Wallace G. Mills Hist. 316 14 Status of Women

The Status of Women

- this has been and continues to be an area of controversy and a good deal of misunderstanding.

- the missionaries were especially responsible for much of the misunderstanding and distortion; however, feminists not infrequently have difficulty reconciling aspects of African customs with their views of what the relations between the sexes should be.

- the traditional missionary view was that women were little better than slaves or chattels who were bought and sold for cattle. They were sold by fathers or brothers, often to the highest bidder.

- for the buyers, women were a source of profit (because a woman worked hard as an agricultural labourer as well as domestic drudge) and sensual pleasure (especially when she was married to an old, rich man).

- by the end of the 19th C, many missionaries had learned that these evaluations were simplistic and even mistaken in many aspects. Yet other missionaries, especially among Christian fundamentalists who began to send missionaries to Africa about that time, continued to express the same views. In the 1950s when I was growing up, missionaries in my family’s church (Pentecostal) were still repeating the same theme—women were being bought and sold for cattle.

Three aspects were especially focused on by the missionaries:

(1) Division of labour between the sexes was very rigid; this assigned most of the work in agriculture to women on top of demanding domestic duties—getting water, getting wood, cooking, looking after children, etc. Women indeed worked very hard.

- men’s tasks included looking after cattle (boys and young men normally did this), hunting (this disappeared as white hunters depleted game) and judicial/political matters. The most onerous recurring tasks (milking) took only a period early in the morning and in the evening, leaving little to do during the middle of the day. Missionaries regarded this as very unequal and inequitable.

(2) African marriage—especially polygyny and lobola which were both almost universal in Africa.

(a) Polygyny—a male with more than 1 wife. Polygyny was a great source of horror/fascination for many missionaries. It was not as widespread as might be supposed. Most men had at most, 1 wife; the requirement to make the large transfer of wealth in lobola meant that it was difficult for many men to have 1 wife let alone more than 1.

- of the minority who did have more than 1, most had only 2; the usual way that this came about was that later in life, often at the instigation and with the assistance of the 1st wife (she might contribute some of the cattle of her house), a man might marry a 2nd wife. The 1st wife wanted the assistance of a young, second wife.

- only a very tiny minority had more than 2 wives. Normally, these would be acquired as he got older. This was in fact one of the factors that roused the ire of the missionaries—i.e., old men marrying very young girls (15 or 16 years old).

(b) Lobola or bridewealth—a transfer of wealth from the bridegroom and/or his family to the family of the bride. In much of southern, central and eastern Africa, lobola was calculated in cattle (even if payment was made in some other medium—e.g., after the introduction of money, it might be used). The norm was 6-10 cattle. However, in other societies, payment would be made in other items. For example, iron spear heads or other scarce items might be used.

- note that the flow of wealth was in the opposite direction from dowry in most other cultures; this is significant because daughters are an economic asset rather than a liability as happens elsewhere! We shall return to discuss the nature of lobola after we talk about marriage types and formalities.

(3) Female circumcision—there is some variation in the practice from clitoridectomy to more radical removal of external, female genitalia. It was not practiced everywhere in Africa. We shall return to discuss this later.

African Marriage

- please note that marriage in African societies was a linking of 2 families, not simply a linking of 2 individuals. Marriage was not approached with romantic notions; personal affection between the individuals was not the prime consideration in arranging a marriage. Although it was almost universal practice that after initiation young people would begin to ‘sweetheart’, this was not usually part of a courtship for marriage. Most marriages were arranged by the families.

- the approach to marriage was very practical. What was looked for in a woman was good health and strength, a good disposition (would she fit in well with the husband’s family) and would she be likely to produce good, healthy children. In choosing a husband for their daughter, the family was concerned about the reputation and wealth of the man and of his family. Were they likely to treat her well and provide for her and her children?

- in most societies, the search and arrangements for a husband would begin only after a girl had reached puberty and been initiated. However, in some societies it could begin when she was still a little girl; an engagement would be entered. Over the years, the future husband would come for periodic visits (during which he might bring installments on the lobola) and the girl might visit her future in-laws. However, the actual marriage would not take place until after puberty and initiation was completed.

