Conformity: culture’s invisible chains

Conformity is a virtue in African societies where adhering to socially prescribed forms of behavior comes as second nature to its peoples, especially women, who transfer these norms and values to their offspring.

For the greatest part, women keep the cultural edifice intact by ensuring that their sons and daughters internalize prescribed gender roles, abide by the norms of the societies they live in – most of them unquestioningly following the path set by their mothers, grandmothers and ancestry throughout the ages.

For African peoples, culture is the supreme authority governing how members of a society conduct themselves and what they ought to revere.

Culture is more than a social construct; it is a patriarchal product privileging men and often pushing African women to the margins as men govern them both in public and private life.

Yet the status quo largely goes unchallenged and women invariably model themselves against their predecessors; having internalized the deeply imbedded cultural values of subservience that inform their worldview, perceptions of self and notions of identity.

In a time of HIV, women’s vulnerability is exacerbated by their inability to confront and challenge social norms – norms that are so deeply ingrained in them that they have become second nature – such that breaking with them seems almost unnatural.

It is the idea of crossing the boundaries that they have been taught to live within that is daunting, regardless of their status, level of education, profession, social standing and other distinction; women revert to and assume gender roles they inculcated in their formative years.

The marital institution has been identified as a major site of women oppression as it is the space in which gender roles, social expectations and power relations between men and women play out.

Seeking to arrest the spread of HIV without interrogating the power dynamics that play out between men and women in relationships and as they interact in society as a whole would be an exercise in futility.

To quote from Gloria Steinem, “the first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn – but to unlearn.”

To examine the assumptions that have been taken for granted about the natural place of women as subordinates to their male counterparts requires us to acknowledge that our culture is neither perfect nor infallible – an admission that rigid traditionalists are reluctant to make.

This is because culture has for a long time, benefitted from the assumption that it is cast in stone, immutable and therefore sacrosanct.

We are persuaded that we have no option but to conform because any deviation from the norm would constitute a form of sacrilege.

Because we have come to regard culture as a set of never-changing mores, it seems unthinkable that we should seek to challenge these long held practices yet challenge them we must – if we are to stem the tide of HIV infection in sub-Saharan Africa.

SAfAIDS Executive Director, Lois Chingandu said there needed to be a balance in the way people approach and address cultural issues, appreciating what is beautiful and boldly confronting that which is harmful.

“If a culture starts to kill its own people then there is something wrong and we must not hesitate to challenge it,” she said.

But to challenge any aspect of a culture, to conclude that certain components of it are no longer helpful makes it easier for people to question everything they have long held as being altruistic.

Harnessing traditional leaders and patriarchal societies to engage in the process of re-shaping some cultural conventions will prove difficult as this would entail that every one of them examines the beliefs that have for years shaped, influenced and informed their perceptions of life.

The clarion call to “unlearn” deeply imbedded notions, to “unlearn” value systems that are ingrained within a society and to “unlearn” stereotypical gender roles assigned to men and women – is one that may find no takers among people who have been raised to view conformity as a virtue and to perceive deviance as a vice.

For what keeps the married abused woman from walking out of the door even when she has the means to fend for herself – is the invisible chain of conformity; she is trained from childbirth to believe that marriage defines her and that without it, she is diminished.

What makes the reluctant man marry his brother’s widow even when he is able to decline – is the invisible chain of conformity; he is trained from birth to understand that he must uphold the customs of his people and failure to do so, diminishes him as well.

So in changing the river’s flow, HIV programmers may find that they must confront deep-rooted beliefs of superiority, dominance and identity as culture permeates into the sexual interactions of communities because conformity could leave people chained to a status quo that spells imminent doom.


7 thoughts on “Conformity: culture’s invisible chains

  1. stash says:

    Thanks Delta. I like the concept of ‘unlearning’ certain ‘cultural’ aspects. Indeed, our consciences, minds and conformity are largely responsible for our oppression. A lot needs to be done with changing certain values, and I worry about what a mountain it is to change the way our old madalaz think. With this our new generation, you can already see a disregard for certain ‘values’ like selling the girl child off into marriage like livestock.You know, the little things that disempower women and render them into subjugation like that,


  2. Kucaca says:

    I think that the men and indeed society as a whole needs to unlearn a whole lot of baggage that we inherited from the past that does not make sense in the present context anymore.

