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. Continue reading “Forms of Femininities at the End of a Customary Marriage”