by Allyn Faenza
In two of my classes last week, the same conversation came up. Here in Ghana, males and females participate in class discussions pretty equally, but the males tend to be quite outspoken. Males command the room and propose interesting topics for discussion, even though I often disagree with their claims about gender and sexuality. While discussing common rituals between the ethnic groups of Ghana, the conversation that was on our minds was if females enforce gender roles through rituals: are women their own worst enemies?
It is an undeniable fact that gender oppression is a cultural norm present in a variety of cultures. The methods of oppression are different, but their strategic devaluing of one’s gender to establish a system of power that benefits the other gender economically, socially, or religiously is the same. The physical, emotional, and mental implications of the gender devaluing is devastating. “Women are their own enemies” is a phrase often discussed when considering how women could possibly be willing to subject other women to sexist oppression. With women enforcing gender expectations, they are often blamed for their own oppression. What this saying and my classmates here in Ghana fail to acknowledge, however, is how deeply gender roles have been rooted into a society’s culture and how those roles influence behavior despite its consequences for the women who enforce them. Females are often so oblivious to their own participation in gender roles forced upon them by society that they voluntarily force them upon other women, which can lead to psychological and physical trauma. Yet, this behavior by women is merely an action of habit and an attempt to avoid the label of “deviant.”
In my Gender Issues in Religion and Culture class, the class took an interesting turn when we discussed death rituals among the Ewe people who live in the Volta Region of Ghana. When a woman’s husband passes away in the Volta Region, the women of the towns are charged with performing the proper death rituals in order to honor the deceased husband and help the accused wife. I say accused because if a man dies before his wife, it is presumed that his wife murdered him even if there is no evidence of it. The other women begin a process of ritualization to ease his soul’s journey to heaven and restore peace in the community. First, the widow’s head is shaved. The people of the town then clean the husband’s body with water which the widow is expected to drink. The night before the funeral, the wife sometimes sleeps next to her deceased husband as an act of repentance for his death and reflection of their lives together. During the funeral, she is not allowed to shake hands, smile, or eat in public since these behaviors would lead the community to believe she is celebrating her husband’s death and this celebration is a result of killing him. For the next year, she should wear black every day, wear a padlock on her belt to prove herself sexually chaste, and marry her husband’s nephew. In Ghana’s matrilineal society, the husband’s sister’s male child is the rightful heir of property and wealth upon his uncle’s death. Considering that the deceased’s wife is part of his property, she is expected to marry his nephew.
While most of these examples are egregious to Ghanaians from larger cities like Accra, some of the death rituals from Volta are present among the Akan and Gaa peoples. After a woman’s husband dies, the widow is expected to wear black for a year, she may not remarry for a year, and if she does not cry at the funeral, she may be called a witch. Are these women their own enemies? What cannot be underestimated is the power of the label of deviance. No, women are not their enemies, but they are terrified of breaking social norms, being labeled “deviants” and therefore being ostracized by their culture. They are not just following societal norms to keep peace, women are trapped in a cycle of control created by men, and the only way they know to validate their roles is to separate genders and enforce roles upon their families and communities.
Patterns of oppression and fear of deviance are the enemies of women. In the case of the Ewe people, the women are not to blame. They have been conditioned to follow cultural norms in order to keep peace and follow the cycle of male control in their homes and greater community despite the trauma these rituals cause. The death rituals are dehumanizing, but they are in no way uncommon among many cultures around the world. Learning about these rituals has made me keen to observe common rituals in American culture. And even though we have gendered rituals that are preserved despite their psychological and physical repercussions for males and females, I was so quick to condemn the death rituals of the Ewe.
What this discussion about death rituals in the Ewe ethnic group has taught me is to be observant of how rituals can either lead to a society’s progress or decline depending on whether the rituals honor events like birth, education, puberty, marriage, or death or create a stigma around life events to perpetuate gender inequality and shame. Believing our rituals have power on our personal and cultural growth is the only way rituals can be addressed with respect and changed to end the perpetuation of gender inequality.
This post is part of a regular series that will be posted every Wednesday.