Her Husband Is Dead Part Two: Harmful Widowhood Practices in Nigeria
Nigeria is home to lots of ethnic groups who lend the country rich traditions, languages and other aspects of culture like; food, music, oral poetry and clothing. Underneath the beauty of most Nigerian cultures, a lot of ethnic groups nurse discriminatory and dehumanizing practices specifically targeted at women. In the first part of this series, we looked at the reality of widowhood for Nigerian women. This second part will focus on cultural practices that make widowhood an extra unpleasant affair for the woman who is still grieving the loss of her spouse.
In addition to the dis-inheritance of women, Igbo people also shave off the hair of a widow as part of mourning rituals. Ironically, the shaving of widows’ heads in Igboland is enforced by women themselves. These women belong to an age order called the Umuada or the Nwunyedi groups, both of which are very feared Women’s Councils in Igboland. Their strength is however directed not to the protection of women, but mostly to the perpetuation of sexist and misogynistic cultural practices that they themselves are victims of.
In yet another ironic twist, these women’s groups at some point in history were some of the strongest supporters of widows and their rights. The Igbo practice of Inodu Nwoke is one that was often initiated by women of the Umuada group to “sit on men” and destroy the houses of those who had denied widows of their cultural rights. These women were also said to be one of the key groups that spearheaded the Aba Women’s Revolt against colonial taxation in 1929. Now though, the Umuada group is synonymous with women who enforce practices that ensure widows not just have their hair shaved off, but also drink the water used to wash off a spouse’s dead body while being required to spend a night with his corpse. All of which – they say – is to prove the widow’s innocence in the killing of her husband, regardless of how he died.
In other ethnic groups in Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria, it is said that a widow will have her pubic hair shaved, her fingernails cut and buried near the grave to sever her relationship with the dead man according to the predominant belief. She may also be subject to a public bath by other women and denied land rights too except on the occasion that she has a male child.
In extreme Igbo cultures, the widow may be inherited by the late man’s brother in a cultural process called Nkuchi. Nkuchi refers mainly to widow levirate marriages which is the act of a widow being made to marry her late husband’s brother in order to “maintain the familial ties and wealth”. One has to wonder why widowers are not made to marry their late wife’s sister in order to strengthen the family’s relationship. Nkuchi also refers to all forms of traditional Igbo surrogacy such as the marriage of a wife for a dead man in order to produce the dead man a male heir.
Like in leviration, it is also the late man’s brothers who sleep with her to ensure a male heir. In both, the women are strictly monitored and cannot entertain the possibility of leaving to be with other men. In this arrangement, she is also the recognized wife of a dead man who answers his name and is seen in the community as his wife but is required to sleep with her former brother-in-law and continue the process of childbearing to produce sons to maintain the memory and legacy of a dead man. The novel, Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta describes leviration in particular through the character of Adaku who left a marriage where she was inherited to be a second wife. Emecheta’s mother in real life was also inherited to be a wife shortly after her father died.
Other cultures like the Yorubas also practice widowhood rituals such as the seclusion of widows, the requirement of her wearing black clothes and making her eat food from broken plates or pots.
Nigeria has over 250 ethnic groups so it would be impossible to totally capture all discriminatory widowhood practices. It must however be reiterated that marriage must not mean an expectation of a downward spiral in the minds of women should their husbands die.
Marriage must not mean that women fear that the home they built alongside their husbands or even solely funded themselves, is at risk of a loss the moment they lose their husbands and that their children risk destitution as well.
The only realistic protection is legal protection, not just for widows but for daughters and wives as well. It also needs to be ingrained into the social consciousness of Nigerians that it is unacceptable to deny women landed property or harass women who are single if they want to rent housing.
Denying daughters land, insisting that single female house renters bring fake boyfriends even when they are paying and stripping widows of their housing and financial wherewithal all point to one thing. These point to the discomfort of women not having a male “head” to control them and inadvertently their sexuality in a housing unit.
And that thinking is simply unacceptable and dangerous to the well-being of all Nigerian women single or married.