Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Traditional culture

by Thomas Dollar

“You may ask, ‘How did this tradition get started?’ I’ll tell you: I don’t know. But, it’s a tradition.”
—Tevye the Milkman

Last week in Monrovia, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf held an International Women’s Forum, inviting political leaders from around the world. Johnson Sirleaf is the first elected female head-of-state of any African country (Queen Elizabeth was once a ceremonial head-of-state in a number of them), and has used her status to improve her country’s image abroad. (Liberia’s image of late has largely been defined by the warlord Charles Taylor, who ran for president on the platform of reigniting the country’s civil war if he wasn’t re-elected. It worked: he won. Then he started killing people anyway.)

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s election was quite remarkable—amazing, really—because West African countries are very patriarchal. (I’d actually argue that she was only able to win because male leadership in Liberia had gotten so horrific that people were ready for something different—see “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”.) “Patriarchy” is a word that gets tossed around a lot—so much so that no one knows exactly what it means, except that it’s bad. (Similarly, “freedom” has been reduced to a synonym for “things we like”—so that now “Camp Freedom” can be the name of a detention center.) I’m told that patriarchy is alive and well in contemporary America. (Some people even blame it.) I believe in this patriarchy in the same way that I believe in Communists in the State Department in 1950—it’s really there, but its scope and power are greatly exaggerated.

But 2009 West Africa is not 2009 America—it’s not even the 1950 State Department—and patriarchy here is far more than a codeword for things that suck. From here on, though, I’m not going to use the word “patriarchy” for a couple of reasons: the term presumes that women play no role in transmitting sex-specific cultural memes (they do—see FGM), or the women who make fun of me for doing dishes), and it also presumes that men do not suffer because of these memes (and they do—a lot!—as men and boys are always the most likely to be killed by war, civil violence and disease). Instead of “patriarchy,” then, I’m going to talk about “traditional culture.”

In Sierra Leone’s traditional culture, women’s life is oriented around the home, the crops, and the family. One of the biggest obstacles to women’s social advancement is the tradition of male-only inheritance and property rights, a concern that simply doesn’t exist in the context of an urban-industrial culture. (My sisters and I are not in a zero-sum battle over who gets to inherit our dad’s row of dogwoods or mom’s basil garden. Our futures don’t depend on that.) In Sierra Leone, though, land is wealth. When daughters are systematically excluded from inheriting their fathers’ land, and widows’ claims to their husbands’ property are contested by distant male relatives, women lose the ability to accumulate wealth. And without an independent source of wealth, women must turn to men for support.

Traditional marriage in Sierra Leone consists of four classes: civil, Christian, Muslim, and customary. These holy unions consist of one man and one woman in the former two cases, one man and up to four women in the Muslim case, and one man and an unspecified number of women in the last case. Customary marriages, as the name suggests, were not registered or even well defined—they basically consisted of a man (usually rural) claiming a number of females as his wives. Since the 2007 Gender Acts were passed, though, customary marriages and divorces have had to be publicly registered. The law is a marvelous thing, but it’s a meaningless piece of paper unless it can be accepted and enforced. In a largely rural country, with terrible infrastructure, this is no small feat. Propaganda and outreach campaigns have been used to publicize the new law, with some success.

A 2007 survey asked people if they agreed or disagreed with the following two statements: 1) “A married man has a right to beat his wife if she misbehaves; and 2) “Women can be good politicians and should be encouraged to stand in elections.” 26% of those surveyed (and this includes men and women) agreed with Statement 1, and 78% with Statement 2. When the survey was limited only to members of Local Governance Councils, only 7% agreed with Statement 1 and a full 99% with Statement 2. This shouldn’t be surprising, as men and women serve together on Councils, and both sexes can see each other in a non-traditional setting. A peaceful, equitable Africa needs more Ellen Johnson Sirleafs—and a lot fewer Charles Taylors! In my next post, I’ll discuss how traditional cultures can become egalitarian ones.


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