Women today are kept from knowing their sexuality for the same reason Black people were prohibited from reading during slavery – God forbid they ever discover how powerful they are! Many customs have been woven into cultures, traditions and religions in Africa and across the world which work to suppress a woman’s sexuality – female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and non-consensual sex in marriages et cetera. These outdated customs consign women into subservient roles in society and prevent them from owning their sexuality. Moreover, religion and culture being the major custodians of morality across the continent, its agents and institutions tend to perpetuate the shaming and ridicule of women who dare to challenge the status quo.
Why are women who do not conform to the dictates of society considered rebels and lacking in virtue? Why can’t they be embraced as extensions of our diverse human race?
Women’s sexuality on the continent became overtly suppressed over the last two to three centuries (read: since the beginning of the scramble for Africa). Before then, although still suppressed, sexuality was an acknowledged part of African culture. For example, in the 1800s through to the early 1900s Basotho women held gatherings called pitiki where they would exchange expertise, ideas and advice on how to better express their sexualities.
Today, this practice has been largely overridden by religion except perhaps in the rural areas. Everywhere else, Christianity has been woven into the framework and its influence is not hard to see. Thanks to the ‘Eve’ story and other female archetypes in the bible which project women as weak and prone to sin, a woman’s sexuality is primarily referenced in the context of seduction with malicious intentions and therefore condemned. Furthermore, because most modern religions tend to be patriarchal women are literally treated as possessions and those that resist are reprimanded or forsaken.
If we as Africans claim to be more ‘civilised’ than our predecessors we must unlearn negative and demeaning attitudes such as shaming women who dare to speak explicitly and publicly about their sexuality. It is our responsibility to unearth the secrets hidden in our old traditions, uphold their merits and to modify the flawed aspects.
“Know yourself!” These words resonate with women all over – religious and non-religious, traditionalists and liberals alike. They reach into the depths of what makes us women and ask us what feeds our fears and what makes us feel attuned to our femininity? Sexuality is not simply a matter of sexual intercourse in its various forms. No! It is a spiritual affair between us and our bodies. It distinguishes us from the next person and familiarises our mind and soul with our anatomy.
It therefore makes no sense to me that there are girls forced into marriages as child brides before they even have a clear sense of who they are and what they are comfortable with. Women are condemned for lubricating during sex because their wetness stands in violation of their sexual appeal to their partners who prefer dryness. In far too many places women cannot dress as they please because they are habituated to attribute self-worth to being covered and hidden from the world. I have nothing against piety but I have a problem with women basing their self-image on a set of patriarchal ideals set by religious and cultural fundamentalists.
Why does the perception persist that should a woman own her independence she will become unruly? Is the world aware of the unexplored potential and dreams left in ruins because of this idea? How many women today are alive but barely living because they can’t fully express themselves? Perhaps as a society we hold on to certain damaging customs not because they are crucial to our wellbeing but because we are comfortable with what we are familiar with and change is not always the easiest thing to embrace.
To disrupt the status quo women need to have a say in the institutions – educational, religious and familial – that are at the forefront of conditioning behaviour. Men also need to get involved as allies who can reach those men who persist in seeing women as the lesser species.
It is beautiful that Africa consists of mainly conservative societies because our reserve has kept our heterogeneous beauty and uniqueness intact. However, issues such as promiscuity, unplanned pregnancies, slut-shaming, flight-brides, can be contained and even resolved, if women are taught and allowed to embrace their sexuality openly instead of being disgraced and repressed by the very structures meant to protect and nurture them.