A FEMINIST PERSPECTIVE ON THE DILEMMA OF THE GIRL CHILD IN AFRICAN CULTURE

A FEMINIST PERSPECTIVE ON THE DILEMMA OF THE GIRL CHILD IN AFRICAN CULTURE

Abstract  

This research examines the dilemma of the girl child in African culture and the fundamental problems confronting her existential being. It explores the unfair treatment the girl-child receives in a male chauvinistic and particular society like Africa and the negative effects of such on her femininity. As a way of redeeming the dignity of the girl child and positioning her for a better life, emphasis is placed on the feminist approach and how such could be used to combat the various exploitative and unjust treatment most African societies subject the girl child to in the name of custom and tradition. Since the discourse of feminism flows well with the objective of this research, efforts will therefore be made to extract some of their rational ideologies and principle that gives premium to fair treatment of the girl-child. To achieve this task, the study shall use the analytic and critical methodology to evaluate the feminist perspectives in addressing the dilemma of the girl child in African culture.

CHAPTER ONEAFRICAN MORAL VALUES (The Igbo Cultural Paradigm)1.0 Introduction

In our day-to-day interactions as human beings, we expect people to conduct themselves in a morally good way. Similarly, we also expect a person to do that which is ethically propitious or good while avoiding that which is evil. When, for instance, we judge the actions and characters of people to be right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust, etc., we have an idea of the best way we think they can live. While we may define moral behavior as behavior in accordance with the recommended patterns of a community, the morality of a community on the other hand consists of those ways of behavior which each member of the community is taught, bidden, and encouraged to adopt by other members. It is against this background that this chapter seeks to explore the African notion of moral values. The Igbo cultural paradigm shall be presented here to avoid overgeneralization of African thoughts, and also to situate our discourse within a certain cultural milieu. In the same vein, the traditional Igbo culture (omenala) shall be considered in this chapter and we shall examine how some practices in this culture create room for the abuse of the girl-child. Our expositions in this chapter shall help greatly in appraising the Dilemma of the girl-child in African culture.

