Should we have humane or gender roles?

> Thandekile Moyo

I WAS taught that it is rude and disrespectful to have a seat on the bus while an adult is standing. This was way back in the ‘90s when buses were the common mode of transport.

The buses would be filled to the brim with both seated and standing passengers and as a young girl my greatest fear, on a bus ride, was encountering an old woman/man for whom I would have to give up my seat. I suppose whoever came up with that rule realised that unlike the old and frail, young people were agile and fit, and thus could bear the discomfort of having to stand all the way from Bulawayo to Kezi, our rural home about 100km away. The humane thing to do would thus be to give up one’s seat.

Upon arrival at our rural home, we would all be assigned duties. The boys would wake up at the crack of dawn to go and herd the cows in the far away fields and mountains. Their days would be filled with unending adventures, from hunting and braaing to stick fighting and swimming in the cool waters of our deep local dam. I would listen in awe and envy to all their tall tales, like how they had chased a hyena up the mountains and how the old man from next door had chased them for kilometres and beat them up for letting the cows get into his field.

I remember wishing our grandparents could let us girls go too, but that was never to happen. I now realise that it was for our own good. The risk of sending girls out there was too high. Girls are delicate. My mother, on the other hand, comes from a family of seven girls and only two boys – so the girls were not spared the chore of herding cattle.

The ideal African home has a mother whose responsibility is to bear children and rear them. A woman’s body was designed to carry a baby and to breastfeed that baby when it is born. The mother is expected to give the child food and make sure she is clean. The mother also teaches the child their language and culture. Most of the roles of women are centred on taking care of children, the husband and the home. The woman is also expected to be the comforter and peacemaker, probably because of our gentle disposition.

Men, on the other hand, are expected to be providers. It is the men who are expected to go into the bush and hunt for meat. It is the men who slaughter animals and plough the fields. Because men are stronger, they are expected to fetch firewood and chop logs into usable pieces. The men are thus expected to bring the food that the women will happily cook for the family. It is also the men who are expected to dig wells so women do not travel long distances to fetch water to perform their duties efficiently and painlessly. The responsible man knows he has to build a home for his family and fence it. Most of the physically taxing chores are done by men.

Modern families seem to have adopted these expectations and are using them as guidelines in determining the role of the modern man and woman. In most families, men are still expected to be providers and protectors while women maintain their role of being carers and comforters. Culture provides us with a concept of how things are done and we should be able to apply this concept to all kinds of situations, including situations where the “normal” roles are reversed. We find ourselves faced with economies that force women to provide for their families by going to work and earning a salary.

The concept of the African culture is one that takes into consideration the physical and biological capabilities of each person. Our roles were never about one sex being superior to the other, they were simply based on what they thought the body of each sex was designed for and what it could withstand. If we understand that, we will realise that our culture is sensitive and considerate, not barbaric and blindly patriarchal as portrayed by others. Our culture is beautiful.

Unfortunately, every culture has its extremists thus we find ourselves faced with rogue elements who interpret these roles in a way that leaves one sex at the mercy of the other. These rogues are the men whose wives also go to work but are still expected to play the “traditional” role of cooking, washing and taking care of the kids after work; while the man relaxes, reading his newspaper with his feet up and impatiently waiting for her to quickly finish the chores so she can entertain him in bed.

These rogues are the women who stay at home while the husband goes to work, but fail to maintain a clean home and the husband is greeted by the torrid stench of filthy napkins and dirty kids after a long hard day at work. This man will have to either clean the house himself or just accept the life of squalor.

These types of people cause confusion as they leave us all feeling as if our culture is insensitive – to women especially – yet we cannot define a society by its non-conformists. This has led to the rise of gender activists and feminists all denigrating our beautiful culture for its unfairness. Our culture had humane roles, whereby each person is expected to play his part in the general welfare of their family. These roles have always been complementary, not contradictory and they were about helping each other, not fighting or oppressing each other.

There is no room in the African culture to “legally” abuse women as all women are lovingly referred to as wives who are meant to be loved, sisters who are meant to be adored, mothers who are respected beyond measure, daughters who are fiercely protected and grandmothers who are treated like eggs. Women in our culture are objects of protection, and never of abuse. In Africa, you can get away with beating up your father, but never your mother. Any issues of abuse or domestic violence of any kind are criminal, not cultural.

Our culture also teaches us to love and pamper our men. Men are fathers, uncles, brothers and grandfathers and they are meant to be cooked for; given warm water to bath and cleaned after. We do this for them because they are our providers and protectors. I would, under no circumstances, let my father cook for me, while I am there. I could be trudging in from a double shift at 5AM in the morning, to find my father by the stove and naturally, my response would be, ‘no dad, let me do that for you’.

Because of the love and respect I have for him, I would rather wobble to the stove and scramble an egg for him with my eyes half shut, than let him cook. Because my father loves me too, he would probably tell me not to be silly and go on to unconventionally make breakfast for the two of us while I sip coffee and snooze on the sofa.

In the same breath, my brother can drunkenly stumble upon my mother digging in the garden and be compelled to tell her ‘no mum, let me do that’. He would probably go on to dig zigzag lines while my mother looks on with a mixture of shock, amusement and gratitude. She would probably forgive the shoddy job and go on to make him a cup of coffee afterwards and they will sit and chat intimately as she lectures him about the dangers of alcohol. Because of the love between mother and son, they treat each other with humane consideration. Where then, does the love go in our marital relationships? Where and when there is love, things flow, there is no need for a list of roles, rules and timetables. This makes me wonder, should we advocate for humane roles or gender roles?

January 2017
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