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Widowhood rites in Nigeria

June 25, 2009

In some parts of Nigeria and also in others countries in Africa, when a woman’s husband dies, she might go through a series of rites depending on her local culture. About 67% of women outlive their husbands in Nigeria. Many of these rites lead to homelessness, malnourishment, financial hardship, loss of self-confidence, etc.

Traditional widowhood rites:

CONFINEMENT: The widow is not allowed to fetch water, cook or go to the market. This period can last up to a year and the widow is forced to depend on others.

DEFACEMENT: This includes hair scraping. It is intended to make the woman unattractive since the hair is said to be the woman’s crowning glory.

DISINHERITANCE: This denies the wife the right to inherit or own property. In-laws force the widow out of her home, leaving her with no means of shelter or support for herself and her children.

MOURNING PERIOD: The widow is forced to wear black or white and is made to go through routine crying, whether or not she feels like it.

RITUAL CLEANSING: This is done to supposedly sever the link between the living and the dead. The widow washes in the stream, her mourning clothes are burnt and she is forced to walk back home naked.

DETHRONEMENT: By making the widow sit on the floor or mat, this is to emphasize her apparent fall in status.

OSTRACISM: The widow is seen as defiled and capable of defiling others. She may not be touched or receive a handshake. In some cases, her hands are padded.

Other harmful traditional practices include enforced silence, sleeping on the floor, feeding from dirty dishes, forced nakedness and disinheritance.

In extreme cases, the widow is forced to drink the water from which her husband’s body had been washed to prove she did not kill him.

Widow, a story by Ooluss Louisa Ibhaze

Ooluss Louisa Ibhaze

Ooluss Louisa Ibhaze

The excerpt of this story is by a Nigerian woman who experienced widohood practices when she was a child. It was originally
published in the “Exhibiting You” community exhibit from the International Museum of Women. You can read more about Ooluss Louisa Ibhaze on her blog here.

The full story can be read on the International Museum of Women’s website here.

Child marriage, polygamy and widowhood rites are not strange in my part of the world. This story is my way of giving insight into these practices, which adversely affect womankind.  A bright light of hope emerges at the end of this short story, as the young widow escapes on her late husband’s bicycle.

My husband died in his sleep, but my in-laws said I killed him. How could I have killed my husband? After all, my uncle married me off to such an old man because he could not repay the debt he owed. I had only set eyes on him a few days before the wedding when my aunt pointed him out, saying, “That is your husband.”

On the wedding day, I wept. I didn’t understand what was happening. I had only just had my first period and my aunt had not educated me on the intricacies of womanhood; I was but a child. Before I was escorted to his hut, my aunt and the other women said to me, “Do as your husband says and be a good daughter to your mother-in-law.” Left alone in his hut, it finally dawned on me that my new role and duty as a wife had begun.

Click here to read the full story.

Should widowhood rites be stopped: A topic of exporting feminism

I’m thinking that this practice is not okay. Why should a woman be ostracised by her own culture where she is not acknowledged and/or doesn’t receive a handshake from locals? While many may argue that widowhood rites are mere practices of local culture, others may also argue that these practices are negatively affecting women moving them further away from autonomy.

As someone who grew up in the West and is a declared feminist, is it okay for me to critisize a culture I’ve never witnessed, let alone know nothing about?

Readers—what are your thoughts about applying Western feminism to local cultures of practices of underdeveloped countries? Is it right or wrong? If it’s wrong, what is non-western feminism and how to you apply it to such practices as widowhood rites in Nigeria?


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