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Woman, custodian of culture?

I am currently involved in carrying out a survey on sexual and gender based violence in one of the informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya. Over the past week, I have walked deeper and deeper into this urban slum, side stepping raw sewage, hopping over human waste, crossing narrow alleys littered with layers upon layers of discarded plastic bags, and by passing street food vendors whose delicacies never fail to attract the attention of packs of fat green and black flies.

The physical environment is congested. Long rows of mud structures are partitioned into single units, and each of these units is the humble abode of entire families whose household sizes range between two and twelve, with seven being a common number. Privacy is a privilege, what with personal hygiene sometimes being conducted in full view of others.

The congestion and dilapidation however is nothing compared to the kind of abuse that takes place in this environment. As is true for many places with no clear governance, social and economic structures, abuse is here is rife. Rape is routine, young children are defiled, and women face all kinds of economic, psychological and emotional abuse. In the competing ills, wife battering takes the trophy as it happens so frequently until it has become the norm.

What shocks me is the reaction of women towards being beaten by their husbands or intimate partners. They actually make excuses for their husbands. In focus group discussions, I have heard them say that it is excusable if a man beats a woman, since he paid dowry and she is his property; I have heard them say that we women sometimes talk too much and provoke husbands to beating us; I have heard them say that currently life is so stressful and men are so overwhelmed with work stress that sometimes they end up finding release on the woman; I have heard them say that a woman has to be subservient; I have heard them say that it is pointless to leave a husband who batters you since he will replace you with another woman as soon as you leave him.

I have heard many stories, many justifications. It has all pointed to one thing: The victim has become the victimized, and the perpetrator is now portrayed as the helpless, well meaning person whom the victim is always provoking.

How have we come to this? I am inclined to put the blame squarely on the doorstep of culture and socialization. It is said that women are the custodians of culture. This is so positively well, but I must say that sometimes we women folk have taken this custodianship too seriously.

Every other woman I have met in the slum will anchor her argument in culture. And so, women can be beaten, scream on some days, bear their humiliations silently on other days, but generally uphold culture. Occasionally, elders (usually male) can be called in to solve the problem, and after listening distractingly to the evidence, and heartily consuming food and drinks, they will feebly ask the husband to desist from beating his wife, and strongly urge the woman to tone down whatever habits they think earn her a beating.

How can the underdog tone down? We need to reach out to our sisters, mothers, daughters, female friends, female relatives in the villages, in informal settlements, and yes, even in elite circles and help them to interrogate this culture monster.

And we need to encourage today’s man to stop using that tired story of culture as a tool of power and domination.

I want to be one of the midwives in birthing a new dispensation that frees women’s minds. What about you?


Dolphinmagic20's picture

Defeat the culture monster!

This blog is true in so many ways it's kind of disturbing. I agree with you that women do tend to play that role of "custodian" and this just cannot be. Women are so much more than that! We are a natural powerhouse in society, but we tend to get overlooked as being "delicate", intimidated easily, and second to our male counterparts. It's terribly unfortunate that women are still being treated this way and when asked about why they believe they are being treated as such, they dismiss it as a way of their culture or their own folly within their societies. This must change! This idea has been planted in their thoughts since their childhood...but it's never too late to uproot this oppressive "tradition" and plant a new train of thought that liberates women, as well as their children!

I am with you on bringing into this world a new way of thinking about women's roles in culture and society. I loved this blog and can't wait to hear more from you!



Zippy's picture

Jennifer, Indeed it is


Indeed it is disturbing to witness and hear some of these things. I always find it ironical how women, and the whole concept of womanhood is given so much power and prominence in the spoken word; The reference to countries as the motherland, the reference to earth as mother earth, and not father earth. But it ends there.

In practice, this huge powerhouse is considered so delicate that opinions are sought from ‘it’ only as a last resort. It is as though to say, ‘woman is so special that we shall not disturb her by involving her in decision making. We shall dedicate ourselves to imagining that we are revering her, to the point of making her utterly useless’. How ironical!
Our roles in culture and society should move towards more relevance and visibility. After all, this is mother earth!

Look forward to interacting more with you Jennifer:-)

"A human is a human because of other humans"

Eleush's picture

great courage

Zippy, more power to you. You have great insight into this dilemma where the weak are prey yet the perpetrators are seen as victims. Unfortunately women are not as physically strong as men. It's not an equal playing field. It's up to the physically stronger to also be mentally and spiritually stronger. Is it POSSIBLE?