- there were different ways for marriages to be initiated. Not all options were necessarily available in every society. The descriptions below are based especially on practices in South Africa.

(1) Regular—this might also be considered the ideal. It was a protracted process.

- a normal marriage involved research into the prospective family & individuals. There had to be an extensive search for impediments (incest constraints meant that there would have to be checks to determine if there were relationships which would prohibit a marriage).

- negotiations would be initiated in a round about way, often via 3rd parties. There would be visits back and forth, gifts, and hospitality; it could take months. Either family could initiate the process.

What role did the prospective groom and bride have in arranging a marriage?

Groom—unless he were an older, established man (and certainly it was case for young men) negotiations and decisions were in the hands of elders in the family. Young men were expected to go along with whatever arrangements were made (few young men would have the resources to arrange a marriage for themselves so the assistance of the family was essential).

- however, there were constraints on the family: If the young man was unhappy with his wife and failed to treat her properly, she could return to her family, and all or much of the lobola would be forfeited. Thus, families would not normally try to force a man to marry a woman he disliked. Also, in practice, they might even ask him for his preference, and if they could not find a strong reason to oppose that choice, they might try to arrange it.

Bride—young girls were even more expected to be obedient to their fathers and families and had even less say than young men. In fact, very strong pressure might be brought to bear on a woman to do what was arranged for her; this might even include beatings.

- there were constraints here too:

- the issue of coercion is complex: girls were not supposed to be happy to leave their parents and were expected to display grief (often having to be dragged from home to the groom’s homestead—this provided grist for missionaries’ criticisms that African girls were being sold like slaves and were dragged crying and screaming to their new masters!).

- however, there were examples where girls did run away to missionaries pleading to be saved from unwanted marriages, so there were certainly elements of coercion.

- nevertheless, many authorities claim that if a girl were absolutely opposed to a marriage and was determined enough, she could in fact usually avoid it.

(2) Elopement/abduction

- there were shortcuts which cut out many of the preliminaries. Elopement would take place when the girl went with her prospective husband to his family’s homestead. Immediately, emissaries would be sent to initiate negotiations. Once things had been precipitated in this way, it would give great offense to refuse such a marriage and it would not be refused unless there were very serious objections. Once an agreement was reached, the girl would return home, but the marriage ceremonies and the girl’s move to the groom’s family homestead would be completed relatively quickly. This was one way that young people could force the hands of their elders.

- in abduction, the groom and some of his friends/family members would abduct the girl and take her to his family’s homestead. Often the ‘abduction’ would be arranged with the assistance of the girl’s father (it would reduce expenses). As above, only very serious objections would allow either family to refuse to carry out the marriage.

(3) ‘Sadie Hawkins’ solution

- marriage was the highest status for any woman, but what about women who never received any offers? This was a means for such women who wanted to be married to force it.

- she would go outside of a rich man’s homestead and sit down; when asked what she wanted, she would refuse to speak. Eventually, the members of the household would understand what she wanted and invite her in. It was difficult for a rich man to refuse as everyone would regard it as mean and stingy. Arrangements would follow the pattern above, except that the lobola was less.

- the husband need never have too much to do with her. If she had lovers, the children would be regarded as his anyway.


- this made it possible for every woman, or least every woman who wanted it, to attain the status of wife (uMfana). Although boy babies exceed girl babies in gestation (almost 55% and about 52% of live births), until recently in western societies higher mortality among boys soon turned that into a majority for girls. In traditional societies where infant mortality is high, the ratio between the sexes is affected quickly and sharply. This higher mortality continued throughout most of life (except during a woman’s child-bearing years). By the time the age of marriage was reached, there was an significant excess of females. The disparity between the sexes was further increased because there was usually a substantial difference between the age of marriage for men and for women (25 years and older men were marrying 16 year old women; i. e., the male cohort had a number of additional years of mortality than the female cohort they were marrying).

- monogamy would not allow all women to attain marriage.

[ Compare this situation with Europe in the 19th C. In Catholic countries in Europe, religious orders provided an alternative for women to attain alternative, respectable status; however, in Protestant countries, there were virtually no alternatives for middle and upper class women. The lot of women who remained spinsters was often not a very happy one; they were often ridiculed and forced to live as dependents on relatives. Unlike Europe, polygyny allowed all women the opportunity to attain the highest status open to them—marriage.]

