Growing up, I was taught that a “good” woman did not speak. Demure to a fault, she only used her voice in hushed tones, usually when she was spoken to.
A “good” woman was one who kept her virginity when all others were losing it. A “good” woman got an education but she was not too educated to threaten the men in her life and reduce her chances of getting married. If she got too educated, she might become rebellious too, and she would be a handful for her husband. And that was definitely not a good thing.
Some of my friends were told that a “good” woman was one who was circumcised, to tame her worldly lusts. Others were told that a “good” woman got married young, even as young as 12 years , and stayed married regardless of how abusive that marriage was. My mother insisted that a “good” woman must learn to clean, cook, keep house and keep her man happy. She was supposed to give and expect very little in return. A “good” woman also had to be fertile, and give birth to sons to carry the family name. If she had only daughters, she was no good. In some African cultures, a “good” woman was one whose husband was living.
If he preceded her in death, she was seen to have caused his demise and needed to be ‘cleansed’. This cleansing was usually a sexual act the grieving woman had to undergo and she had to be inherited.
In other cultures, a “good” woman covered her body and used little make-up. If her clothes were revealing, she was accused of “asking for it”. A “good” woman was no trouble. She was not supposed to report physical or sexual harassment in the workplace. If she dared report sexual harassment, she was accused of trying to bring a ‘good’ man down and destroy his career. Why couldn’t she just leave well alone? Boys would be boys. It came with the territory. A “good” girl knew that. The rules, we accepted, were different for boys and girls. The odds were stacked against the girls.
“It’s easier for you than it was for me,” my mother, a product of her time, would say when I complained about the injustice of it all. And she was right. Yet that was little consolation. I worked hard to find my voice, and use it. For me. For her. For my grandmother. Eventually, for my daughters. Yet finding my voice has meant letting go of some of what is considered culturally “good” and turning my back meant to keep women “in their place”. It is 2018, and time to redefine who a “good” African woman is.
Today I tell my daughters and sons that a “good” African woman is one who is educated, knowledgeable and uses that education for the greater good. A “good” woman has a voice and uses it to empower those with less opportunities than she has, especially girls. She projects that voice in the classroom and boardroom. A “good” woman can be single, married, divorced or widowed and her relationship status or lack of the same does not take away from who she is as a person and her contribution. A “good” woman can be a mother or not a mother at all. She may not be able to cook, clean and keep house but can make a contribution to her household in other meaningful ways. She may be a stay at home mother or work away from her family, in distant lands.
A “good” woman refuses to shut up, or put up with the status quo that subjugates other women. She speaks up against violence, inequality and other forms of discrimination at the risk of raising the community’s ire.
A “good” woman questions the way things have been done, and asks, “is there a better way?” A “good” woman is courageous and goes out there to do her thing despite her fear. A “good” woman is supportive of other women, and reaches back to give a sister a hand up.
She knows that she will be labelled, criticised, demonised and attacked. They will ask in sniggering whispers, “Who does she think she is?” Then, she will look them directly in the eye, and with a strong, unwavering voice, she will answer them.