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?