Feminist Friday: Lobola is a Sexist Tradition

By Wadzanai Nenzou

  For the uninitiated Lobola is the tradition of a man paying a ‘bride price’ for his future wife. This practice is common in the Southern African region including Zimbabwe − where I come from. The bride’s parents ask for a specific monetary amount or other valuables and the future son in law has to oblige. Back in the old days it was usually cows or other livestock. However, families have started using Lobola as a way to make money and charge exorbitant amounts for their daughters.

 To put it into context, the bride, bride’s mum and other female relatives do not have much power in this tradition − it’s mostly the men in the woman’s family who decide on how much their daughter or niece or granddaughter is worth and control the event. After the Lobola ceremony the man and woman are traditionally married. They can choose to also have a Western style wedding or a white wedding or they can just stay traditionally married.

President Jacob Zuma, at his sixth wedding

 Growing up in Zimbabwe and being a girl I learnt about Lobola from a very early age. My father has 3 daughters and I grew up hearing a lot of “We shall really enjoy that Lobola money from you 3 girls”. The relatives who would usually say this were not even my father. These were people who had nothing to do with my upbringing but who would get part of that bride price. From a very young age I loathed the idea of being bought and sold by anyone. I saw cousins and aunties go through this tradition of sitting in a room whilst people literally bargained for them. This made me think of how it must have been for the Slaves in America with people bidding for them, though in this case the “slave” is a willing participant of the event.

 You have the ‘cultural pride’ people who will tell you it is not sexist and that it is about bringing two families together. If that is the case, why is there a financial transaction? Why is the man the one making this transaction for his bride? If it’s about friendship and bringing families together, why is the women bought by her future husband like a piece of property? Some people have said to me that the financial payment is a thank you from the man to his future wife’s parents for bringing her up. My question is, why is the opposite not also part of it? Why don’t the woman’s parents also pay something to the man’s parents to thank them for taking care of him? Why the one-sidedness?

 My answer to these questions is that this tradition is meant to perpetuate the sexist Patriarchal structure of society. The man pays for his future wife and receives long term servitude, sexual favours and children as compensation. He is the owner of his property and the dominant party in the relationship. Having men pay puts them in the position of power over their wives. He has paid for her and therefore expects something in return.

 In Zimbabwe, the expectation is that the bride will serve her husband in every way. Even if she is a working full-time she is his subordinate and he is the head of the house. If they can’t afford a maid she is expected to do all the child care and housework, plus work full time. When there is an extended family gathering the daughters in law of the house who have had Lobola paid for them have to do all the work, like cooking, cleaning and child care, whilst the men can relax and enjoy the event. That is part of what is expected of them by their husbands families after they have been bought.

 Some men use Lobola as a way to oppress and abuse their wives. If a woman does not behave according to his requirements he can threaten to return her to her family and get his money back. Doesn’t this sound familiar? Like when you go to the shop and buy something and then you find it defective you can go back and get a refund?

 Some men view their wives as property since they had to pay to marry them and therefore expect them to do exactly what they want. If the wife does not comply they use violence to keep her in line and highlight their power over her. Many women have gone running back to their families after domestic violence, only to be told to go back and work it out since their husband paid for them. In these cases, the system of Lobola helps to perpetuate gender violence.

 Lobola is a system that dehumanizes women. They are treated as a commodity to be bargained, valued and sold. Their husbands are their bosses, owners, leaders and have power over them and their actions. The system supports and encourages the Patriarchal system where men dominate women in all aspects of their lives.

 Of course, not all men treat their wives as property in this system. A lot of men have tried to move with the modern times and try to have a more equal relationship with their wives. Many of the younger women are also a lot more independent and expect to be treated with equality and respect by their husbands.

 Unfortunately, regardless of some of these changes in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa women are still viewed as second-class citizens and many young men and women still buy into this way of thinking. The Lobola system keeps and confirms the lower status of women as a big part of society in this region. As long as this system goes on in its current form women will still be viewed by society, their husbands’ and their husbands’ families as less than men and as the property of their husbands.

 I do not have a problem with a traditional ceremony of bringing two families together. In fact, I think it can be done beautifully without treating women as objects. An alternative, for example, is a ceremony were both families give each other symbolic inexpensive tokens as a way of coming together as a family.

 There are many alternatives that can bring families together without the rampant sexism and greed of the current system. I keep some hope alive that one day the sexism and greed will eventually be defeated by a truly authentic and honest celebration of two families coming together. I guess time will tell.

(Re-posted: First published on November 13, 2015 by Women’s Melbourne Network).

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