Lobola’s sexist demons

2009-06-29 00:00

WHEN one observes more closely the practice of lobola, the differences between this practice and prostitution are few indeed. The groom- to-be is begging for the bride to be his and his family’s possession.

In essence, he pays once for her sexual favours for the rest of his life, to bear children who will have his name, thereby ensuring his immortality, to change her name to his, and to be the family’s maid in the name of “umendo” (a practice where the wife is apprenticed in domestic cooking and cleaning for her new family). In truth, the woman becomes his possession, to have her serve him — the agenda behind all patriarchal discourse.

In many cases her previous life, to a very large extent, ceases to exist in order to be valuable in the marriage market. The only difference between this practice and prostitution is that bride has only one client, her husband, while the prostitute has various clients. And if one compares the bride’s price and the prostitute’s, it’s safe to conclude that the bride is the lowest-paid prostitute in humanity.

The prostitute gets paid every time she grants a sexual favour to a man, while the wife is only paid once. The major difference is that society clothes the wife with societa­l privileges of dignity and only scorn for the prostitute.

“Its not about money, it’s about building friendships,” the direct and indirect cultural activists will proclaim. Why then is ikhazi (the bride price) such an important aspect of lobola? Why are women not directly part of the negotiation process? Why have many loving couples never exchanged wedding vows because the groom and his family felt the lobola price is too high? Why is it the man’s responsibility to finance ikhazi?

In truth, men are building friendships with other men and using the bride as a medium of exchange. If the above observation is false, women, who have mostly raised the bride and the groom, would be a vital part of the negotiations.

The cultural activist will be the very first to point out that women are included in a different manner, forgetting to mention they are only included in the sidelines. The power that men claim women have in the lobola negotiations and other cultural practices is indeed a false sense of power. It is unofficial and is never extended to decision making, just the responsibility to be the custodians of patriarchal decisions.

When humans build friendships with one another, financial transactions are not an imperative, yet lobola insists on a financial transaction. This practice is just another avenue to perpetuate the myth that a man must be the ATM of the family clothed as provision or headship. This explains why the culturally conscious would never approve of a woman paying lobola for a man — it would mean a loss of power.

The reason that a man is encouraged to pay lobola proves that he’ll be a good financial provider does not suffice any longer. Many men who have paid lobola have proven to be irresponsible with no sense of equality between husband and wife and void of family values. Single mothers and the divorce rate substantiate the above argument. She must find her security or be indebted to male guardianship.

It is true one marries into a family, thus it is very important for the families to meet and build friendships. However, the financial transaction of lobola clouds the important friendship aspect of it. Instead it turns the whole cultural practice into an indirect lifetime prostitution transaction.

The cultural argument that women are forgetting their roots when they question the sexist dynamics of cultural practices such as the financial aspect of lobola is false. The claim that low self-esteem and hatred are at the root of being critical of the “utopic” image that cultural activists proclaim of indigenous culture is misleading. Culture, before colonisation and Western civilisation, has its faults that need to be investigated.

If culture is dynamic and changing as the culturally conscious claim it to be, this change should not stop at gender. It becomes plausible that the sexist aspects of lobola need space to be redefine­d to meet the current context of gender equality in all spheres of power, including cultural practices such as lobola.

• Kazeka Mashologu kaKuse is a freelance writer based in Port Elizabeth. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

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