Last night I watched the Special Assignment programme “Ukutwala” which dealt with the age-old tradition of abducting girls and marrying them off. It is not just an African tradition. It is depicted in the paintings of the Sabine women and is endorsed in the Mahabharata when Bheeshma, regarded as the most noble of heroes, abducts Amba on behalf of another hero in the epic.
The tradition of Ukutwala continues in the Eastern Cape and young African girls under the age of eighteen are kidnapped and married off, often to men old enough to be their fathers or grandfathers. Apparently love and age are not relevant once a man has made his choice, a choice unbeknownst to the girl. Once abducted, the girls are often raped by their ‘husbands’ to force them into submission. As a man from that Eastern Cape community stated: “Once she is my wife, she will do what I want her to do.”
According to the programme, this area in the Eastern Cape where ukutwala is common is “very traditional”; challenges to custom are not countenanced and the community “stigmatises anyone who doesn’t toe the line.”
This brings us to the question of the value of tradition. The people who most extol tradition are men. They wax romantic about old cultural norms, seeing in them the salvation of their communities. They believe in and propagate notions such as an African Renaissance. As men, they see things exclusively from a man’s perspective. And the traditions they wish to foster reflect a man’s understanding of the world, an understanding that relegates women to chattels and objects.
Men, in general, are blind to the fact that traditions do not work for women. Traditions are man-made: men decided on them; men implement them; men enforce them. They do not work for women. The only women who are happy with old traditions are women who accept that they are nothing in themselves and are adjunct to their spouses.
In traditional societies, women are reduced to their biological function. It is their fertility that is valued. Women are respected if they fulfil the patriarchal need for heirs. Women who do not produce children are regarded as unnatural. In India, barren wives are sent back to their families and women who bear daughters are often killed. Little girls in African and other countries are subjected to female circumcision to curb their enjoyment of sex and reduce them to baby producing automatons.
In the twenty-first century, women understand that they are individuals, that they have rights and are much more than baby machines. Even the little girls in the Eastern Cape know that and they run away from such enslavement.
It is only men who are still slaves to tradition.
And rape is endemic in society because women have declared their independence.