Generally as it applies to Africa, the image of the African woman we mostly are used to as it is reflected in the mainstream media is related to poverty, migration, war and disease. Even though they are not talked about as they are supposed to, we have other images of the African woman these days ranging from a President to a best runaway model, a successful athlete to a Nobel Laureate. Strong African women figures, however, are not new phenomena for Africa. In history, we find strong queens and warriors influencing their time in a big way. It would be enough to mention Cleopatra of Egypt, Queen of Sheba of Ethiopia, Ya Asantewa of the Ashanti, Queen Amina of Nigeria and so on.
In regards to the changing faces of the African Woman, however, I am interested in the ordinary African woman we see in day to day life. You might already be familiar with the image of the African woman whom you might read about in many gender discourses as the most deprived and disadvantaged victim of her own traditions. African cultures are generally viewed as sexist and curse for the African woman, who invites the lip service of her Western counterparts for her calamities of circumcision, arranged marriage, and exploitation. Apart from that, less has been said about the traditional African woman in her traditional beauty and strength, the woman who is the warrior, the leader, the story teller, the glue of her family, the healer and the wisdom for her community.
When it comes to looks, we, African women actually, are the first in brushing away those features from our faces and embrace the ‘modern’ image, which we think should be adopted. But, on the way, we only ended up at a fleck where self recognition attains the impossible. Our true beauty is hidden in our artificial hair dyed blond and our powder brushed faces. Our inner beauty suffered a lot in the mean while. Like most women in the world, caught up in the westernized beauty standards, African women are facing the struggle to achieve skinny figures, lighter skin, long and straight hair. If our foremothers would look at our women that we crown African beauty queens these days, they would ask why those girls are underfed.
Coming up with a blond Chinese man and blue-eyed Indians, it is clear that we are not the only one affected by this fever, namely, westernization or rather ‘Americoglization’. We just don’t afford to keep quiet about it, specially seeing how uncontrollably it is changing the faces of the African Woman- who is the life and soul of the African pride!
Beyond doubt, modernisation has brought good things for the African woman. Getting rid of the drawbacks of our traditions, like that of polygamy, circumcision, and child marriage should be definitely a celebration for all African women. The faces of the African woman, of course, naturally evolve with these reformations that are going on. But modernisation didn’t come only with constructive ideas like these. The problem appears when we fail to differentiate between good and bad in our cultures and throw away the whole package and embrace everything that has been introduced to us. This clearly is showing through the growing moral laxity, which is putting the institution of marriage and generally sexual relationships at stake. Through this, we can see the image of the African woman cracking down from the strong woman, who is the centre of her family to the modern wife, who wouldn’t mind to file for divorce for wacky reasons such as mismatched bed sheets. Even though it is a relief for the African woman that arranged marriage is becoming history, the fact that it is being replaced by materialism and multiple relations makes it even more dangerous to our societies.
In the old good times, marriage was unthinkable without the woman’s virginity, which had its own say on the African woman identity. This was criticized as unfair on the woman in contrast to the man, who doesn’t have to deal with such expectations. But, when we really see what is going on today with young girls becoming sexually active at very young age, aren’t we beginning to say ‘those good old days!’ Especially with the alarming growth rate of HIV/AIDS and teenage pregnancy, who wouldn’t wish those days were back?
The same thing with the outer image! In some of our traditions, our ancestral mothers, we heard, didn’t feel any shame going through their daily courses with bare chest. Today, we are also putting less and less cloth in the name of fashion. May be we are reclaiming our culture ha? Even our traditional cloths, slashed up disgracefully to fit into contemporary fashion, have not escaped the ‘I wanna be American’ epidemic. The thing is, in old times when our mothers were not using much cloth; women were not viewed as sexualized objects. They were just mothers, sisters, and wives at the right outfit that their people expect them to be. Today, things do not work like that any more.
One fact that we can’t deny is that like everybody else the African woman is affected by her surroundings, globalization and everything that is happening in the world. Hence, it would be difficult to except her to stick with her old traditional reflections. Expecting the sweet, caring, calabash-carrying, hip swaying African woman would be too naïve. Embracing the so called ‘modern’ image as it is could also have its awkward outcomes, especially when being ‘modern’ is mistakenly taken as trying to be what we are not.