Widowhood: A Double Headed Monster
The drama was shocking, it was a hot dry season period in my village when the “Sun set” (metaphorical way of saying that the king has died. According to my tradition, kings disappear, they do not die. In order to announce the departure of such a personality, my people will say that the Sun has set or the King has disappeared). When it was made known to the public and the new king had been enthroned, women were not allowed to appear in public fully dressed. I was a little girl then. So, as tradition dictated, all the female folk, young and old alike, moved about with only loin clothes stripped just above their breasts. The rest of their upper bodies till the head were not to be covered. I was part of this horrifying drama as we all received the harsh tropical sun on our bare backs, chests and mooned heads. The situation was made worse as the whirlwinds blew dust from the baked earth and flushed them on our faces, heads and any exposed parts of our bodies. My community had only earth roads and till today no tarred roads exist in my village.
In my country (Cameroon) and in my community (the North West Region), women suffer untold pain, violence and injustice when their husbands die. I will like to start this story from what I observed and lived as a young girl in my clan. This part of the narrative involves collective violence suffered by the female folk, young and old alike in my community. The King of my clan departed from this earth when I was barely 10years old. As per our culture and tradition, the king is metaphorically considered the husband of all and father of the clan. So when he died, all the female folk in my clan had to strip half naked as a sign of mourning. No female was to wear anything that covered her body above the breast when going outdoors. And so, we stripped loin clothes round our breasts and no blouses were worn for a period of four weeks. Worst of all, the women who were closely connected to the palace had a place in a common hall in the palace where they sat on the earth floor strewn with wet banana leaves for the same period of time. They had no right to sleep on a bed, so the bare floor and the banana leaves served as their seats and beds. They sat and ate on this same floor and drank whatever they had to drink. The men however, wore their clothes as usual and only participated in shaving their heads, a custom that involved everyone during this time. As a sign of mourning, the men only took off their caps when they went out to public places. They wore the clothes they wished to wear. No one imposed any form of dressing during this mourning period on them.
I saw women in my community sitting on banana leaves at many occasions whenever a man or some elderly woman died in a family. The men always had chairs on which they sat and drank palm wine from horns. The women sang dirges and wept each time a new person or group came to condole with the bereaved family, but the men never sang any songs. They sat in groups under sheds or some fruit trees in the yard, talked, and drank palm wine all through. They neither sat nor slept on wet leaves on bare earth floors for when night came; they went to their homes and slept on their comfortable beds while the women endued the harshness of the hard earth floor. What is so shocking about this to me is that the women docilely accepted this patriarchal kind of lifestyle and no one saw anything wrong with it. Even if they did, they suffered it silently.
Now, let me relate other stories about what women suffer in some parts of my country. I have gathered these stories as I travel and interact with people from different cultural backgrounds in my country. I was told by some students that when a woman loses her husband in one of the tribes in the Western Region of my country, she will be taken to a river and given a straw basket to place in the middle of the river and if that basket is carried by the waves downstream, it means that she is the one who killed her husband and the entire village will beat her as a sign of punishment. This accusation is usually false as we all know that any light object is bound to be borne by the water waves. But when a woman dies, this same test is not given to the widower.
I have also gathered that in this same region, there is a terrible practice carried out on women who have lost their husbands. A woman is taken to a stream and bathed by her brother- in- law. Prior to this public bath which she is given, she is not allowed to bathe for seven days beginning from the day her husband dies. After this public bath, she has to be forced to have sexual intercourse with one of her brothers-in-law as a sign of cleansing. The consent of the woman is not sought as far as this is concerned for it is an established tradition and should not be questioned.
Besides the above mentioned horrendous practices which violate human rights and strip women off their dignity, many women are rendered homeless after the deaths of their husbands as the husband's family usually seizes the property claiming that the woman contributed nothing to the man's wealth.
Three days ago, I decided to conduct interviews with some women in order to find out what widows suffer in their communities. I talked with an elderly woman who should be in her 60s and she told me that when her husband died, she was not allowed to even go to the toilet alone. Someone, another widow, had to hold her hand and accompany her to the toilet and then bring her back to the room where she was confined. (It should be noted that in the villages toilets are dug a few metres away from the house. These are latrines and not water system toilets). She had no right to go anywhere until the mourning period was over. I saw pain on her face as she recounted the sad story to me. I asked her why she was treated that way and she said:
"Once your husband dies, they know that your own is finished. You are no longer considered as anything. That is why they do that."
She told me that in another village which is also situated in my region, widows are not allowed to communicate with any person who is not a widow. When she needs to give a message to anybody, she has to send another widow to tell the person what she wants to say. If the widow’s sisters’ husbands are still alive, then they are not allowed to go near or talk to their bereaved sister. In this case, the widow has no secrets as she has to say everything to a stranger if none of her sisters is a widow.
I also had a telephone conversation with a friend who lost her husband three months ago. She is a Moslem and she told me that she was told to plat her hair only once a week and on a particular day (Friday) by a particular person who is also a widow. She also had to undo the hair only on a Friday. She was not allowed to go out in public, and according to tradition, she had to be secluded from the rest of the family. She had to sit at a particular corner of the parlour, veiled, and a curtain hung in that area to separate her from the rest of household. To this one she revolted.
According to her, it was forbidden for any male friend, relation or co-worker to visit her no matter what distance the person had travelled to come and condole with her. She kicked against this one because she saw that it was inhuman. However, other women in her circle have to go through it because they cannot fight for themselves.
Besides, a woman whose husband has died is not supposed to bathe for seven days. She is also forced to wear only the single dress she had on the day her husband died until the three months of mourning are over. My friend kicked against this tradition of not bathing and the single dress rule and selected a few dresses which she could interchange during the mourning period. She was also told not to go outdoors, even to her lawns, but she resisted and walked out from time to time to take fresh air.
These stories and the torments which widows experience in my country are but a tip of an iceberg. Losing one’s spouse is already enough psychological stress and then the socio-cultural practices which other people come to impose on the widows increase both the psychological and physical stress on the widows. It should be noted that there are no rites for men who have lost their wives to perform. The widowers in our communities are free men. They move as they want and may even get another woman when the corpse of their wife is still unburied.
I stand with her; I stand with all the women who suffer all forms of violence. I say no to widowhood rites that do not dignify women. These rites geared at tormenting widows are barbaric and have to be stopped!