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My King and I

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Mrs Nyasulu is a single mother , working in Lilongwe. Through selling telephone credit she put her son through university. The low in take rates of UNIMA meant that her son didnt now secure a place. Photo by Trevor Chikakheni (c)

We look for balance in our lives everyday. Most of the decisions we make will have us consciously or subconsciously make a decision with the aim of finding the right balance. Do we increase the interest rates to now encourage savings and curb the inflation? Or should I work or watch netflix? That might depend on whether I have put in too many hours at work already and really need some down time. It’s all a balancing act. Every day in pursuit of that sweet spot! Have you found the right balance?

I have been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit this year. What I love about travelling is meeting new people and especially realising that what you believed to be the truth is not necessarily universal. This of-course presents some challenges but there is a richness that a diversity of ideas brings to the table. This year I have also had the fortunate pleasure of being part of a group that works to address an imbalance – specifically gender disparities in Malawi. EmGender  is an organisation that works in the area of advocacy to raise issues on gender disparity and through its blog brings to light the everyday day struggles women face due to an imbalance in power dynamics. Their work highlights challenges that are a plight for women in Malawi but am sure a burden borne by women worldwide. EmGender’s work also speaks into a space that so many African women wrestle with – take for instance the blog by tendayigrowsthings  titled “A successful woman is her own man” which examines this imbalance of expectations and the rigidity in the role assigned to the sexes based on society’s gender mapping. I too have documented extensively in my blog, adevelopinghuman, of my experience of working and living in patriarchal societies.  Challenging this as a status-quo is a value I hold very dear to my heart.

Before this year, I had a very narrow view of the divergent challenges that are present in a patriarchal society. I always thought the challenges were because of hierarchy placed between sexes. With abuse of power and institutional biases seeing the woman undervalued in the workplace and in the household . I am now  asking whether the cultural practices as we know them now, if not abused,  would actually serve a purpose? Also, and more importantly, to what degree women have a part to play in reinforcing  the imbalances that place women at a disadvantage.

I use Malawi and Nigeria to explore the benefits which can be seen when gender roles are defined by culture but also explore how these very practices when abused (by men and women equally) mainly serve to undermine women.

Malawi

In Malawi (specifically amongst the northern ethnic group called the Tumbuka), when a bride/wife is referring to her husband she says Mfumu wane which translates into “My King” with the marriage taking a pseudo-monarchy structure. Such that, for example, when the couple attend engagement parties, family gatherings, funerals etc, this can be observed  when the woman will tend to the needs of her husband making sure he has food brought to him,  has a comfortable place to sit/sleep etc.  I would go so far as to say that in this setting, her primary responsibility is her husband and not her male relatives. He is her king!

This also plays out in how the couple makes decisions, what the couple have decided is the final decision. My husband and I have decided   pretty much brings the issue at hand to a close. The “monarchy” brings about an expectation of sovereignty.

Additionally, how the husband or wife interacts with his/her in-laws is also very much governed by this understanding with one spouse playing the role of mediator between their spouse and  their family. On account of the emphasis the northern culture places on the sovereignty of a couple, the relationship between in-laws is often times very distant.  My mum once explained to me that because of the fragility of the in-law relationship it is by design that communication is kept distant to avoid conflict and that any maturity in said relationship is kept organic.

What could go wrong? This reads like a foolproof plan, in place to protect the sanctity the marriage, or is it?

What is evident here is the absence of the queen and the undefined role of the King. When referring to the queen, she is mfumu kazi – Female king.  The language has not been extended to have a word for a queen. She is a mere derivative of her husband. Her role is very clearly defined but if you drill down to the details her function is to ensure that her king is supported. The lack of acknowledgement in the vocabulary and the stiff enforcement by society that she adheres to her role often sees the value of the woman undermined.

This asymmetry can also be seen in how loosely defined the mfumu’s duties are. Aside from the provision of funds it’s a struggle to think of what is expected of the King.  What else should society expect from the king? I would argue   that the lack of clear  , more defined exception of what is expected from the King leads to men not being held accountable for anything other than provision of a pay-check. Is having just the one indicator for success a true measure of their worth?

Nigeria

I recently went to Nigeria  and got to meet a lot of my in-laws. In the west-African heat , wrapped in fine cotton traditional garments I became acquainted with the reality of “Our Wife”.

I had previously stumbled on this concept when we had just gotten married and we went to visit my husband’s uncles. They would give me some money and mentioned that I was “their wife”, its a tradition amongst their clan as a “welcome to the family”. I felt really welcomed and loved. My in-laws talked to me freely and celebrated my marriage very openly. This was a stark contrast to the relationship my husband had with my family, as newlyweds my mum kept her distance for reasons mentioned earlier. There have been times, I wish we could speed-up “the getting to know you process” but I respect her position and this is a practice that is familiar to me.

So at this recent family gathering, everyone called me “our wife”. I walked in blindly unaware of what this meant in this cultural context. It came with its demands and the most obvious contrast with my culture was that instead of me being a queen to my husband , It felt like I was accountable to all my in -laws. I was everyone’s wife! On one hand I am able to talk freely with everyone but it also carries with it the burden of serving too many masters.

As a new member of the family I can call on any of my husband’s family but on the other hand there are issues that I am only really comfortable discussing with my husband alone. How does one find the balance? Unlike the Malawian culture, here the tension comes when as a new member one feels overwhelmed and unprepared. How do you strike a balance between being respectful (we all want to get along, right?) and communicating a position that is in opposition to the “norm”

What do women want?

In both Malawi and Nigeria I have observed that  women play a part in reinforcing these gender roles in the family. It is often the case in Malawi where women will sit down with a young bride to tell her of her role to meet the demands of her “King”. Independence can sometimes be seen as a defiance of culture with women the first to point out how being different will not get you married – see Emgender blogs* – Women can sometimes be made to feel like it is a privilege that their “King” picked them for marriage , a by-product is the lack of acknowledgement of love-less or hurtful marriages. After-all he is a good provider.

Equally, during my short experience in Nigeria, I met with female allies who treated me like family but just as strongly there was a push from some for me to carry out my  gender roles and at times go above and beyond what I found to be stretching.

Living cross-culturally

As a cross cultural couple, my husband and I are constantly working to find our sweet spot and often realise that not only is this a moving target but the tensions to adhere to our roles is compounded .We have often reverted to doing what is right for us and trying to strike a balance between what we need as a couple and how we can still interact with our cultures in a truthful way. A pressing question for us is how do we do this respectfully? Respect our union and also those around? When we have children, how will we raise our daughter to value herself for who she is and not what her multi-culture heritage defines her worth? As for our son, how can we raise him to treat women as the queens that we are?

Either as his invisible queen or as she negotiates the pressure of being “their wife”, her role is pivotal in acting as a change agent or a reinforce(r) of practices that can sometimes undermine her value.

I strongly believe that cultural practices were and still can provide a framework and guide to navigate through the myriad of expectations. I also believe when we were all of the same ethnic group, with limited migration (pre-visas) and the gender roles were rigid (hunters , gathers and child bearers) then cutting across gender lines served a function and arguably was needed for survival. With the complexity of the world today , migration of people , the evolving role of women and as a consequence the changing demands placed on the man can we still afford to say “Its our culture and that’s how we have always done it”?

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