1.1    Traditional Igbo Culture (Omenala)Culture (omenala) understood as the entire way of life of the people (past present and future), is the traditional law in African societies, a central thread guaranteeing the protection of life and property, the harmony of members of society among themselves and with nature, their linkage to the divine through the ancestors and the deities. It is said that every people have a culture, a way of life that links their past to the present and the future. Even though culture is not static but steadily dynamic, some of the elements that provided rationality for cultural, practices in the past may have disappeared in the face of modern realities of migrations, new technologies, scientific discoveries, wars to mention but a few ingredients.– Nonetheless, there is a need to enhance the linkage and sustainability of cultural developments and their interpretation at least on the levels of principles that identify these societies even in the face of the modern age. In the African milieu, whether amongst agricultural people or nomadic tribes, Culture (Omenala) provided a proper foundation for a sustainable economy where the preservation of the environment, the enhancement of principles of equity and fair play, and the promotion of an economy that recognizes both individual interests and communal protection existed alongside.This African culture (Omenala) is transferred from one generation to the next by oral tradition, through symbols and rituals, in fables and dances and in the moral formation and religious traditions of the peoples of Africa: Olisa noted that, as soon as a child is born into the community of ‘Umunna’ (brethren), life is affected by the intricate network of restrictions and all that they represent. Immediately a child is able to speak and understand issues, …it is exposed daily to the do’s and don’ts of the society and parents drum it into its ears, through fables told in the night around the fireside and exposure to the various forms of rituals and other observances, the gravity of committing abominable acts”.There emerges an inter-woven-ness between religious beliefs and cultural practices, the attempt of which to de-link them during the Islamic and Christian religious missions have proved impossible as mistakes are currently being corrected under a so-called agenda of inculturation. Win-win scenarios emerged from this world outlook and practice, thus, making it possible to evolve out of the Omenala (traditions) unique principles that gave an integral understanding to the economy, society, culture, and environment. Thereby, traditional African religious values, philosophies, and cultural practices are being unearthed and re-branded into the new and emerging religious space on the continent. The point being made here is that African traditional religion is essentially a philosophy and a spiritual way of life, which permeates, pervades, and animates the traditional social institutions, norms, and celebrations. Every Igbo ritual act of the peoples of southeastern Nigeria, including sacrifice, dance, and the festival had a philosophy or idea behind it. In other words, the action was motivated based on values that involved a basic belief, a philosophy, an underlying principle, or an idea. These values thus generated actions and behavior, which in turn influenced individuals and groups.A discussion however of ethics within the African ambient must necessarily involve a discussion of both the African philosophies, cultures, and their moral and overall ethical practices. That point of linkage between religion, morality, law, social and economic realities is the domain where the African locates tradition, the “Omenala” (culture) which is the foundation for ethics, therefore the rational background for living together. In summary, this contribution from the African point of view achieves the promotion of stakeholder participation which enhances communal living and values based on principles of “onye anwuna ma ibe ya efula” which is “live and let live” implying the age-old social ethical principles of justice, fairness, solidarity, and subsidiarity.It is worth noting that, the integral nature of African cultural and religious values as ethical values begins with an understanding of life that is considered sacred and had to be preserved, protected, promoted, and generated. In this sense, homicide, murder, suicide, and other unnatural forms of death inflicted on another was considered a crime against the earth and a breach of the bond between humans and the deities and the earth itself. It was a destruction of the communal foundations upon which society existed and had to be pacified by all means by the entire community even where the culprit and his family had to undergo expulsion from that environment.  In serving Life, the Omenala in its ethical dimension sought to serve communal harmony; respect the past heritage of ancestors and the laws of the land founded also on religious beliefs; progress the economy by protecting the earth and making laws that discipline erring persons that thwart the laws of the land.The Omenala, (culture) which was and is the link between the ethical, religious, and secular realities as well as the basis for the legal system and morality in general does exist even as strongly today as it was yesterday. Africa’s beliefs in traditional religious practices, cultural practices, and even the lifestyles of the present are still found in the many big cities of the Continent.  Consequently, a broad understanding of culture(Omenala) which encompasses the entire way of life of a people, has the potential to assist and guide modernization processes in a sustainable manner, founded on cultural rationality (derived from the past) and projecting into the future. In the face of radical and fast changes worldwide, also in Africa, occasioned by globalization, migrations, technological advances, the danger of losing original sources including cultural integrity remains a threat. There is a need to look into the primary sources of traditional cultural rationality to enable a significant yet sustainable development by promoting an intercultural dialogue that looks into Africa’s past history in order to retain and reclaim elements with relevance and applicability in a modern economy. Unfortunately, this omenala is not as glorious and impeccable as we have presented thus far in this section, of course, there are some practices inherent in it that violate the principle of human rights in the contemporary period. As we shall reveal later in this study, the nature of Omenala provides fertile ground for the abuse of feminine gender and the degradation of womanhood in general. For instance, the barbaric and unpleasant treatment a widow receives in the hands of unscrupulous in-laws under the guise of culture is questionable. There are numerous cases of domestic abuses that seem permissible simply because the omenala favors a patriarchal system, not to mention the abuse of the girl-child which is more rampant in other African societies. We shall however look at all of this critically in the subsequent chapter. Now, let’s consider the moral conception of traditional Igbo. 1.2    Moral Conception of Traditional Igbo Essentially, moral thinking is concerned with the issue of good conduct among those who make up the human community. It is also concerned with the creation of a humane social environment without which those who live in society would hardly realize their goals and aspirations in life. It is for this reason that people are constantly exhorted to lead morally emulous lives because, as the argument goes, it is in living virtuously that human beings can give meaning to their social life and existence. With particular reference to traditional African life, it was the opinion that a life of rectitude helps build up society and guaranteed the individual a good place in the preternatural or chthonic world. The logic of the belief in the existence of an extra-terrestrial world notwithstanding, the important issue that bears relevance to the present discussion is that the human community can only function properly if it is built on a good moral foundation. But then, what exactly do we have in mind when we talk about morals? And in relation to African life, what was the nature of moral thinking among traditional Africans in the pre-European African world? These are some of the issues we shall address here. But first, we need to make the following explanation.Let’s start by noting that, the Igbo form one of the three major ethnic nationalities in Nigeria. The other two are the Yoruba and the Hausa-Fulani. The Igbo like