- most women would prefer to be a ‘great wife’ (i.e., the first married and the highest status), but there were advantages to polygyny. When there was more than 1 wife, there was more sharing of burdens and responsibilities. The advantages of a division of labour could be realised. Being part of a large, polygynous household provided more security plus it was only possible for wealthy men (i.e., even if a wealthy man’s resources had to be shared by more than one wife, each wife might well end up with more than if she were the only wife of a poor man). Finally, there’s an old expression from Europe that applies to Africa as well. “Better to be an old man’s darling than a young man’s slave.”

- of course, personal relations become more tricky in a large polygynous family; there are so many more people who have to get along with each other.

- the advantages of polygyny are most obvious in a subsistence economy. Every woman was an important producer and a polygynous family thus had greater resources and security. Also, children begin to contribute economically relatively early.

- however, in a consumer, cash economy with rising standards of living to be maintained, with greatly increased educational requirements for children (i.e., their period of dependence and not contributing being greatly increased) and with more depending upon the male head of family earning an income, polygyny quickly becomes counter-productive and impossible for most. Moreover, wives feel more competition with other wives to get the husband’s resources for themselves and their children. In other words, a woman perceives few if any advantages for her husband to acquire more wives and lots of disadvantages; thus, they are much more likely to favour and demand monogamy.

- one other factor should be mentioned, although whether or not an effect of polygyny is uncertain. The spacing of children was widespread; it was regarded as a disgrace (for the husband, not the wife) if a woman became pregnant while still nursing a child and the common practice was to breast-feed children for about 2 years. Thus, births were usually spaced about 2.5—3 years apart. This was regarded as necessary to provide the best health and prospects of survival for both mother and child.

- some missionaries claimed this was ‘inefficient’ as Africans with 2 or 3 wives often did not have as many children as men in Europe had with only one!

Divorce and end of marriage options

- what we would call divorce involved a woman leaving her husband’s home. Lobola payments meant that disentangling the economic ties between the families became very complex and difficult after several years.

- if a woman were very young and married only a short time, then a 2nd marriage might be arranged for her. However, for other women the likelihood of remarriage was low.

- normally, a woman would return to live with her family, but she might also become an idiKhazi; such women took lovers, but the lovers had no responsibility for her or for her children (the lovers would probably make presents). Such single parent women were much freer than young wives who had many constraints and taboos to observe for many years. There was not a great deal of negative stigma attached to such women (no scarlet letter) and her children would certainly not be stigmatised, unlike western societies until recently. The children of such women were considered part of the woman’s family.

- in patrilineal societies, which were probably the majority, children born while married were considered to belong to the husband’s family (in this case, few or no cattle would be returned). If the children were young when the marriage ended, they would normally go with the mother, but when they grew up, the men would usually return to the father’s family (that is where their right of inheritance was). A daughter might not return to live with the father, but the father would likely insist on being involved in her marriage and would receive most of the lobola cattle.

- on the death of a husband, a woman had several options:

  1. in some societies,the levirate was practiced and the widow would remain with the husband’s family; i.e., a brother would take the widow as his wife, although any children born would be considered children of the dead husband. In societies where the levirate was not practiced (none of the peoples in South Africa practiced it), the widow could remain with the dead husband’s family (unless they didn’t want her). She could take a lover(s), who could be a brother but not necessarily; again, any children born would be considered children of the dead husband.

  2. She could return to her family.

  3. She could stay with a son, especially if he had established his own homestead.

- on the death of a wife, much depended upon whether or not there were children. If there were, then no lobola was repaid; if there were not and she was still young, then the husband could demand return of lobola or ask for a second wife (frequently a sister of the deceased wife).


- this was not a purchase or sale; women were not chattels;

- women controlled the results of their labour; they were expected to contribute to the husband and to the household and there were strong social pressures to be generous, but her produce could not be taken from her. Similarly, cattle belonging to her house could not be disposed of without her permission. Thus, they had some elements of independence and standing.

