Culture is a natural phenomenon of the human existence as groups of people organize their world and create communities through a shared experience, beliefs and values. However, the problem comes when one group in the community gains importance and significance at the expense of another, or when social norms and beliefs favour one group over the other, resulting in the discrimination of the unfavoured one.
Women have been at helm of discriminatory cultural practices which, at the heart, stem from the devaluing of female life. Here are 4 cultural practices that discriminate against women:
FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION
Imagine being 8 years old and early one morning while you’re still dead asleep, you get woken up hastily by a woman from your community who tells you to prepare yourself for your big journey into womanhood.
She grabs you by the hand and leads you into a crowd of women who are dancing, beating drums and ululating. You’re confused at what’s happening, and you’re start to feel afraid because no one said anything to you prior this event. And to make matters worse, your mother is nowhere to be found. You’re then bound by the crowd of women, blind-folded and taken away. At this point, you know that something is wrong because you’re being taken against your will.
You arrive at an unknown destination deep in the forest, only to be greeted by another crowd of singing and ululating women. But this time, you can hear agonizing screams and sobs of girls in pain. You don’t understand why, until a woman removes you blindfold and the first thing you see is a girl you age, bloodied, faint and lying on the floor in pain.
Before you know it, four women overpower you, pin down your opened legs while thrusting your head backwards and stuffing cloth into your mouth, and then they insert a sharp and bloodied knife into your vagina. A pain so unfathomable sears through your body, almost causing you to faint. You’re then thrown into a dirt hole with other girls to bleed out and suffer in pain. You witness a girl bleed to death, and the women that did this to her say that she died from a mystical disease.
For three months, you are hidden from society in a room full of girls, who eventually become your closest friends as they share in your pain and disillusion, and you are forced to learn the rituals of womanhood. After this time, you’re eventually released to your family, who throw a feast for you in celebration. You wonder what it is they are celebrating as you feel like they hauled into suffering, like a sheep hauled in for the slaughter.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a tradition that is deeply entrenched in some African, Middle Eastern and Asian communities. It dates to ancient times, where historians say that earlier civilizations, prominently the Ethiopians, Phoenicians, the Hittites, Arabs, the Arunta tribe (located in Australia), the Romans and the Amazonian tribes, practiced FGM.
According to the World Health Organization, the tradition affects more than 200 million girls and women around the world, with the highest concentrations being in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It is seen as a girl’s rite of passage into womanhood, and is enforced by the family of the girl, more often without her consent.
Communities argue that it is important for this tradition to be upheld because failure to do so would result in the girl and her family being ostracized and cast out of the community. Most families live in poverty, and view their daughters as means to economic relief through dowries that are offered by prospective husbands. An uncut woman, as is the common reference, is usually not considered for marriage, and is equally shamed by her family for being unable to attract a suitor.
Also, being cut is a community’s way of controlling female sexuality. Tradition says that an uncut woman lacks sexual self-control because of the clitoris, therefore removing it will maintain her purity or virginity before marriage, and will ensure fidelity after marriage. Uncut women are often forced by their husbands to undergo the process if they haven’t by the time they get married to protect the man’s status in the community (as an uncut woman is viewed as a child and a man who marries an uncut woman is ostracized) and to enhance his sexual pleasure as it is believed that the narrowing of the vagina is beneficial for men.
It is widely argued by some communities that female circumcision should be treated the same as male circumcision. However, the two are vastly different. Firstly, with regards to health, male circumcision has some benefits, including protection against penile cancer and reduced risk of urinary tract infections. FGM has no health benefits, only risks detrimental to a woman’s health including short term risks such as severe pain, hemorrhage and urinary infection. Hemorrhage and infection can be severe enough to cause death. Long term consequences include difficulty with childbirth, especially if the woman has undergone infibulation, which is the narrowing of the vaginal orifice with a covering seal that is formed by cutting and re-positioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora. Anaemia, the formation of cysts and abscesses and painful sexual intercourse are also long term consequences, not forgetting the high rates of HIV/AIDS infection due to unsterilized tools being used by cutters and the laceration of vaginal tissue that sexual intercourse can cause.
Women also suffer psychologically from the procedure, experiencing loss of trust from caregivers and people at large, anxiety, depression and a loss of self-determination, which results in a sense of a wasted life. They are further traumatized by their husbands, who have to remove the stitches placed on the vagina during infibulation to have sex with their wives, which inflicts much pain. Most women equate sexual intercourse with rape because of the physical pain and the feelings of being violated.
FGM violates a woman’s human right to dignity and self-determination, and has negative consequences for their overall health and social and psychological wellbeing. Various women’s rights groups and advocates across Africa have taken a stand against the practice of FGM, employing the strategy of educating community members about its effects on women. Governments have also taken a stand against the practice, putting laws in place that ban on it. However, community attitudes towards women and a change in traditional practices that fundamentally place high value on female life will result in the eradication of the practice.
Across the world, there are more than 700 million women who were married as children. 125 million of these women live in Africa. Even though the legal age of 18 is set into law across most countries on the continent, child marriage is widespread, and often remains unchallenged because of patriarchal views of daughters and the debilitating effects of poverty.
Young girls are often abducted and forced into marriage through traditions known as ‘ukuthwala’ in Southern Africa and ‘kupura’ in East Africa. Post abduction, dowry negotiations take place between the bride and groom’s families. In most cases, the bride’s family is poor, resulting in them accepting the dowry in trade for their daughter as a means to economic emancipation. The younger and uneducated the girl is, the more she is worth. Also, beliefs that a girl’s life should be controlled, while a boy is allowed the right to self-determination, are at the heart of child marriage. Often, the girl’s father negotiates a dowry without her consent, forcing her to quit school to be a wife and mother.
