FIFTY SHADES OF AN AFRICAN WOMAN’S FIDELITY

I come from a remote village in South South Nigeria. I did not grow up in this suburban community like I had cousins and other family members do, however my father made sure that for the formative years of my life, long enough to when I was able to make my own decisions, I visited the village at least once a year. This may not qualify me as a village girl per say, nonetheless I think I have earned the right to talk about my community as a fragment of similar communities in Nigeria and Africa at large.

Whilst growing up, I have watched aunties leave their marriages deliberately and also involuntarily accounting for quite a number of funerals I have attended over the years but nothing struck me till I had a conversation with a family friend that changed my perspective significantly.

In African society, femininity is expressed through compliance, cooperation, obedience and submission while hegemonic masculinity legitimates the allocations and distribution of power by men over women. This is turn places the onus on women to prove their fidelity through traditional means of virginity testing, female genital cutting and other unaccepted methods society has created. On the other end of the spectrum, a man’s promiscuity is admired and rewarded and this is no different from my immediate society. I would not write this article if this sentiment was shared equally amongst both genders, if society also placed a similar responsibility on the man to stay faithful in his marriage. Gender bias still remains in Africa despite global commitments.

It is believed that a woman should stay faithful in her marriage despite the odds she faces with certain measures taken to ensure that it remains this way. One such measure is a belief system upheld by some families in my African society called “Ekpo Nka Owo” interpreted as the “ghost of infidelity”. To explain further, Ekpo Nka Owo is a monitoring spirit invoked through spiritual consultations and incantations, libation pouring and offering of certain sacrifices to ancestral spirits calling them to bear witness to the marital union between their “son” and a woman. Consequently, it is expected that such a woman should not have an illicit affair as this has dire consequences for her- either the woman dies mysteriously, or her husband will be ailed and will only be cured following her confession after she has been publicly disgraced. Most of the time, women married into such families are oblivious to this arrangement and may only find out when they have committed adultery. However, the ghost of infidelity has no effect on the female children born into these families except that they are given out in marriage to men whose family has invoked the ghost. Ultimately, the community remains silent in respect of the man who has committed adultery with the said woman.

It is widely believed that the evolution of African culture towards westernisation has somehow negated this cultural practice; nevertheless, fragments of this practice continue in the background and are still on-going in other communities and cultural spheres in Africa with gender inequity as its social currency. This article is my contribution to highlight the stark reality that besides the conventional gender norms and activities as earlier mentioned, there are “fifty shades” of different expectations of women and facets of gender biases upheld by communities against women that continue to allow gender inequality to thrive in Africa. I wish that by simply writing about this I could change things but the sexual oppression of women is deep-rooted therefore I advocate for the empowerment of civil society and human rights organisations to fearlessly report such cases and to also build community engagement and community stakeholder’s involvement in issues of women’s rights, health and wellbeing.

 

   

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