- lobola was what legitimised a marriage both in law (“Was lobola paid?”) and in attitudes. Missionaries who tried to abolish it found that men who did not pay lobola might not really consider themselves married and were more likely to abandon the woman.

- lobola also provided a religious sanction; cattle were a special means of communicating with the ancestors and cattle sacrifices were the most efficacious means to please and mollify them. Thus, for those societies where cattle had great ritual importance, lobola in cattle provided a religious legitimisation.

- for women, lobola gave a feeling of value and worth.

- in ideal circumstances, lobola should be paid at the beginning of the marriage, but it very often was not. It frequently was paid in installments—1 or 2 at the beginning, another 1 or 2 at the birth of a child, etc. It might not be completed until lobola was received for the eldest daughter. This involved a good deal of persistence (and even hounding) on the part of the woman’s family.

- alternately, a man might borrow from his relatives (uncles etc.) and then repay over time or with lobola from a daughter.

Explanations and rationale:

  1. Insurance aspects

    - bridewealth could be seen as a good behaviour bond which was forfeited if the husband treated her badly.

    - a woman could demand assistance from those who had benefited from the lobola (fathers, brothers, etc.). Most families would help anyway, but this claim was enforceable in the chief’s court.

    - also, as many Africans defended it, ability to pay lobola demonstrated that the man and his family were people of substance and able to provide for their daughter or sister.

  2. Exclusive sexual rights

    - lobola did imply this, but it was frequently evaded. It was not uncommon for wives to have lovers and often the husband’s mother might help to conceal it (this is where female solidarity was invoked).

    - of course, there was a double standard as there were no restrictions on men.

    - a man who caught his wife in adultery might get away with beating her (almost the only case), although he could not injure her; his main recourse was to sue the lover. In fact, some men even encouraged their wives, pointing out candidates in order to charge the lovers and get cattle.

    - adultery was not a cause of divorce as children were the husband’s regardless of who the biological father was.

  3. Right to the labour of the woman or compensation for the loss of her labour

    - this explanation has been given by some anthropologists and was the explanation most often given by Africans themselves.

    - just as a woman was becoming an adult and thus a full-fledged producer, she was married and went off to join her husband’s family; therefore, lobola was compensation for the loss of her labour and her contributions.

    - or as Africans often expressed it, it was compensation for all the trouble and expense of raising the woman. The husband’s family were getting the benefits without having incurred the costs.

  4. Child-bearing capacity

    - this is the explanation favoured by most anthropologists.

    - in view of the importance of children and the strong desire to perpetuate the family by providing new members, a woman’s child-bearing capacity was very valuable and highly prized. Lobola was compensation to the bride’s family for the loss of her child-bearing, reproductive capacity; it was important also in that it provided a means to secure a replacement for her.

    - it is supported by a couple of other facts. If there were children, lobola was not returned either when a wife died or there was a divorce. The children belonged to the husband and his family and were considered ample return for lobola. Also, if a woman failed to produce a child, the husband’s family could demand a return of the lobola or that a replacement wife (often a sister) be sent.

  5. Glue for African marriage

    - this was also an important function. Payment of lobola gave both families a stake in the marriage and its success. Breakdowns and divorce created endless tangles and difficulties, tracing cows over several years, plus their increase or death, etc. These were the most complex and difficult court cases to resolve.

    - thus family members on both sides would have an interest in maintaining the marriage; the husband’s family would work to control his behaviour and treatment of the wife; the wife’s family would try to persuade her to stay or to return if they thought she was frivolous and likely to be blamed for a breakdown.

    - this was an aspect that the missionaries were ultimately forced to recognise; men who had not paid lobola often did not regard their obligations as seriously and were more likely to desert; by the end of the 19th C, many missionaries were having 2nd thoughts about trying to abolish lobola.

  6. An incentive to preserve a girl’s virginity

    - in many societies (especially patrilineal ones) girls were supposed to remain virgins until marriage. An unmarried girl who was no longer a virgin or who became pregnant was disgraced; at the very least she would command a much lower lobola and might be unmarriageable. Thus, mothers in many societies inspected their marriage aged daughters regularly and kept a close eye on them. Some missionaries came to regret the disappearance of this practice as pregnancies among unmarried girls in Christian families began to mount.

