Contesting the ‘culture of silence’: The arere metaphor
Reference to ‘culture’ has become the sine qua non of African women’s oppression. Often both men and women validate and justify women’s marginality by referring to culture and even quoting traditional philosophies such as proverbs to entrench or institutionalize women’s oppression. Let me clarify this notion of culture. Culture has both positive and negative dimensions, progressive and retrogressive manifestations. For example in Europe it is very normal and desirable to fossilize traditions through the celebration of antiquity. Millions of Euros are spent on visits to museums, castles, cathedrals—symbols that capture moments in history, aspects of past culture/tradition and architecture in many parts of Europe. Culture here is upheld as positive. Ironically, when culture or tradition in Africa is being discussed, many scholars underscore primitivism, backwardness, stagnation, unchanging attitudes and so on. Yet, cultural understanding is germane to many sectors of modern cross-cultural interactions. A vivid illustration of this is an understanding of the Japanese culture that does not allow the wearing of slippers on carpets. In trade relations, other nations need this cultural knowledge to avoid importing indoor slippers to Japan. I will locate myself among those who claim that culture is dynamic and protean, not static; talking about cultural relevance in this context is derived from the desire of African women to manifest their feminine attributes and their Africanness simultaneously with a call for changes in women’s conditions. Not wishing to adopt gender concepts that intercept their culturally meaningful self-definition is central to these women’s reactions to feminism. I uphold the progressive definition of culture, not as a backward-looking sustenance of moribund past traditions or living in the past, but as a dynamic mode of selfdefinition that coincides with group values that I consider progressive.
Re-Conceptualizing African Gender Theory: Feminism, Womanism and the Arere Metaphor
It is this recognition that necessitated the United Nations’ decade of culture, providing a forum for identifying the centrality of culture to positive development. This included revisiting the place, validity and relevance of culture in many sectors especially in gender issues. The definition that emerged from the World Conference on Cultural Policies in Mexico City in 1982 fits into the theoretical thrust of this chapter:
Culture may now be said to be the whole complex of distinctive and intellectual features that characterise a society or social group. It includes not only the arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs (Sagnia 1997:7).
In a UN workshop on culture, gender and development in Addis Ababa in 1997, Burama K. Sagnia further defined the dynamic nature of culture:
It is being said that culture is both evolutionary and revolutionary. Culture goes through an internal evolutionary process involving growth, greater heterogeneity and coherence. It also goes through a process of change and adaptation as a result of contact with other cultures, the influence of a dominant culture. . . influence of mass media or communication technologies (such as internet) etc. As a result, culture must be seen as a dynamic mechanism that must adjust and adapt to external and internal conditions of existence. As an adaptive mechanism, culture must therefore, have the capability to provide the means of satisfaction of human, biological and social needs (Sagnia 1997:8).
This conceptualization of culture is very important in gender issues in Africa as Sagnia’s poser underscores:
If we accept the postulate that culture is an adaptive mechanism that constantly adjusts to satisfy human, biological and social needs, shouldn’t we then ask ourselves whether the best way forward for Africa is to marginalize the role of culture in development frameworks and process or to use it as a platform or springboard for development (Sagnia 1997:8).
There has been a consensus that culture has to be taken into account in development issues and that a close affinity exists between gender and culture. One area of cultural mediation on gender is the traditional belief in the muting of women’s voices in many African societies which is justified by proverbs and traditional ideologies that shape the mind-set of men and women. It is considered culturally incorrect for women to be a focal participant in social structures. Such ideologies and beliefs call for decoding of culture to unpack gender myths and philosophies that keep women in liminal spaces, as well as recoding of new ideologies. Many African women literary writers and critics have emerged as gender theorists, convinced that gender perception in Africa has to be inclusive, taking on-board cultural idiosyncracies and the male factor. There was an initial attempt to problem – atize gender by probing the extent of women’s oppression and disempowerment through an analysis of women’s voicelessness in many African societies. One of the scholars who has focused on this is Irene D’Almeida. D’Almeida is privileged as a Francophone African scholar and an American professor. She has advocated breaking the culture of silence and her theory is based on the experience of Francophone African women, especially how they are advocating a rejection of this ideology of voicelessness. She identifies the ‘culture of silence’ as a major obstacle to African women’s empowerment by a discussion of the works of Francophone
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women such as Calixle Beyala, Werewere Liking and Miriama Ba (D’Almeida 1994). She bases her perception on a progressive effort by many Francophone African women to use the literary tool to unveil women’s voices. She maintains that eliminating women’s voicelessness is a fundamental aspect of gender conceptualization in Africa. The attempt to encourage African women’s audibility as a symbol of their empowerment, has remained on the front burner of African gender theorizing.