Zippy's picture

Eleush, Unfortunately, from


Unfortunately, from evidence world over, it seems like we can’t rely on the physically stronger to also be mentally/spiritually stronger. But then again, it is the way the concept of masculinity has been explained to men. The socialization. That is why we (men and women) have to make conscious effort at change.

I would say it is possible, but it will take effort and a lot of unlearning. The clear benefits may be realized in the next generation.

In optimism,

"A human is a human because of other humans"

tainadelsol's picture


wow what a powerful message and story. A true depiction of what is happening. I am conflicted when I think of these women becuase while I know that my prividleged feminist self from the us, sees choices, I dont think i can go to this place and preach the same becuase i know there is more to culture than taking a beating, it is economic as well and i cannot provide what a man beating his wife can not her or her family.

In Bold Rebirth

Zippy's picture

Dee, What you say is true.

What you say is true. Economics do come into play. A woman cannot report a husband who batters her because she has no alternatives. She has to go back to the same house in the evening, and reporting the man only makes the home situation worse. Thus, women in such circumstances never get justice.

That is why I see economic empowerment of women as one of the key strategies to free the mind. We (you and I), are united in this cause for emancipation. Though you be far away from these women, and cannot for example directly provide, you can still play a role that ultimately will help them to have options that you and I have.

It is said that to the person so much is given, so much is expected. In different ways, so much has been given us (and not necessarily in monetary terms). Here at world pulse, much is expected of us too. How do we come together and make that change?


"A human is a human because of other humans"

Khushbu's picture


Dear Zippy

This is a very compeling post, and makes me think again of all the struggles and all the hardships that a woman faces throughout her life, and it is unbelievable that they endure everything with a smile...I have seen women in my lives who have endured all the insults without complaining one bit...and in my part of the world it is the girl's family that pays the dowry...and still the situation is the same...

Thank you for the post, and igniting the thought...We will continue fighting for the cause!


Khushbu Agrawal

Zippy's picture

Khushbu, You would think that


You would think that it could be any different where the girl pays the dowry. However, I guess even when the girl pays, the question of the dowry not being enough will arise.

Though we as women are strong and enduring, our strength is often pushed to points of distortion. We endure even where we shouldn’t!

The struggle continues..

Much love,

"A human is a human because of other humans"

Nusrat Ara's picture

You have put it so nicely.

You have put it so nicely. Sadly the story is same everywhere.



Zippy's picture

Nusrat, We are together in


We are together in all these. Our unity and commitment to each other as women will make a difference.


"A human is a human because of other humans"

Matilda Moyo's picture

Well said

Well said Zippy,

Thanks for raising this very sad but important topic. It would be interesting to read the findings of your research when complete. I imagine it will be relevant across the continent given that we are affected by common issues regardless of the borders that seperate us. Interestingly, the excuses you mention seem to be the norm in many parts of Africa - I can't say much about other parts of the world.

Sadly as women sometimes we don't seem to realise our power to actually change the culture that we hold so dear, which has also become a tool for our oppression.

I hope that one day,we can harness the power we have and use it to change culture. It will take small incremental steps but we will get there one day, we certainly will.



Zippy's picture

Matilda, I agree with you. We

Matilda, I agree with you. We certainly will one day. However, the time to harness the power to change culture is NOW.
It is true that what I wrote applies to many parts of Africa. Culture has been used to hold us down.
And the thing with culture is that it invokes some silent unknown fear that dates back to the ancestors and makes many women wary of even entertaining the thought of breaking off. That kind of primordial fear is what makes it so hard to deal with.

Yes, I will share an abstract of the research with you once I am done with it. I am only quarter way through now...

Much love,

"A human is a human because of other humans"

Eleush's picture

How about

imagining that these women and children suffer from such stress, such daily terror, that they are altered, they are victims not only of their repressive cultures but also of post-traumatic stress? what if whole populations, men, women and children, suffer from the same syndrome? what if whole populations are so brainwashed and terrorized that they can only act in accordance with their new terror-filled personalities?

That's when we no longer blame the victims, nor the perpetrators, but we look to the system that allows, and may even foster, the subservience of the masses so that the system may continue feeding off the bodies, the labor and the psychic energies of those populations.

And the system is run by individuals who rely on their egos to get the work done. Individuals who are tantalized by power, or bullied into it, or intimated by those who would have them do their bidding. There's always someone needing to further the system in order to further his/her own goals.

So what came first? The system or the individual?

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