In this article, I agree with Nyanungo’s perspective by challenging cultural expectations and their sometimes contradictory actions; examining the imbalance between the disciplinarian and caring roles that cultural mothers have.
In the last issue of Buwa, Hleziphi Naomi Nyanungo wrote a poignant fictional dialogue between the older feminist movement and the younger generation which is coming up in the movement. This piece was relevant, not just for the feminist movement, but for females – young and old – in various spheres of life. The dialogue brought into question some cultural, parental and social dynamics which need to be addressed sooner rather than later. In this article, I agree with Nyanungo’s perspective by challenging cultural expectations and their sometimes contradictory actions; examining the imbalance between the disciplinarian and caring roles that cultural mothers have; and, by illustrating how this is not just an intergenerational issue, but also a social issue which females experience daily.
Great Cultural Expectations
The phrase “I am not your daughter” is something that a lot of females have thought when an older female decides to rebuke them about their behaviour, clothing or any other aspect of themself. And the thought follows the stern warning from the older female that “I am old enough to be your mother, hence why I am telling you x, y and z!” This warning is such a loaded statement, because culturally it is true. Older females are generally regarded as aunties and mothers in a lot of African communities. However, the way in which this cultural norm is translated in different situations sometimes leaves a younger female feeling ashamed, belittled and insulted.
Take for example a situation which I have seen often: an older female in a work or church setting, sometimes at a cultural or family gathering, decides to tell a younger female that her behaviour is unbecoming in that situation, or towards someone else in the group, or wants to give general advice. Instead of the older female approaching the younger female gently, I’ve seen older females shout at younger ones unnecessarily or ridicule them publicly and harshly. Apart from the humiliation that the younger female can feel, I am always personally shocked, naively or not, that in a culture where respect for older members of the group is highly prized that same respect, or at least dignity, is not conferred on younger members of the group, particularly females.
The saddest part in all of this is that the younger females grow up eventually, as is the course of life, and continue to humiliate the younger ones who come after them because there is an illogical and misinformed notion that this is the only way that the young learn. i.e. if you name and shame them, they learn discipline. I submit to you that this does not work. At most, it creates bitter females who have relationships of very little substance between each other; and at least, it leaves young females reeling from anger, embarrassment and pain. So I think that Nyanungo’s article brought us back to that one moment in our lives as females, where we have either seen or experienced older females emotionally tearing the younger ones apart.
On the point of culture and respect, if we are to talk about respect, Ubuntu and other values which we claim are unique and instrumental within our cultures, we need to re-examine how we implement them. If I say that my humanity is recognised through my actions towards you, then I cannot willingly and forcefully display such negative behaviour towards a younger female. I remember a young female who approached me about how she had been rebuked by two older females for not greeting them properly. I empathised because I am not much older than her and I know the embarrassment that the situation can cause for a sensitive young female trying to be assertive without being perceived as rude. In that instance, your choice, whether as mother or sister, is to continue the trail of rebuke or, listen, understand and advise just enough to avoid bias. Simply put: what we do to each other as females, older and younger, will illustrate what we really believe and not what we say we believe.
Furthermore, older females cannot have the ‘mothering’ cap slightly hanging off. I’ll explain: mothers have a dynamic role as nurturer, carer, teacher, provider, motivator, counsellor etc. We sometimes associate mothering with the disciplinarian aspects of their role, more than the caring and loving aspects of their role. However, we know that it is their nurturing and caring roles that we want to stand out. If an older female starts disciplining me or rebuking me, the second thing I think (after ‘I am not your daughter’) is whether this woman has ever shown me that she cares as much as she rebukes. And I think the tough love mantra is wearing out, because it is impossible to be tough. All. The. Time.
If you are tough all the time, you sometimes find that younger females stay away from you or do not trust you. And I will admit to being that younger female who is more inclined to sit with balanced females who show love through rebuke as well as care, as opposed to those who look me up and down critically, even when my skirt is below my knees. The point is this, and it follows from the earlier one: you cannot say one thing and do another whilst exploiting your advantage as the older female in the situation. If you are consistent in your approach, you become more balanced and in turn, inspire that in others.
I would like to touch on the purely social dynamic of female relationships now, having spoken about the cultural ones. Socially, I find that females are very, very, very competitive. Maybe a memorandum about hairstyles, clothing, cars and the female to male ratio was circulated, and it lied to females about how much is at stake if they do not compete in the ‘game’. I’m just speculating here, this memorandum may not actually exist. Ok, it doesn’t exist. But I have observed that socially, it does not seem to be enough to be who you are and be content with that. I am not saying that females should not strive for economic, familial, cultural and other freedoms. On the contrary, I think we need to strive for social freedom too.
Instead of carrying a critical and judgmental attitude into our situations with other females, we need to free ourselves from external and internal limitations, such as the latest magazine covers and personal insecurities which cause us to perpetuate the similar notion of being better than other females who are younger. Except in the social case, females see each other as ‘better’ based on hairstyles, clothing, cars and men. Yes- I said it. The notion of someone being young enough to be your daughter and therefore receive an earful from you is akin to the notion that some females are better than others and can ridicule and mistreat them as such.
And in both situations, there is a mental oppression that tries to bind females to a structure or norm without allowing them to figure out if they agree with that structure or norm. I am not encouraging a rebellion that takes away the dignity of females. I am encouraging all females to retrospect on whether their actions are conducive or restrictive to the development and security of each other. We may not be able to bring down patriarchy tomorrow, but we can stand collectively united – feminist or not – against the external oppressions that mentally cripple us and cause us to diminish each other before patriarchy even penetrates our circles.
Amidst all the media, ethnic culture, pop culture and general confusion about who and what females should be, I do not find a reasonable explanation as to why females should turn on each other, emotionally or otherwise. I see a patriarchal system that keeps churning its values, but I do not find a logical explanation for why females should fight that system just to replace it with another or different kind of oppressive system – also, emotional or otherwise. So next time a sister with a weave/extensions/natural hair walks past you with her branded/mass produced outfit, holding her smartphone/brick without a care in the world, please leave her be.
In conclusion, culture is instrumental for informing our relationships and our behaviour. But culture is also relative, and therefore it is possible that we change the small aspects of our culture which allow the older females of the group to demean the younger ones. I would like to emphasise yet again that I am not necessarily calling for a revolution or rebellion in the way of culture. Rather, I am calling for a re-evaluation of our actions towards each other as females in light of the cultural values which we profess to have and would like to pass down. If there is a better understanding of how our culture can be experienced in a better way that reinforces the values we claim to have, then the hypocrisy that we see between generations may lessen. Socially, it is every female’s responsibility to treat the other with the dignity that they expect. And this dignity and respect cannot be dependent on images in pop culture which, clearly, not all of us can live up to. And we will be robbing ourselves as females if we continue to lean towards a false sense of identity.
I may not be your daughter. But I can still stand side by side with you as we challenge the future that we may all suffer if we cannot treat each other with dignity.
Thoko Chilenga s studying towards a Master’s Degree and worked with the Soros Economic Development FundShareThis