Child marriage only perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Once a girl is married, she is often barred from attending school by her husband, forcing her out of the education system. She is also unable to work, also mainly because of her husband’s barring, but because she has no education, which renders her unemployable. She ends up having children that she can’t afford to feed, resulting in her being fully dependent on her husband.
Child marriage violates a girl’s rights to self-determination and freedom, and raises her chances of being infected with HIV/AIDS due to beliefs that marrying a virgin will cure the disease. It also raises her chances of maternal mortality due to complications with childbirth, and causes further trauma if she was forced to undergo female genital mutilation.
The risk of a child bride experiencing abuse is high because of societal expectations that the wife should be subservient and under the control of her husband, and also due to the lack of support when she is in need of help. Often times, her family will cast her away should she complain, and officials are reluctant to assist victims of domestic violence, citing that it is a family concern.
Countries with the high rates of child marriage, such as Malawi, Gambia and Tanzania, have outlawed the practice after persistent lobbying by child and women’s rights activists. Most significantly is the work of Malawian chief Theresa Kachindamoto, who in her tenure, has broken up over 800 child marriages through changing customary law in her area of authority in the Dedza District of Malawi. The difficulty that remains is changing the mindsets of people about a girl’s right to life, and viewing girl children as human beings rather than instruments for control or meal tickets out of poverty.
PREFERENCE FOR SONS
Preferring boys over girls has been a social trend for centuries, with devastating consequences for families and societies.
Boys have historically been viewed as an economic and cultural asset. Boys were the family’s bloodline carriers and were often responsible for taking care of the family as they had the right to work, and the elderly depended on their sons for their well-being. Girls, however, were seen as wasteful as they married out of their family, discontinuing the family bloodline, and were unable to take care of their families because of limited rights to work and in some cases, no rights to own land.
Not much has changed in modern times in terms of collective attitudes towards a cultural preference towards boys and the subsequent abuse and degrading of girls and women.
The patriarchal culture of son preference has resulted in the abuse, and in worse cases, the abandonment, of mothers and daughters as families refuse to accept a woman who has given birth to a daughter. In worst cases, baby girls are aborted while they are still a fetus, being denied the right to life. Women are placed under pressure to produce sons in order to survive as a son would ensure a mother’s survival in old age or in widowhood, and would ensure that she is not abandoned or divorced by her husband. As wives, women prefer sons as their first born children as it would mean high status in the family and high value in the eyes of her husband, making her husband less prone to search for other wives.
Daughters are more in danger of being abused and being neglected care as babies as they are seen as less valuable. If they do survive, their lives are often marred by hardship, being forced to marry as a teenager as parents view them as an economic liability, being forced out of school as culture views educating a girl as wasteful and being forced into harmful practices such as female genital mutilation. They also experience horrible crimes, including rape, honour killings and human trafficking.
Not only does son preference unfairly discriminate against women by denying them the basic right to life, it has devastating consequences for societies, skewing the ratio between men and women and creating masculinized societies. In such socially unstable societies, men are unable to marry, resulting in frustration and the halting of establishing a family. There is also an increase in violent crime, prostitution and trafficking, and greater constraints on the movement of women.
There is light that this cultural trend is shifting; however, it is not due to cultural norms changing but rather through laws being enforced to protect the rights of women. In South Korea, laws that favoured sons over daughters were overhauled, resulting in women receiving full rights to inheritances and heading the family. Prenatal sex testing was banned, and a pension system was established so that neither sons nor daughters were fully responsible for the care of the elderly. This resulted in the correcting of male/female ratios, and overall, an enforcement of the value of female life.
Only a belief system in society that female life is valuable and should be protected will result in the eradication of son preference and its negative effects.
CAT CALLING (STREET HARASSMENT)
Sometimes I cringe when I think about walking to the nearby store either by myself or with a friend as I know that there will be at least one guy who will whistle at me, saying “hello sweety” in the creepiest tone or honk his car as I walk.
I’ve learned to ignore unsolicited whistles and greetings from men that I don’t know. And I’ve mastered the art of aggressively brisk-walking when a street harasser tries to ‘charm me into getting my numbers’ or starts to get offended at my lack of attention to him.
The worse thing I have encountered thus far is carefully considering what I wear for fear that it will attract unwanted attention. I will pair a skirt with leggings to cover up or I will wear a scarf over my v-neck top. I would be happy to go unnoticed while walking, until some bastard leans out of his car while driving slowly, asking me jump into the passenger seat as I look like I need a ride.
At the heart of street harassment are the social beliefs that harassers have about women. Studies found that most harassers use abuse to affirm their power when they feel threatened by a woman who they deem to be more powerful than themselves in a social space. Others use abuse because they view women as lesser than themselves, therefore believing that they have the right to do to women as they please.
It is unfortunate that street harassment is a global phenomenon, with over 90% of women across the world saying that they have experienced harassment.
Once again, using the law has been one of the main methods used to curb this scourge against women, as in the case with the British county of Nottinghamshire, Portugal and Belgium, where street harassment is now a crime. The average sentence for the crime is either a considerable fine or imprisonment for a year.
Culture is a phenomenon that is constructed by humans, therefore it can easily be deconstructed and changed to ensure that all humans live freely. Let us work together as people to ensure the rights and proper treatment of all.
*cover image from AfricalandPost.