most African society had many of its able-bodied youths exported to Europe and the Americas through the Trans Saharan trade in slaves. Through British colonialism, the people also had early contact with Christianity and Western education. However, our reference to the Igbo past here is merely incidental and perfunctory, as this is not meant to be a treatise on Igbo history or colonial experience. The Igbo experience with colonialism is well documented in the literature that it needs no repeating in the present essay. Our choice of the Igbo culture here is, as we said earlier, to serve as an example or metaphor for our discussion on the nature of moral thinking in the traditional African society.A debate concerning the nature of moral thinking in traditional societies has long dominated the scholarship of ethical thinkers and social anthropologists alike. There are moral thinkers who deny that traditional societies had value systems that could truly be characterized as ‘moral’. But this type of argument of course is vitiated by the fact that morality is a universal feature of all human societies. Besides, the argument itself cannot be sustained by evidence or by any rational proof.Among the traditional Igbo, for example, the level of moral thinking was very high. The Igbo language contains a variety of words to express approval and disapproval, good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant, and so on. All embody moral connotations. Take, for instance, the words, ‘aru’ (pollution) and ‘nma’ (good); to commit ‘aru’ (ime aru, in the Igbo language) is to do that which is evil while to do ‘nma’( ime nma, also in Igbo) is to conduct oneself in a morally worthy manner. A person is described as ‘onye aru-rala’, literally ‘one who pollutes or abominates the land’, if his or her ethical conduct is contrary to ethically approved behaviour. ‘Ajo mmadu’ is a phrase used to describe a bad man (or woman), where the ‘ajo’ means bad, i.e., the opposite of good.  Furthermore, when a thing or an act is spoken of in terms of ‘iru-ala’ (desecration of the land), ‘ime aru’ or ‘ime nso-ala’ (doing that which is abominable or acting in pollution of the earth), all these are seen as morally bad actions. Among the Igbo, ‘ala’ (that is, the land or earth) is believed to possess some form of divine sanctity or sacrality such that one can either please or offend the preternatural forces that indwell it. The close link the Igbo have to their land is largely due to the belief that it is the abode of the departed ancestors.42 Similarly, the fertility of the soil, the progress of human life as well as the health of the animals is only assured as long as the earth is not desecrated and the ancestors are duly honored.The Igbo word ‘nma’, as we have said earlier, conveys the idea of goodness or the idea of acting in an ethically appropriate way. In all things, the Igbo expect that individuals will act and conducting themselves in morally good ways while avoiding that which is evil and obnoxious. In this way, social harmony is ensured. The good life for the Igbo is known as ‘ezi-ndu’ (i.e., the virtuous life), the life of rectitude and approbation. But the question may be asked, on what makes some actions good and others bad? Put differently, what is the standard of judgment among the traditional Igbo?  C.C. Okorocha answers that the traditional Igbo moral code is based on the concept of ‘omenala’ or social custom. ‘Omenala’ derives from three Igbo words, namely, ‘ome’ (that which obtains); ‘na’ (in); ‘ala’ (land or society). In the words of Okorocha, “the moral code of Iboland commonly spoken of as ‘omenala’ defines the various aspects of behavior and social activities that are approved while at the same time indicating those aspects that are prohibited.”Generally, in Africa, the norm of right or wrong is said to be a social custom. As with most other societies of the world, in Africa, the good is usually that which receives the community’s approval while the bad is that which the community prohibits or frowns at. While the good actions build up society, the bad ones tear it down. One is social, the other anti-social. With the Igbo in particular, ‘omenala’ or social custom is the means by which society enforces conformity to its rules. ‘Omenala’ then, is the means by which “the social ethos is measured, and the values of the society... controlled from one generation to another and the processes of socialization through which the education of the young ones are facilitated".Traditional Igbo morality, like those of other African societies, was communalistic in nature. In communalistic societies, virtue and goodness are often seen as a means of realizing the social harmony of the group. They function to promote order, peace, and a camaraderie feeling among the individuals who make up society. It for the reason of this type of opinion that some writers claim that group-related morality detracts from the ‘essential’ nature of morality. Group-related morality, we are told, removes from the moral life the joy of its inner motivation which, it is argued, results from choice, personal decision, and responsibility. This is the type of argument, which Paul Roubiczek makes in his book, Ethical Values in the Age of Science. In the book, Roubiczek argues that “to subordinate the good to another purpose, such as usefulness for society, falsifies its nature and thus falsifies morality”.However, there is no good reason to suppose that Roubiczek’s opinion is necessarily correct. For as Gerhart Piers and M.B. Singer have suggested, there is no scientifically demonstrable reason why in group related morality, “heavily influenced by the community’s rigorous enforcement mechanism including shame and taunting improvised songs, members of such group could not develop inner remorse or guilt”.  Some elements in traditional Igbo cultural practice could be a helpful illustration in this regard. They will also help lend support to the opinion expressed above by Piers and Singer. It was (and still is) the practice among the Igbo that when a man and a woman were caught in any uncomely relationship like adultery, they were made to go round the village half-naked, with children singing taunting songs on their heels. If any member of the community committed a heinous crime or sacrilege, he was made to suffer public shame or dishonor. Such taunting songs, like the ones by the children, apart from bringing the offenders to public opprobrium, were also meant to deter others from committing the same type of offense in the future. Such immoral acts as adultery and incest were described as ‘nso ala’ (i.e., pollutions against ‘Ala’, the earth goddess). ‘Ala’, the goddess of the land and custodian of Igbo morality, imposed numerous laws and taboos which were meant to guide conduct between the individual and his neighbors, the individual and the forces of nature and, the individual and ‘Ala’ itself.In the words of A.E. Afigbo: the transgression of any of these rules known as ‘omenala’ (conduct sanctioned by ‘Ala’) was promptly punished. In this way, ‘omenala’ came to mean the highest law. It was distinguished from, and superior to ‘iwu’ which is an enactment made by man, the transgression of which would not involve offense to ‘Ala’ and the ancestors, and did not imply moral lapse. ‘Ala’ was the guardian of Igbo morality.

1.3. SummaryTo conclude, we can deduce from the above expositions that African moral values are the central concern management of life and maintenance of well-being within society. Individual ethical choices are made within the context of the community. Here, individual actions are evaluated and judged based on the effect those actions have on the life of the community. So the aim of African ethical values boarder on the extent to which an individual’s action or conduct can advance human decency and the common good or viability of the community. We have been able to establish that Igbo moral values are founded on the collective wisdom of the ancestors and elders that become the basis or point of reference for moral decisions or choices that the individual or community makes. It is a morality that is the creation of the community and emerges from the social institutions; it is lived within the community. For this reason, what an individual does directly or indirectly affects the whole society. Thus, individuals in society must strive to live a moral life. Since the feminist position constitutes the theoretical framework of this study, we shall examine some ethical issues in feminism that borders around the female gender in the next chapter.

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