Is the shaving of hair punishment for widows or honour to the husband?

By Sunny Igboanugo

As a reporter, I recall an encounter that took place in my office at The Guardian in Enugu some years ago. The memory of that episode is rekindled and induced by a post I’ve just read on Facebook, where some women are pouring out uncontrollable invective over what they seem to be all in agreement, is a specially-designed punishment for women, of course by the men dominated African society.

Now, before I delve into the story, let me ask, was there a time men came together to fashion a set of rules purely to punish the womenfolk as reflected in the set of rules and norms that operate within the society. Come to think of it, between men and women, who is the oppressor in the real sense? Now, read!

There was this particular woman who ran an NGO. We became close because I used to publish her activities in the paper. I think she used the newspaper cuttings to file her reports to her foreign sponsors.
Everything was going on well even though I found most of the contents of her advocacy disagreeable, if not all of them. But I didn’t bother because what she was saying didn’t affect me in any way. In fact the mildest way of putting it, if you ask me for my truest opinion, was 419, perhaps, the refined, mild form of it. But it was not my business.
I didn’t see the way it affected me if the Oyibo people, who were her targets and sponsors believed her story that African men married their wives just to suppress, humiliate and punish them. With my own knowledge I was aware that in my neck of the woods men actually went out of their ways including wearing patch-patch knickers while their wives adorn their wardrobes with gold trinkets and fine laces to worship and make their wives happy. No doubt they also expected total reciprocation of that sacrifice in total obedience and submission. Anything wrong with that?
I knew that most of the things she wrote were outright lies and in most cases, where there were elements of truth, they were found in the exception and not the rule. But, as I said, I never challenged her. Besides, I was just doing the job of a reporter. Just report what you’re given and leave the interpretation to others.
Madam’s advocacy tapered towards the same Harmful Widowhood Practice mantra – the usual modern day narrative of most women – most of them either using it as a gambit to advance their bitter war against the society, especially the menfolk, for multiple reasons, particularly failed relationships, or outright 419.
Need I say that Madam became extremely wealthy as a result of her work. I could guess that less than a quarter of the funding from her sponsors went into the actual project, while the rest went into many other things outside her advocacy like building her own houses and buying exotic cars.

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Of course, she became a regular visitor to different countries of Europe and America, where she went to further convince Oyibo people on the suffering African women were being subjected and made more money in hard currency.

Yet, I never bothered to break her pot of honey despite the bees hovering dangerously around it. That was until she came for me.

I had actually done a report of an event that happened at a wedding in Enugu, where a bride slapped the father-in-law during her wedding reception, thus ending the event in a bloody war between the two parties after she got the beating of her life from the groom’s family.

Even though I reported the event as it happened without adding salt or pepper and without imputing any extraneous opinion, Madam felt I should have done more to support the woman.

First, I was surprised that she supported the girl’s behaviour. But that was not enough. It was her stretching the argument and even lashing out at me for disagreeing that brought down the roof in my office.

My people say, if a deity becomes too arrogant, its worshippers would show it the tree from where it was carved. It was actually a hot debate and I would have allowed her opinion ride as usual until she descended on me with personal abuses as she started again on her “how women were the butt of the African society” narrative.

That was how we began to debate point by point those contents of her advocacy I had hitherto decided to ignore.

First, I asked her to name one community where women are forced to drink the bathwater of their deceased husband.

Of course, she couldn’t name any, because I knew there was none. When she couldn’t, I now told her that wherever it happened, it was an exception and not the rule. In that case, it could only happen where a woman is suspected of killing her husband or having a hand in it, directly or indirectly. I also reminded her that even a man could be made to drink the deceased wife’s bathwater to prove that he did not kill her in times of serious disputes.

The second one was a woman shaving her hair. I asked her what happened in a case where a man’s wife died. Did he not shave his hair? Did he not wear mourning clothes for his wife? So, how would it be punishment if the wife shaved her hair when the husband died and not be a crime if the man did it if the wife died?

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I told madam that when my father died, nobody dragged my mother out of the house to shave her hair with a broken bottle as a form of punishment. It was my mother that submitted herself to be shaved, just like us the children as part of the mourning process in respect of her husband. My mother never saw it as punishment, but an honour to her husband.

I then asked her what happened in the Western world in similar cases. Did the widow not wear black and appear in dark goggles as a sign of mourning and vice versa the widower?

Part of her complaints was how the Umuada, the husband’s sisters usually surrounded the widow to punish her by confining her to a corner during the mourning period.

Again, I put a lie to that. I told madam that those women were not there to punish her, but on the contrary, to console her. Those women include the Umuada, of course and her own people, either sisters or close friends. Their job was really to ensure that her sorrow did not go overboard. Yes, they may even speak harshly at her, but it was always to bring her back to reality. For instance, you could hear someone barking at her: “Shut up! Okay, cry. Die and join him and see who you leave your children for.” Those are never harsh words, but consolation words.

What about the husband’s brothers chasing his wife away and or seizing his properties when the husband dies? Again, fallacy! At best, an exception rather than the rule, at least in the Igbo society, where I come from. In such a case, there is always someone who would challenge such wicked moves either from the family or outside. I even went further to declare to her that a widow is the most protected person in our land and most likely to get sympathy and people to defend her interest than the woman her husband is still alive.

By the time I was done, madam had become sober, because she knew the ground she was standing on, was quite slippery and porous. She knew she wasn’t talking to a novice.

Yes, there are situations. But definitely the forebears, who established such customs, never did so to punish anyone. Rather, it was a way of building a stable society, where everything worked in sequences and processes, clearly known to everyone.

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In Igboland, for instance, everything is clearly arranged, including punishment and rewards. For instance the widow, who allows her hair to be shaved by the umuada, is also an Ada in her father’s house and would shave another widow. She would probably not accept her own “wife” not honouring her brother at death by refusing to shave her hair.

In the first place, is there no difference between mourning and celebration? Is there not supposed to be a difference? Even in the Western culture, how does the society see a woman who goes partying after losing her husband, even with all the independence and freedom they supposedly enjoy in their own system?

In most cases, it is the woman who chooses what to do. I remember my uncle’s widow used to package the gizzard and butt of the chicken she killed in her house to my father. Voluntarily!
In all the cases, my father was never aware that she killed a chicken. She did it out of respect, which my father reciprocated in many ways. She does so, because my father was the first to call in terms of danger in her household.

If a chicken is killed in a family, the woman knows that the waist side and every other nkonkorosis in it belongs to her as of right while the gizzard and the butt are traditionally that of the man. It’s the woman that decids to tamper with a gizzard that runs Into trouble. When such a woman complains next time, ask her what happened to the waist.

In the same manner, if a goat is killed within the Umunna, it is clear that the waist must go to the Umuada and the rest to the men. If the men decide to tamper with any part thereof, they know the penalty is a full goat.

The African society, particularly the Igbo, is a self-regulating society. It is the attempt by those who wish to truncate or dislocate the equilibrium, such as the social media soldiers that are the troublemakers and not those trying to sustain it.

They’re the enemies of the society. A woman shaving her hair when the husband dies is no punishment, because the husband would do exactly the same if she dies. Those saying otherwise are the wicked ones and should not be allowed to destroy the society.

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