Bride Confinement, Fattening and Circumcision: Promoting Violence Against Women
In Nigeria, like in any other country, so many traditional practices aid and abate violence against women. These practices not only do subjugate women to substandard positions but also inflict psychological and physical pains on women.
“I didn’t want to go through the confining and fattening process but my uncle forced me to do it, I cried all through. The circumcision was particularly painful. If I didn’t obey, I will be ex-communicated by the family,” says a 44 year-old Patience.
Mbodi-- which means bride fattening is a cultural practice where women of marriageable age undergo the process of body fattening. It is widely observed by Efik and Ibibio peoples of Cross Rivers state-- a state located on the south eastern part of Nigeria. Mbodi involves the forceful feeding of would-be brides to make them fat. This is simply because in this community a fat woman is considered beautiful and presentable to the husband. This is done despite the impacts Mbodi practice has on the health of these women. It usually leads to obesity and put women in other dangerous health conditions.
The would-be brides are taken into fat houses, or huts completely cut off from the rest of the society. They are made to eat, sleep and avoid moving their bodies as much as possible. This confinement usually lasts for six weeks.
The rite which prepares a young woman for marriage is done when the bride price has been paid. Mbodi is usually done along side circumcision (Female Genital Mutilation).
Among the Efik and Ibibio tribes, popularly referred to as the Calabar people of Nigeria, it is a pride for parents to give their daughters into marriage. The joy is made complete when the prospective wife is fattened and declared a virgin.
They believe fattening brides prior to marriage makes them healthy and presentable to the husband and at the same time portrays her family as wealthy. It is common belief among both the Calabar men and women that a fat woman makes a healthy wife. The husband derives pleasure if the wife is fat; and the bride feels honored and respected when she is fat. The strong belief is that a woman’s beauty is in her weight.
According to Emmanuel, a native of Ibiono-Ibom, “women of marriageable age in my area go through the mbodi process so that they will be fattened and look healthy and attractive to their husbands. If a woman is not fat, how will the husband know that she is healthy?” It is believed that a woman who is preparing for marriage must not only look fat and healthy, but must be groomed in house-keeping and cooking-- the areas believed to be women's sphere. Mbodi provides opportunity for the would-be bride to be inculcated with such qualities. During the process, she is also taught how to satisfy her husband sexually.
Emmanuel says Mbodi encourages young ladies to keep their virginity-- a virgin bride is seen as an asset. During the Mbodi rite, the girl`s virginity is checked and it is a taboo and disgrace for her family if she is not found a virgin.
In some cases, more than one person can be kept in a fattening room .The expenses of cooking and other costs related to accomplishing the fattening of the bride is not necessarily the sole responsibility of the bride`s parents. The would-be husband shares the cost.
While in the fattening room, the bride is fed on special delicacies such as ekpankuko (combination of slice unripe plantain, vegetable, fish and oil) and other special soups. She is forced to take so much garri (ground cassava soaked in water) and made to drink a lot of water. She is forced to eat more than her system can carry, after which she goes to sleep.
Bride fattening does not entail feeding only. It goes with body massaging. An older matron does a lot of work massaging the body of the bride. The matron uses local chalk on the entire body of the bride during the massage. The older woman first applies palm oil on the body of the bride before massaging with local chalk. She then uses a local herb called ‘’nsang’’ on the palm and feet of the bride. After the massaging, ‘’akukin’’, a body smoothener is used to smoothen the body. The ''akukin'' is also used to make colorful designs on the bride’s body.
At the elapse of six weeks, the bride is paraded in the market square. She is placed on a horse or carried by able-bodied men. She wears ireke (beads), which are wrapped around her waist. Her chest is exposed and her breasts are kept bare. She wears precious jewels called ‘’ntong’’ on her wrists and legs. As she is paraded, she dances while people give her gifts.
Circumcision of women who go through the mbodi cultural rite can take place during the fattening process while the bride is still confined, or shortly before the delivery of her first baby. The myth remains that the woman must be circumcised before the delivery of her first baby to prevent the head of the baby from hitting her uncut clitoris. It is believed that if the baby`s comes in contact with the uncut clitoris, the baby will die.
Although the practiced has been curbed in most of these localities, it is still highly practiced in the Annang community of Cross Rivers state, Nigeria. The present economic hardship in Nigeria coupled with the campaign against Female Genital Mutilation by some Organizations and United Nations agencies have helped to discourage the practice. The government of Cross River State is said to have placed a ban on the practice but the Annang community still upholds the practice.
Mr. Saviour who hails from Ibiono-Ibom, one of the communities where the fattening is no longer practiced says doing away with the Mbodi is not in the best interest of their culture. He says that abolition of mbodi and the Female Genital Mutilation promotes promiscuity among girls. “How can the society prove that the girl is still a virgin? Let me tell you, these girls who go about with the uncut clitoris are sexually uncontrollable.”
Mama Ekaete is 74 years old. She passed through the mbodi rite before she got married. She laments that the dieing down of the mbodi rite is a major cause of problems in marital homes. A bride who is not circumcised is bound to be promiscuous and infidelity on the part of women breaks homes. A man can be allowed to have concubines, but it is not culturally allowed and will not be the same with women. Mama Ekaete also maintains that with the abolition of mbodi, brides may not want to retain their virginity until marriage because they have no cultural obligation to do so. This is different from men.
However, this is high time Nigerian women stand up to reject cultural practices which promote violence against them. Women deserve the rights to choose to participate in practices which promote their interest and not those to please the society.