Wednesday, May 11, 2005

It's about time. As Sharon LaFraniere reports in the Times today, the governments of several east and southern African countries have finally started speaking out against the practice of "cleansing" recent widows by forcing them to have sex with one of their late husband's relatives.

I'm all for a healthy dose of cultural relativity, but no matter how you cut it, this practice is despicable. Just consider the case of Fanny Mbewe, as told in the story's lede:
MCHINJI, Malawi - In the hours after James Mbewe was laid to rest three years ago, in an unmarked grave not far from here, his 23-year-old wife, Fanny, neither mourned him nor accepted visits from sympathizers. Instead, she hid in his sister's hut, hoping that the rest of her in-laws would not find her.
Hiding from your in-laws after your spouse has just died, all because you're afraid they'll rape you. Can you imagine?

As for the deeper issues here -- aside from the obvious arguments for why the practice is universally wrong -- the piece itself illustrates just what an awkward position these kinds of rituals put contemporary writers in. For instance, when Sharon contemplates the function her stories are performing, I'm guessing she has two thoughts: a) the stories I publish carry out the necessary social and political tasks of pressuring local governments and societies to end opprobrious "traditional" practices; b) the stories I publish reinforce the prevailing foreign conception of Africans as being excessively lascivious and violent.

In the end, Sharon opts for speech over silence, and I think rightly so. Not only does an article's local impact matter more than its impact abroad, but even within the pieces themselves there are often indications, however subtle, that the mindset which informs a given tragedy or horror should not be generalized to its society as a whole. When it comes to the piece above, for example, anyone who takes the story as yet further proof that Africans are woefully behind the times ought to read between the lines: none of the governments in question would have risked political fallout over this issue if there weren't already a sizeable base of men who were willing to support them -- ie, if there weren't already a ton of guys who find the practice just as reprehensible as you or I.

Unfortunately, I imagine that's of little solace to Fanny Mbewe, but it's enough, at least, for myself to take heart.


Post a Comment

<< Home