Balancing submission and autonomy in tradition

Reflections on patriarchy and culture inspired by a feminist mother.

When I was 14, I asked my mother if I could attend the umkhosi womhlanga – the reed dance. Her answer was as emphatic as it was brief: “No.”

The dance is an annual event held in the name of the Zulu nation.  Thousands of mostly Zulu women, considered “maidens” or “virgins”, present reeds to King Goodwill Zwelithini. It takes place in September at the eNyokeni Royal Palace in Nongoma.

At the time, I didn’t understand what my request meant, or the reasons behind my mother’s answer. Now that I’m older, I asked my mother why she said no.

In a brief WhatsApp response, she wondered why only women had to undergo the ritual, and added, “It was not spoken of [or] done to me. Why [would I] do it to my girls?” She also wrote: “My personal experience of sexual abuse changed my thinking in life. I became brutally honest and transparent to empower them [her children] with information to help them … make informed decisions.” A close family relative, whom my grandmother trusted to look after my mother, sexually abused her when she was 17.

Her reasons for her refusal don’t surprise me. There are several practices often carried out in the name of Zulu culture that, in my view, are patriarchal and oppressive towards women. For instance, once you start menstruating as a young woman, you cannot enter a kraal because it is seen as a sacred space. Only men and young children can enter it.

Women are generally expected to grieve in secret and show respect for the loss of their husbands by wearing only black clothing. This is called inzila. When a cow has been slaughtered for a ceremony or an occasion, women are not allowed to eat inyama yenhloko, the cow’s head.

In an ancestral rondavel, women are expected to sit on the left side on grass mats on the floor, while the men sit on the right. This practice has spilled over into some churches, in which women still sit on the left.

Patriarchy and culture

As a feminist, my mother refused to conform to these oppressive and patriarchal practices. She never allowed men to dictate what she should wear. I remember, on one occasion, she wore knee-length purple shorts on a visit to her in-laws, and she sat cross-legged, a clear sign of defiance.

Patriarchy is still a dominant force in our culture. Many men find me rude or obnoxious because I wear pants. But this is not a sign of disrespect. I am not revealing any sacred parts of my body. I am just wearing pants.

But the answer is not to reject everything that comes to us in the name of culture. If we do, we cannot pass on some of these traditions at home. Many of my cousins struggle with isiZulu because they speak English at home. I was forced to take Afrikaans in school and to abandon isiZulu. Language is an aspect of my heritage that I would like to pass on.

I still respect aspects of the dominant culture in which I was raised. I wear skirts when there have been deaths in the family, and I will wear isiphandla, a wristband made of animal hide, when required.

But culture is not fixed, or uniform. It is often contested from within. My mother never forced me or my sister to conform to norms presented to us by some as a fixed part of our culture.

It is a constant struggle to be a young Zulu woman in modern society. I refuse to be either dictated to or stripped of my identity. There are many ways to be Zulu, and we can, like my mother, be feminist and Zulu at the same time.

At 29, I ask myself how I would answer if my daughter, who is eight, asked me if she could attend the annual reed dance. I would say, “No.” 

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