    - it should be noted that ‘fault’ where a unmarried girl became pregnant did not rest primarily with the girl. The man (and his family) was held to have the primary responsibility for seduction and the girl’s family could sue for a payment of cattle that was almost equal to lobola.

  7. Marxist and/or feminist explanation

    - this is not too different from the missionary views. Some Marxists have tended to interpret lobola as a mechanism of pre-capitalist exploitation. They have argued that, given the great disparities of wealth, lobola enabled a small number of men to maintain a disproportionate dominance and control of both the productive and reproductive capabilities of women; others have said that it limited the access of poorer, young men to wives.

    - also, the introduction of a market economy is said to have altered both the context and the inherent character of lobola. The substitution of cash as the primary means of exchange has affected lobola by making it increasingly a cash transaction. Even if this does not necessarily mean that the transaction is any more a ‘sale’ than when concluded in cattle, it is said to make it more mercenary. Certainly, the religious dimension is completely lost.

- on the other hand, a market economy did provide alternate means for young men to gain lobola themselves—i.e., going off to work for wages; this gave young people greater freedom from subordination to elders. This can be seen as either positive or negative.

- however, frequently, in order to marry earlier, young men borrow the money; this means that the young couple start their marriage with a heavy mortgage. When children come and have to be provided with higher levels of consumption and provided for in order to receive an education, that burden becomes even more onerous. As more Africans have become assimilated into the market economy, this has increasingly become a focus of concern and criticism.

- lobola is still widespread; however, perhaps especially now that white domination has been lifted, it is a matter of debate among Africans. [In 1992 when I was in South Africa, I stumbled on to the tail-end of a television discussion of the subject by about half a dozen, young, educated Africans. I didn’t hear much of the argument except that there had been a significant range of opinions.]

- a full appreciation of the custom requires knowledge of the fact that the family of the bride often had heavy obligations too. A young bride was expected to go to her new husband fully equipped with blankets, cooking utensils etc. Also, if these got broken or worn out, she was expected to return home to get replacements; this requirement would last for much of her married life. Also, better off families would often send one or two cattle with their daughter to help establish her ‘house’. This requirement for a ‘trousseau’ has continued to this day, but with much more extensive requirements in a consumer society, the family may well spend more on the ‘trousseau’ than they receive in lobola. In fact, this was one defense of lobola that I came across in my research—that lobola was necessary to offset the high costs of a ‘trousseau’ that fell on a woman’s father and brothers.

- finally, it should also be noted that women were and are among the staunchest defenders of lobola.

The Status of Women in African Society—summary

- this is a complex task and one should avoid dogmatism. Inevitably, evaluations are going to involve comparisons; in doing so, one should avoid the errors of socio-cultural biases and prejudices.

- also, ‘different’ does not mean ‘worse’. Finally, one should avoid comparing apples and oranges.

Legal Status

. - women always had the legal status of a minor; some male (father, husband, brother, etc.) was held responsible and any charges had to be answered by her legal guardian. The exception was a charge of witchcraft.

- from a modern, feminist perspective, this is not satisfactory, but if you compare it to 19th C Europe, it was not inferior; women there definitely had 2nd class legal status also (married women couldn’t own property on their own and everything went to the husband who could do with it what he liked; women could not sit on juries and didn’t have the vote; if a woman left her husband, she would usually lose the children; their evidence had less weight than that of men, judges and all officials were men, etc.)

Political Status

- officially, they usually had none which was similar to Europe, but some women de facto exercised influence through males (husbands or sons) as did some women in Europe also.

- however, some great wives of chiefs did have power: some acted as regents until sons could become chiefs (more than one case in South Africa); if a chief were away when visitors arrived, his great wife would provide hospitality and would stand in until he could arrive;

- in the Swazi kingdom, the ‘Great She Elephant’ had very important judicial and political power as a counterweight to the king. Ruling queens or empresses were not unknown in Europe either.

