by Allyn Faenza
“Ghana is a male-dominated society, and we like it that way.” This speech was given to every visiting student on the first day of orientation here in Legon, Ghana by a professor of political science. The female students were warned to watch their behavior and never leave their intentions unspoken. We were told that Ghanaian men often interpret “no” as a woman’s challenge for them to try harder. In the past, a visiting international student invited a Ghanaian man into her dorm room and after a few minutes changed her mind about going any further physically. The man didn’t listen. When she tried to alert the university’s police that she was raped, she said they practically laughed in her face. It seems the police could not wrap their heads around the notion that a woman can exercise control over her own body or direct a man’s actions. The professor told us this as a cautionary tale with no hint of irony, no hint of an apology. What the speech came down to was this: men here are in charge and women have to learn to play by the rules to get what they want.
Rarely has a day has gone by here in Ghana that I haven’t been grabbed, catcalled, or proposed marriage. The best way for me to advert attention from myself is to tell the men I’m married. It is as if they could only understand my disinterest by rationalizing that I belong to someone else. On more than one occasion I have heard women and men alike come to the consensus that the female body is a tool for male pleasure. As I walk through crowds of men, I can feel their eyes on me, and more often than not, their hands. They grope and grab me, and if I protest, I am often challenged. They say “Who are you to tell me not to touch you?! You are a woman, you are a woman!”
Today during my Sociology of the Family class, the topic of domestic violence came up. I have seen some of the television programs Ghanaians watch and oftentimes they center around a male/female romantic relationship that ends with the female screaming at the top of her voice only to be punched and slapped by her male companion. But seeing as I am attending class at a premiere university in West Africa, I assumed their opinions of domestic violence would be that it is something to be taken seriously, something that needs to end, and something that is shameful. I hoped they would find it as deplorable as I do, but I was wrong.
The professor began her lecture about Radical Feminist Theory on the family by proposing the question : “Does a husband have the right to physically discipline his wife?”
The male student behind me scoffs, “Of course!” with all of his friends giggling in agreement. Considering my experiences with some Ghanaian men thus far, the male response hardly surprised me. I have come to expect men to believe themselves biologically superior, and, therefore, somehow responsible for the disciplining of females. They get their validation from religion, media, and societal gender roles. What I was most astounded by was the female response to the question. While no one directly answered “yes,” the women laughed and acted like the conversation was unnecessary. I was angry and so very disappointed. I wanted to scream from the frustration, but then I considered the conversation from a new angle. How could these female students think of the lecture as nothing more than a challenge to the norms of this society? And with many women here in search of a husband, they don’t want to look like the dissenting women, bitter with experience. Ghanaian women don’t want to be a woman no man would want to marry. They do not have the tools to stifle sexism or the support they need to demand respect.
The only comfort I can find in this experience is telling and showing males here that I am a person. I am a living someone who cannot be objectified. I am not a tool for your pleasure. I have a mind and thoughts and feelings that tell me their behavior is demeaning. And even though it might get annoying to Ghanaian men and women, I talk about the inequality every chance I get. I am learning how to explain my culture and my expectations as eloquently as possible. While we might have a long way to go in Ghana, I am learning to live with the satisfaction it gives me to stand up to these gender roles and the hope it gives me for a Ghana that takes pride in the minds of Ghanaian women and not their bodies, for an equal Ghana.
This post is part of a regular series that will be posted every Wednesday.