  3. Mhlengi says:

    Opression of women is not part of any culture but an example of power being abused. It is the responsibility of a man to tenderly,lovingly,and caringly protect his lady much same way as the lady shd do the same for her husband. Christianity aside, there needs to be someone who is ultimately responsible for the family similar to an editor in a media house.Ther is nothing to unlearn but a lot to learn interms of fostering responsibility amoung men. Ladies also have their share to blame. Some marry abusive men expecting to change them, others provoke men of shoert tempers etc knwing they r weaker. An old man cant walk into a battlefield expecting some kind of respect from the warring soldiers. Finally because we are created differently women are better at talking hence many men who have been offended by women quietly find solutions while ladies offended by men scream the falsehood that men are dogs.

  4. I like this. My only problem is how does one unlearn something? I think the only real solution is not to learn certain things at all. But that would mean that parents and other agents of socialisation would need to change the curriculum that they provide their children/ ‘learners’.

    How do we do that?

  5. Fredrick Matsheza says:

    This whole issue of patriachy reminds me of The Lion and the Jewil, a play we studied in our ‘O’s, where a character called Lankule said, paying bride-price (lobola) is like buying a heifer off the market. I think, sometimes men feel they are entitled to certain things because they have paid some cash to get a wife, so when someone leaves his home to go and pay lobola, already a state of disequilibrium is created because it seems more like buying someone. I am not trying to justify any oppressive gender system because I know it comes tied with injustice, trouble and suffering. Is this the reason why we are having this doctrine of ‘single mummery’?

    As you said, ”For what keeps the married abused woman from walking out of the door even when she has the means to fend for herself – is the invisible chain of conformity; she is trained from childbirth to believe that marriage defines her and that without it, she is diminished.” I don’t think its a matter of trying to stick on only, but the idea of becoming a divorced single mum is very unappealing especially in a marriage which has produced children. I would like to believe children thrive better in a less-abusive environment, but the concept of family gets lost if every abused woman packs her bags and leave. That is not the solution. Much as the children need a nurturing conducive environment to grow up in, they also need a father figure at home. Since our culture is based also on respect, love, tolerance and patience I think what is needed is more education on the part of male counterparts, because even religion itself is patriachal which means men have the moral superiority to dominate issues in the family. The issue is that, this is not justified in a changing environment.

    On top of education, there should be laws which emancipate women. Here in SA couples can make ante-nuptial contracts before they get married. An ante-nuptial contract spells out the distribution of assets in case of divorce. One is never in doubt about her standing after the end of marriage. It must also mentioned that there are those educated rich women who abuse their husbands, so its not a one-sided thing. I think the idea that, ‘if you abuse me I walk out on you’ do not really work. In most Divorce Law cases I have read so far here in SA, the principle is ‘no fault’, courts do not look at who is at fault but at whether the marriage has irretrievably broken down to that extent that it can not be repaired again. If a self-supporting educated woman courageously decides to remain within the confines of marriage when she has a choice to leave, can we blame culture? Maybe it is because choices of women are limited, they are between a rock and a hard place. They are abused in marriage and out of it, especially when they decide to be single mothers. Maybe if one stays in marriage, her marriage has not broken down irretrieavably enough to call it quits.

  6. itsdelta says:

    Fuh…I think “unlearning” things is possible. Its what we call paradigm shifting. Fredrick – you have a point, the whole issue is complex and my thinking is that we must interrogate at every turn the condition of our societies by interrogating the conditions of our family structure.
    Thanks all for sharing your views and insights

  7. madubesbrainpot says:

    Hey Dee there is this call for articles on culture and human rights and I think you would nail it. Why don’t you give it a shot.

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