practices which we inherited from our forefathers have become obsolete, unproductive and not in line with our current realities and must be done away with. We must note that these laws were made to meet particular needs at the time they were made and indeed were made with good intentions. However the times have changed and humanity has moved on. In the same way, our cultures ought to have moved on and our observances ought to be in line with our current realities.
Who to change it? While we all share a responsibility in advocating for and ensuring that dehumanising practices that double our pains instead of relieving them are stopped, I think the primary victims of it, the women must be at the fore front. As stated earlier, these practices continue to hold by the active connivance of women. If the women (propelled by superior argument from those that are educated and enlightened) in unison in their various communities insist on the review or stoppage of these practices, it will be stopped. Our mothers belong to strong associations and forums in our towns and villages that are both powerful and influential. I think for example the annual August Meeting ritual of women from the South East. If only they will spend more time in discussing such issues that reduces their humanness than in bickering over superiority and the fixing of obnoxious levies, perhaps some of these practices would have been repealed by now.
Culture is not static. It continues to change and we must change along with the times. Any laws that reduce our dignity as humans and takes away instead of adding to our joy is not favourable and must be done away with in our best interest.
Photo credit Spokesman.com