Do you pay attention to how you interact with people? Or the different mannerisms that you display when you are around different people? Most people do not give it much thought. However, recently an article surfaced where the current female Tanzanian president Samia Suluhu revealed why she knelt before her husband as a sign of love and affection. While the happenings between a married couple should be private, her statement stimulated an intense conversation across different social media platforms. Are we conditioned to uphold certain customs and traditions even as our social status’s as women rise? Are there any customs that could be viewed as belittling to women by people outside of our traditional communities?

Traditions and customs are fluid; as culture is an evolving set of norms that are influenced by the language, law, religion, food, music and art which give the culture a distinct character unique to a moment in history. As time changes, customs change and what was acceptable in one specific period can be perceived as barbaric or prejudice against a group of individuals in a society. For example, certain gendered practices can be perceived as demeaning to women and culture transformation is required to establish gender equality. Gender equality opposes the patriarchal societal norms and radical changes are required to emancipate women from such norms. As women inhabit roles that were previously designated for men, such as a presidency or scientific career paths, breaking glass ceilings career-wise should not be the only metric considered for gender equality. Cultural norms and practices need to be reformed as well. Here are a few cultural norms which still take place, which places women in a position of forced humility in the community.

  1. In most Bantu cultures, the man is the head of the household, as such has the final say on all decisions in the household. However, with more women entering the workforce and becoming financially independent, most women would probably want to contribute to making household decisions as financial independence can equalise the balance of power.
  2. In other cultures such as the Shona and Ndebele; women are expected to adopt specific mannerisms when addressing or are in the presence of men. For example, women are discouraged from giving direct eye contact and are expected to lower their gaze or head, as direct eye contact is a form of disrespect. Women are also expected to serve food while kneeling and to never be in a seating or standing position; as women could not be higher than men. Wherever there were gatherings, men always sat on chairs while women sat on the floor. Young girls are brought up to believe that a good wife should never be talkative or backchat her husband. In some communities, it is still frowned upon for women to wear trousers as they are thought of as disrespectful and are a man’s clothing. Respectable women are expected to wear loose-fitting dresses or skirts that are at least knee-length.
  3. In the Zulu culture, it is believed that a menstruating woman should not do domestic work as she is unclean. In the rural setting where this norm is typically practised, it is believed that when a man comes into contact with menstruating women it brings misfortune as menstruating blood is considered unclean.
  4. In the Venda Culture; women are required to lie prostrate on the ground on one side and clap their hands when greeting both men and other women or when thanking them as a sign of respect.

As such, it has been often hard to draw a line between certain cultural practices and respect for women, many have seen it reduce to ground level and in a way undeservingly humiliate them. However, there are a few of those that have since been abandoned by African cultures to restore women’s due respect in society.

  1. For instance, in Rwanda, it was perfectly okay for a man to kidnap the woman he wished to marry as a provocation of her family’s consent to their marriage or union. Because women didn’t know any better then (well, no one seemed to), it was acceptable to even both the girl and her family who would, later on, receive bride price to ‘seal off the deal’. Today, girls are left to make their own decisions regarding whom to marry and when they are ready to.
  2. For many African countries, it was taboo for women to take up any leadership roles, let alone participate in decision making. There was no shame in the common misconception that a woman’s place was in the kitchen, and that was unquestionable. Women were not allowed anywhere close to where the council of leaders, you may also read ‘council of men’, took important decisions. They were expected to just stay home and tend to the children, and the kitchen. All this is different today. Besides having a say in decision making both in the family and different leadership units, women are also taking up roles in national duties, and boy, are they perfect at it!
  3. Many families today don’t care which one of their children inherits property or land regardless of whether they are female or male. After numerous efforts to inform parents that all children deserve equal rights regardless of their gender, African parents have moved on from the bad lie that the head of the family can only be succeeded by a male child who would eventually own the family land and property, all along keeping a blind eye to the girls.
  4. You have probably witnessed or at least heard of a case where a girl was married off at an early age, well that was unquestionable in almost all African cultures. Girls were seen as a mere source of income through marriage and parents looked forward to it. Boys never got a share of that. But with time, governments are joining hands with activists, and more girls are allowed to be just girls, stay in school and as a result, stand a better chance to compete for jobs or run businesses. Parents have realized that just like boys, its a long term investment for their female children to keep in school.

The good news here is that more women are becoming more conscious of their rights, their status, leaving their role in society undoubtedly changed. They have even taken an extra step to bring men on board in the pursuit of the same. However, even with combined efforts from activists, governments and other stakeholders, there is still some work to be done if we are to completely wipe off all the cultural practices that remain degrading to women. Perhaps, if we don’t take a step back, we shall live to see all those practices take a permanent exit.

The question is, can we draw a line between women emancipation without affecting our culture?