Forms of Femininities at the End of a Customary Marriage

By Elena Moore

Before the arrival of democracy in South Africa, the majority of Black South African married women were regarded as perpetual minors under the guardianship of their male relatives or husbands. They could not acquire or own property in their own right and customary husbands had absolute ownership of household property and the personal property (including earnings) of their wives. In the post-apartheid era new laws improved women’s access to economic resources from a marriage but evidence suggests that there continues to be structural and cultural barriers in African families and communities, making implementing these laws very difficult. For example, the pressure for Black South African women to be respectful towards their husbands and elders, including co-wives, husbands’ mothers and others, is pervasive. Some scholars argue that the dominant ideal of an African woman as submissive and respectful to males, elders and specific family relations remains. This may take the form of excusing extreme male behaviour, such as violence or infidelity.

I investigated the challenges women experience while negotiating their way out a customary marriage. A customary marriage is legally defined as a marriage in accordance with customary law, i.e. the customs and usages traditionally observed among the indigenous African peoples of South Africa and which form part of the culture of those peoples. These negotiations can take place with husbands, co-wives, and husbands’ families with whom they have unequal power relations. In particular I was interested in how their resistance operates in a broader context of disadvantage for Black South African women.

I interviewed nineteen women who self-identified as separated or divorced. By using the myriad of daily practices as evidence for resistance, I find that many women are powerful actors in customary marriage, which allows them to overcome a range of structures of power. I identify three forms of femininity that emerge from the data.

One is “emphasised femininity” that characterizes women’s compliance with women’s subordination. “Ambivalent femininity” is a complex combination of compliance and resistance with women’s subordination. For example, many women did not resist the process of leaving a marriage but they did not make a claim to the joint property. They were unwilling to remain in an unsatisfactory customary marriage but they were concerned about adhering to the cultural milieu and maintaining respectability in the process of leaving the marriage.  Women who demonstrated ambivalent femininities are unable to accept the form of oppression, but also unable to eliminate the sources of their oppression simply manage it as best as they can.

The third group is “alternative femininity” that included women whose practices rejected and resisted with women’s subordination. Women who demonstrate “alternative femininity” are fighting a new arena of struggle – the financial arena- and are attempting to renegotiate the social and economic relations among genders and families. These women openly challenge and overturn the ways in which matters get resolved and they judge the disparity between their world and their husband’s world as unjust because it results from traditional structures that hold them back.

The findings demonstrate different dimensions of suppression resulting from the interwoven nature of gender, lineage, seniority and class in a patrilineal setting and highlights the importance of exploring how lineage and seniority play out in contexts where the wife is an outsider and the husbands’ families maintain more power.  The sources of their oppression simply manage it as best as they can.

 The patterns of compliance identified highlight the historical imprint of subordination that reinforces gender ideologies in which men and men’s families remain dominant in the eyes of customary wives. The forms of women in customary marriages in the face of strong patriarchal alliances could signal an emerging democratic gender politics at the intersection of class, seniority, and social positions.

Elena Moore is a senior lecturer in the department of sociology at the University of Cape Town. Her principal research interests lie in the fields of personal life, kinship, gender, intergenerational relations, family law and policy, feminist theories, biographical methods and mixed methods.  The article can be found in the December 2015 (29) 6 issue of Gender & Society. 

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