Economic Status

- a woman had her own ‘house’ and therefore a distinct, separate economic existence; nor could the assets of her ‘house’ be disposed of without her consent. Alberti (a Dutch official at the Cape at the beginning of the 19th C) was surprised, almost shocked, because Xhosa men would not dispose of the ‘meanest trifle’ without consulting their wives first. Missionaries confirmed this; some of them expressed great disapproval at the degree of independence and influence exercised by African wives. This shows a bit of a contradiction in missionary evaluations. They claimed that women were slaves to the greed and lust of African men, but also claimed that they had too much independence.

- as we noted in regard to Dahomey, some women in West Africa with a developed market system were able to provide for themselves and their children as petty traders. Nor were women there involved in most of the agricultural labour.

- wives in England did not achieve the right to have an independent economic identity until the Married Women’s Property Act in the 1880s.

What about drudgery and ‘slavery’ of African women?

- here we have to avoid comparing apples and oranges; many missionaries were lower middle class and upper working class in Britain, but in Africa they always acquired servants and became de facto middle class. Comparing missionary wives and African women is not an entirely valid comparison.

- married life for African women was very rigorous and women were expected to work very hard; there were many irksome constraints socially on wives, especially in the early years of marriage.

- however, if we compare with working class women in Britain at the same time, the lot of African women compares quite well. In Britain, women often had to do the household chores (and the division of labour between the sexes was as rigid as in Africa) and as well work outside the house in factories, in domestic service, in the fields, etc. There were few protections for women and wife-battering was very common and accepted. In a debate about lobola in the 1890s, a 3rd generation missionary defending lobola argued that it should be introduced to Britain as a means of saving women there from much abuse. Another missionary complained about the poor husbands in Africa who had to kowtow to their wives or they would run home complaining of being treated badly and the poor husband had to go groveling with presents to his in-laws to get her to come back.

- in Africa, as we noted, it was considered a disgrace if a man got his wife pregnant before she had finished nursing a previous child. In Europe, it was common for a woman to have one pregnancy after another until she died, exhausted and worn out; this was especially true in the working classes (although in Britain in the early 19th C, even upper class women often had a large number of children).

- in regard to social and physical constraints, even middle and upper class women in Britain were closely hemmed in. Corsets, hooped skirts and bustles literally tied women up; social taboos prevented them from getting much exercise (this was a major focus of the female emancipation movement in the last 30 years of the 19th C—to gain freedom to ride bicycles, play tennis etc.); there were long confinements during pregnancies when women were supposed to withdraw from most social activities. Again, the situation for African women compares favourably.

Disparities of wealth and standards of living

- there were in fact very large differences of wealth in African societies; ownership of cattle was very unequal.

- nevertheless, differences in standards of living were small: a rich man, even the chief, slept in the same kind of hut, slept on a reed mat on the ground, ate the same food, wore the same clothes (some skins etc. were reserved for chiefs only, but this was more ceremonial than producing a different standard of living) etc. as poor ones.

- a rich man’s wife, even the chief’s, was expected to do the same tasks and work as a poor man’s.

- in a subsistence economy, there is little possibility of significant differentiation in living standards; the rich have more resources to help them through the lean times. Wealth gave greater status, greater security and more influence, but did not involve significant differences in standards of living. The value system added to this; rich people were supposed to share their wealth; this is what gave them influence. Anyone who was kin (and family relationships were maintained on a vastly broader scale than in our society) felt a right to request help if they needed it and society generally regarded it as an obligation of the part of the rich to provide it.

- wealth did provide influence and power; rich men were able to attract young, poor men as clients and followers. Wealth was also an important element of chiefly power.

Kinship ties

- this was a very important element of African societies. As noted earlier, kinship ties were maintained on a very broad scale; the main element of religion was based on the family. This was a major component of social welfare—kin could approach and expect other kin to share whatever they had. Generosity was held up as the most important social and moral quality.

- this means that African societies were very much group oriented rather than individualistic. As noted earlier, even in legal aspects there was much more emphasis upon collective responsibility.

- also, privacy of individuals such as we demand was virtually unknown in African societies. Certainly, the privacy of the nuclear family did not exist. There were advantages to this. Child abuse probably could not exist in this context. Parents of young children were usually not independent; the elders were there and well aware of everything that was happening. Children who were not getting along with their parents could get help and even live with grandmothers or other relatives. Grandmothers especially had great latitude in ‘spoiling’ their grandchildren.

