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Why Respectability Politics is Failing African Women and Girls

Rita Nketiah outlines the ways respectability politics constrains African women and girls from expressing the totality of their humanity

The politics of respectability is killing African women – perhaps not literally, but despite decades of feminist research, writing and activism (both on the continent and globally); despite claims that we now have equal opportunities to be whomever we choose, there are still deeply rooted patriarchal expectations that women should live in service of the ‘community’ in ways that are rarely applicable to boys and men. And it shows up in the most insidious ways.

It usually comes dressed as well-intentioned advice from elders, peers and strangers (also known as ‘aunties and uncles’). It is the gruff and puff when you wear something that is considered ‘a bit too revealing’. It is my parents being extremely proud of my accomplishments, but not-so-gently nudging me, indicating that it is time to find a husband and have children. While many of us have found ways to laugh at these cultural expectations, they are often our silent killer. Respectability politics kills dreams. It forces us to see ourselves not as free and autonomous beings, but always indebted to someone else, always prioritising the needs and expectations of someone else, always upholding the ‘dignity of the family’.

Respectability politics can be understood as a set of ideas, values and beliefs about how individuals from marginalised or minority groups should present themselves in order to be deemed respectable by the majority or powerful group. Speaking more broadly about Black women, Maisha Z. Johnson argues that respectability politics often culminates in the self-policing of “our appearance, speech and sexuality with pressure to be an upstanding Black woman – not the kind who makes the rest of us ‘look bad’.” Within this paradigm, Black women learn to adjust their behaviour “to avoid the racist, classist and sexist stereotypes other people might put us into”. While this self-policing is quite real, we must first interrogate the ways in which this politic is superimposed on us as women and girls. Below are four ways in which respectability politics continues to specifically hold African women and girls back.

“Boys will be boys”

This is a phrase that is commonly known to many African girls (and girls generally). The essentialist argument that Kofi can go out late at night, have plenty of girlfriends and even bring them home without apology because ‘boys will do whatever they will do’ is deeply problematic. This thinking not only stifles young girls from exploring the world and developing their own healthy experiences but it teaches young boys to be unaccountable at a young age.

If ‘boys will be boys’, what are the expectation and obligations of young girls? The narrative is often that boys and men are allowed (expected within the gender code, even) to have multiple partners, frequent sex and philandering ways while girls are, ironically, not supposed to engage in such acts. Not only is this narrative contradictory, it also creates a social environment in which women are not expected to understand nor express their sexual desires. I have many conversations with young African women who often are not aware of the things that give them pleasure. It is not a narrative that is available to young women – often reined in by religious and cultural demands. An African feminist world is one in which women own pleasure. They own their dreams and their adventures. And they own their right to be full, experimental human beings.

“You aren’t going to wear that, are you?”

Many African women and girls are expected to abide by strict clothing codes that often restrict creative expression. The respectability code is dangerous because it sets up a binary between the ‘good girl’ and the promiscuous girl. In my own family, my colourful and ‘radical’ hairstyles and unconventional body piercings position me as a bit of a rebel. I am often told that I should tone down; even something as innocuous as ankle bracelets have the connotation of being ‘risqué’. While these might seem like silly cultural issues, they have a huge impact on how young women and girls self-police in the world.

While I write from the Ghanaian diaspora context, there is plenty of evidence on the continent to demonstrate the ways in which women and girls police their public appearance so as not to attract unwanted attention or chastisement from random men. Many of these cultural dress codes stem from colonial policing, yet it is not uncommon for parents and community elders to position particular styles as ‘not a part of our culture(s)’. And while African ‘traditional wear’ has now become quite popular among young Africans, there was a time when even wearing African print on a casual Thursday would be frowned upon for not being professional or formal enough. Indeed, respectability politics is often anti-African, in that it requires of us a performance of a feminine code imposed on us by our (former) colonisers.

“You have done so well in school… But when will you marry?”

There are multiple African cultural worldviews: I believe that one of those views is the belief that we are here for procreation. Put another way, for many African communities, child-rearing is an important part of adult life, because children will ultimately provide for parents in their old age. Within this understanding, African women’s primary purpose in life is to raise the next generation of culturally aware children that understand the importance of African family values. Women become the bearers of culture in that they are expected to be both the primary caregivers and cultural teachers of children. While these may seem like modest goals on the surface, the challenge arises when there is an unwavering expectation for women to become mothers and wives.

I see two major issues with this idea: First, there are major assumptions about the function of children that often do not reflect what children desire for themselves. While it is nice (and necessary, even) to have support from children in one’s older years, I generally reject the ways in which we impose grand narratives on children. Secondly, despite the myriad family structures that have always existed in Africa, we assume that a nuclear two-parent household is the healthiest, the most respectable and the most productive. And yet we know the ways in which this heteronormative script enacts violence upon us regularly.

Another important challenge with this thinking is that often women feel societal pressure to start or maintain unhealthy relationships for the sake of bearing said children and giving them a father figure. I am not against marriage in its entirety. What I am against is the constant pressure for young women and girls to prioritise marriage as a life goal. You are not a failed woman if you have not married. You are also not a failed woman if you have left an abusive situation to prioritise your safety or general happiness. This narrative needs to be challenged in our communities.

“What a nice girl!”

Another important African worldview is one in which children are expected to be respectful, dutiful and in obedience to elders. All elders. This expectation is particularly foisted upon young girls and women at every age in relation to men. While I believe kindness and generosity are admirable characteristics in all people, I wholeheartedly reject this expectation of women to bend at the whim of men they do not know. I cannot count the amount of times I have been at a Ghanaian party or family function and am expected to serve elders as I attempt to sneak past them to the washroom. To be sure, I do believe that care and respect for elders is an important aspect of many African cultures. However, the sexist expectation for women to constantly be in service to and not challenge elders simply based on their combined age and gender is completely absurd to me. The demands that women be graceful, even-tempered and ‘nice’ are often employed to silence women’s (justified) rage. While there is much evidence to suggest that African women have historically been strong leaders, unapologetically free and challengers of patriarchal systems, there is still a narrative that women must pander to the desires, expectations and requests of men. To not do so positions you as a disrespectful, ill-behaved or difficult woman. Just looking at African women in public space (i.e. politics and government) suggests that there is still an unfair belief that women should ‘comport themselves’ – even in heated political debates!

A different world

Writing this article was not merely about letting off steam. I am committed to creating a different world for my nieces and nephews – a world in which being an African woman does not mean bending to African men. I am interested in an African feminist vision that moves us away from respectability politics for women and girls. I want us to feel liberated to be our full selves without the demands of ‘culture’ weighing heavily on us. My hope is that those reading this article will be compelled to create another world with me.

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