The challenges posed by a tradition of muting women’s voices can be more vividly perceived through an important Yoruba metaphor as it provides a renewed insight into the struggle to speak out and defy intrinsic or externally imposed muting. The arere metaphor presents the dilemma of African women’s attempts to speak out and assert themselves in a cultural cosmos that still sometimes considers women’s vocality as an anomaly even in the most enlightened space, academia. Probing socio-cultural ideologies, philosophies and practices provides an indigenous platform for looking at African gender concepts because much of the traditional attitude to women in Africa emerges from traditional beliefs which shape the people’s mind-set and enhance the traditional philosophies that validate and institutionalize women’s marginalization and/or oppression. Arere is a tree that grows along the coast of West Africa. The metaphor of the arere among the Yoruba people of Nigeria is a paradigm in the question of women’s self-expression and dynamic participation in social issues. The unique characteristic of the arere tree is significant because it emits an extremely offensive smell and is not normally allowed to grow around urban or rural dwelling places such as cities and villages. The tree symbolizes the extreme significance of the separation of space. It grows out there in the wild. There is a Yoruba proverb that reveals the tension between women’s voices and muting through the metaphor of the arere tree: Ile ti obinrin ba ti nse toto arere, igi arere ni hu nibe. The meaning comes out as ‘Any home where a woman is vocal /loud/influential through self-expression, will have the arere tree growing in the courtyard.’ The implication is that in certain quarters, it is still unwomanly to be vocal, loud and assertive; it is even an anomaly that gives off an offensive odour like the arere tree. Most of the contentions about gender conceptualisation derive from this platform of vocality-visibil – ity. The fact that the arere is a threat to men because of the strong smell, which cannot be controlled, held down or stopped, provides an alternative reading of African women’s alterity.
Traditional ideologies are sometimes replete with contradictions when women’s issues are being centred. The same Yoruba worldview presents women as garrulous/talkative in nature. But the socialization process recommends women’s silence through proverbs such as the arere ideology. I have worked on similar proverbs among Yoruba and non-Yoruba people as well as the folktales that in – sititutionalize and normalize women’s space in the social periphery. Many women writers are transgressing this location of presumed silence to re-inscribe the strong African woman. Women writers in contemporary settings are more vocal and unapologetic than earlier writers. We see the normalization of women’s vo-
Re-Conceptualizing African Gender Theory: Feminism, Womanism and the Arere Metaphor
cality as a transgression of such an ideology in the works of some twenty Nigerian women writers in the anthology of short stories entitled Breaking the Silence (Ade – wale and Segun 1996). So one way of reconceptualizing gender in Africa is the reinscription of women’s space by literary writers. Akachi Ezeigbo (1996) re-writes Igbo women on the eve of colonial incursion by decoding the sub-text of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. The latter institutionalizes male heroism and women’s marginalization but this is a contradiction of history. Igbo women mobilized themselves in the early part of the twentieth century to fight against colonial rule, oppression and taxation that affected women and men.
An important focus of some African gender theorists is, therefore, to question the source, transmission and acceptability of such an ideology—the ‘culture of silence’ that treats women’s audibility/visibility as an aberration. Although proverbs are an aspect of the essence of traditional wisdom and oration, one needs to situate such proverbs in a modern socio-historical context. In many parts of Africa, proverbs are words of wisdom of the elders that carry respectability and authority. But a great majority of African people, especially the urban dwellers and the younger generation, neither know proverbs nor allow them to shape their mind-set. One can also say that proverbs are more male-oriented in usage and composition, and the majority of women may know only very few proverbs. Indeed, this proverb is not a true reflection of the dynamic roles of Yoruba women who are empowered in specific areas especially the economic sphere.
The truth of the matter is that research reveals Yoruba women’s historic voice, visibility and power, in a self-conscious way as documented in the mobilization and revolts of Abeokuta women in the early part of the twentieth century. Currently there are many parts of the Yoruba community where women have the ultimate authority in market and economic issues, crown the king or veto the candidature and crowning, stand in as ruler when a king dies as we see in the regents of many communities in Ondo and Ekiti areas of Yorubaland (Awe 1992; Kola – wole 1997a). In Nigeria, Abeokuta women were mobilized to resist colonial as well as traditional rulers’ oppression. Many modern African women are equally vocal as mouthpieces for their families, gender and community as we see in the traditions of omo osu, iyalode and iyaloja among the Yorubas and umuada among the Igbos. The omo osu (women of the same extended family or compound) still have important roles in settling family quarrels or acting as public relations agents on family matters. The focus of the present chapter does not allow detailed studies of this and other examples but Aba women’s riot and the history of the dynamic role of Kikuyu women in Mau Mau struggles are paradigms (Ngugi wa Thiong’o 1967).
Women’s voicelessness is therefore a paradox that is imposed by socialization. The quest for a re-conceptualization of gender theory has embraced the rejection of the culture of silence and the unfolding of areas of women’s audibility in both traditional and modern societies. D’Almeida’s gender conceptualization derives from conscious efforts by African women writers to break the culture of silence through the creative process. A majority of African women writers are spokesper-
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sons for their gender and are re-creating women’s space in a self-conscious way. Many African women theorists believe that this is an important channel for enhancing African women’s self-esteem and participation in development.