- the profusion of kinship terms is another indication of the importance of kinship ties. (It is said that Inuit have many terms to describe and differentiate between different kinds of snow and ice because it’s important, even critical to their lives). In Africa, it is one of the early requirements of children that they learn the large number of kinship terms and be able to differentiate all the kinship relationships. For example, there are different terms for: father’s older brothers, father’s younger brothers, mother’s brothers; they are not all just ‘uncles’ as we would do.

Status and role of ‘wife’

- although this was held out as the highest and most valued role for a woman, it was not satisfactory for all women. Especially early in married life, there were many constraints:

- in fact, true payoff comes when a son inherits or sets up his own kraal; then, his mother becomes very important and her status and influence are very great.

Idikhazi (this is the Xhosa term)

- these are women who live outside marriage.

- most were women who had separated and divorced (unless a woman divorced very quickly and very young, her chances of remarriage were small).

- they take lovers, but beyond making ‘presents’ the men have no responsibility for (or rights to) the children; the women get land from their families.

- they have much more freedom (go to parties etc.) and do not have to satisfy a husband’s relatives in their behaviour.

- they trade status and security for greater freedom; while wives might envy and resent the idikhazi’s freedom and certainly resent a husband paying too much attention (and presents), idikhazi were not treated as pariahs, nor were their children.

- missionary attempts to abolish polygyny would result in many of the women being sent away (not usually done) probably becoming idikhazi; as some missionaries came to recognise, this would result in greater (in the missionary view) immorality than polygyny!

Female Circumcision

- some commentators object to the use of the term, ‘female circumcision,’ as being too euphemistic; they prefer the term, ‘female genital mutilation’. Indeed, the more radical procedures especially amply deserve that term. However, interpretation of the practice is not quite as simple as it is sometimes portrayed.

- the custom is not practiced universally in Africa. It is mostly restricted to Islamic peoples in Egypt and the peoples in and south of the Sahara. There are some non-Islamic peoples in east Africa (e.g., Kikuyu) and the sudanic regions who have also taken up a version of the practice. However, most authorities feel that the practice originated in pre-Islamic times because it is not a universal practice of Islam, although some religious fundamentalist leaders in Egypt have been opposing its abolition on religious grounds.

- missionaries often opposed all female initiation rites, even when there was no operation of any sort: they complained of too much explicit discussion of sexual matters, of dancing (and drinking) at feasts that was ‘lewd’ and provided encouragement of sexual activities, etc. This undiscriminating approach is not acceptable, and to the missionaries’ chagrin, the abandonment of the traditional approaches resulted often in increased rates of pregnancy outside marriage.

- from a health point of view, there is nothing to recommend the practice; indeed, the more radical procedures are demonstrably dangerous and debilitating. Many women are subjected to high rates of infection and constant pain for the rest of their lives.

- many feminists (and others too) depict it entirely as an act of subordination and subjection of women by men; however, it is more complex than this.

- its purpose, it is claimed by these critics, is to turn women into passive sexual partners by taking away the ability to respond (thus, making it less likely that they will take lovers); there are contradictory claims about the effects on orgasmic capabilities, although the more extreme versions would appear to make that so and even to make sex of any kind painful.

- however, it is not clear that it is men who are primarily responsible for perpetuating the custom in the present. Many knowledgeable observers point to the role of grandmothers—by insisting on the procedure for their granddaughters, but also by insisting that any brides for sons or grandsons must have had the procedure.

- while it is true that women frequently had a limited sphere in African societies, within those spheres they often exerted a great deal of influence; especially important is the influence of a mother on her son, even after he is adult and middle-aged. In many African societies, men will do very little without first consulting their mothers. Conversely, few men would do anything against the strongly held wishes of their mothers. In African societies, female circumcision is regarded as “a matter for the women.” Many modern, educated African women are often in a serious bind. They may not want to subject their daughters to a procedure which they know is so painful and so dangerous. On the other hand, the pressures from their mothers and mothers-in-law as well as the possibility that their daughters may not be marriageable is too much. Often the young girls too are convinced to want it as a sign of being grownup.

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