A few weeks ago I had the misfortune of witnessing a woman being viciously assaulted by a man; she had a three-month-old baby on her back and while she struggled to keep it from sliding off her back her assailant mercilessly rained blows on her.
He was apprehended by a policeman who happened to be nearby and the woman, whom I later discovered was a vendor, had to breastfeed the child to stop its piercing and heartrending cries.
The man had beaten her up because apparently he had told her it was time for her to pack up her wares and go home to prepare him a meal but she had remained there to sell her goods paying no heed to his demand.
What I found disturbing was that there were people there who did nothing to intervene, those who did try were interested only in grabbing the baby off her back so that the woman could be further assaulted with greater convenience.
I have no idea how the matter was later resolved, I only know that it is only in Africa were such a disgusting public display of barbarism would be tolerated and even condoned.
So recently when a young twenty-one year old mother appeared at my doorstep, bruised, battered and swollen after being attacked by her husband in the streets, in broad daylight, with no one coming to her aid; I was reminded again of why we became feminists.
I would love to rant and rave against the male sex, to blame it on the men and to say they are oppressing us but I blame every woman who had no legacy to pass on to their daughter except a legacy of platitudes.
Every woman who told her daughter that if her marriage failed it made her less of a woman because that impossible ideal is what has kept many women trapped in loveless marriages.
Every woman who shut the door against her abused daughter sending her back to her marital hell armed with nothing but a platitude that said ‘it’s part of marriage.’
Every mother who makes her daughter believe that she can’t be a whole human being if she isn’t a ‘Mrs Somebody’ forcing her to suffer in silence just to live up to that expectation.
So this woman stood at my door, tears in her eyes and told me a tale that is all too familiar, a pattern of abuse that has become like the theme song that accompanies the lives of many women (married or in relationships).
‘He beat me up for asking where he had slept. He kicked me because his shirt had lost a button. He choked me because I found him fondling someone else in our bed. He slapped me because he says I am his whore, that I belong to him and he owns me. He dragged me outside because he says he doesn’t want me anymore. He punched me because he says I disrespect him.’
And the litany goes on and on but what really angered me was that she had gone to her family, her aunts, consulted her relatives, sisters and other elderly women and neighbors desperately hoping she would find somebody who could advise her on what to do.
They told her that she should be patient, that marriage was like that – they all fed her a heap of platitudes.
In different words they all told her that what she was going through was ‘normal’ that her pain was nothing unique and that enduring that abuse would make her a better woman. They told her to celebrate her pain and to embrace her suffering for these are the credentials of a ‘real’ African woman.
This is the plight of many women whose pain is trivialized and buried under meaningless statements, that reinforce the stereotypical belief that women in Africa are the appendages of their men, properties of their husbands and have no autonomy whatsoever.
We were raised to understand that a man endures pain as an undeserved punishment; but a woman accepts it as a natural heritage; so we became feminists in order to reject the ‘natural heritage’ of pain.
African women are possibly the only exploited group in history to have been idealized into powerlessness; to have been taught to take pleasure in being hurt, tormented and degraded.
So many women have been unwittingly buried alive under platitudes afraid of going against the grain, of defying the status quo and standing up for their rights because they have deeply engrained the fallacious belief that they have no rights.
But that young woman has rights, she has human rights, if nothing else, because she is first and foremost human before she is female.
So where are those who would defend her? No where. They are all hiding behind the flimsy wall of platitudes forgetting what Robin Morgan once noted that, ‘women are not inherently passive or peaceful. We’re not inherently anything but human.’
Perhaps one day she will (like others before her) snap and retaliate in violence but I hope that when the day comes and I have daughter and she turns to me in her hour of need, I may be able to offer her more than mere platitudes.
Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less. – Susan B. Anthony