By: Dorcas Anima Donkoh*
Growing in up in an institutionalised patriarchal culture in West Africa, precisely Ghana, it was a common sight to encounter women conforming to societal prescriptions. A ‘proper woman’ in our society connotes satisfying and adhering to historically evolved norms, or what I label the social commandments of subjugation and annihilation. These commandments have been cultivated, harvested and institutionalised with an oft false goal of providing security for the woman. The few women who sow or harbour in their minds any seed of liberation from societal entanglement are seen as deviants and are sometimes visited with rejection and isolation. Therefore, many women, including several I consider friends, colleagues, and relatives prefer what Paulo Freire puts in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed as the “security of conformity with their state of unfreedom to creative communion produced by freedom and even the very pursuit of freedom”.
Over the last few years I have been under the illusion that, for us women, ascending the high academic ladder opens a new window of perception and an aura of joy in our “pursuit of freedom”. However, being on the ascend to graduate level, I have since learnt that even with higher education and a higher degree of consciousness about women’s issues and bodies, pursuit of courses and readings in feminist theory, and exposure to heuristic research on women issues, highly educated women are often unable to transcend societal dogmas to explore their full potentials. Many young feminists like me (because I choose to label myself so) are increasingly becoming disillusioned by the failure of education to break patriarchal ceilings and liberate. The stark reality is that for many highly educated women, education has not been able to abate their conditions nor has it been used effectively to generate positive transformation of our lives. In fact, in the pursuit of my academic goals, most of the highly educated women I have encountered and dialogued with on women’s and gender issues seem to concede that it is our obligation to conform to societal prescriptions.
I call these societal rules commandments because just like the Commandments in the Bible, there is a persistent perception that they are to be rigidly followed for social recognition and salvation. In similar vein, the societal commandments have their corresponding punishments for the woman ‘breacher: vilification, isolation and sustained or prolonged sense of insecurity.
From my own experiences growing up as a young woman in West Africa and especially through my several dialogues with female colleagues in higher education, I here lay my pick of notorious three societal commandments for the woman:
Commandment One: The Key to a Woman’s Joy is a Man
This commandment is premised on the notion that without a man directing some aspect of a woman’s life, the woman’s capacity to attain happiness to the fullest is voided. I have always been tagged ‘queer’ and ‘weird’ among my friends and acquaintances. Many of these acquaintances, several of them women, feel very uncomfortable about my ideals of life. Many times, I am warned or told to do what everyone is doing or face the consequences of ridicule and isolation. As an extremely gregarious being, I blend easily with people and this became more pronounced as soon as I entered graduate school. Eventually, I have suffered some fraternal desertions because most of my friends — both male and female — are intimidated by my pursuit of independence and freedom because I am not conforming to societal ideals. Indeed, that I was advocating my own ideologies. The fraternal desertion began to emerge gradually until I felt a sense of isolation. The root cause of the desertions was that I had dared to state that I will pursue my own happiness independent of a man and they knew from their encounters with me that I would. I had verbally broken Commandment One.
My roommate, herself a graduate student, on behalf of the society was the first person to issue the caution on the consequence of a likely breach of Commandment One. She believed that marriage is a must for women and therefore could not fathom why I had that little or no interest in the subject. Her reason was that even if I gain the highest level of education, without marriage or a male partner, society will disregard me. I asked “What if I was a man? She responded “Men are different, men do not necessarily need women to be happy and fuller, we need them.” The fact is that women have been made to believe that no matter the success that they chalk, the status they attain, they would never be complete without men and therefore society is never pleased with women who live their lives successfully without a man in command.
Commandment Two: A Woman must be a Domestic Professional
This commandment is based on the principle that a woman’s natural habitat is the home. Therefore her goal in that habitat is to attain professionalism in domestic activities. Up until today where a lot of feminist activism is transforming patriarchal mindsets and empowering women to explore their full potentials, many women still hold on to prescribed gender roles by society including social encouragement to achieve professionalism in home care. Cooking, taking care of kids and doing all other chores should be a woman’s priority that defines her ultimate joy. This theorising of women domesticity is widespread in Ghana, including women in academia. For example in my graduate class breakfast is served every Wednesday. Anytime it is served, the men expect the women to serve them and also clean up after eating. A very high profile woman in Ghana, a former CEO of the Ghana Chamber of Mines once said that even at her level, whenever the Chamber met, they expected her to serve them, while occupying that high position. Women like me who do not adhere to this principle are labelled disrespectful and immoral and as a result, they risk social isolation.
Commandment Three: Remain Calm and Be Submissive
Our culture teaches women to embrace attributes that curtail their own power and potential. Instead, we are supposed to be soft hearted, agreeable and humble. Women who are assumed to possess the so-called ‘masculine’ behaviours such as toughness and rigidity are termed as Obaa barima (man-woman)- a woman with masculine tendencies. As Rachael Simmons puts it such women are the picture of female failure, a reckless rejection of femininity and anything “Women” are not. Abena, a female graduate student gained so many name-callings for being outspoken and a critical thinker. And I have myself also earned quite a handful for failing to conform to societal rules. The consequence of such rejections and name-calls is that many women suppress their potential and capability just to please society.
By choosing security in conformity, women lose their freedom. William Shakespeare puts this in a proper way “Security is man’s chiefest enemy”. For the pursuit of security that guarantees social conformity many women including, the highly educated ones, avail themselves to societal subjugation and oppression. Personally, my dream is to completely break the barriers of oppression set for women by men who would have them focus on marriage, children and the home. I am an embodiment of the woman who is ready to defy these commandments in the pursuit of my academic progression and personal freedom.
*Dorcas Anima Donkoh is a graduate student of the Department of Communication and Media Studies at the University of Education, Winneba, Ghana.