Scrape her Head and Lay Her Bare – Widowhood Practices and Culture

Oh Death, where is thy sting? For the widow, a woman who has just been bereaved of her husband, death stings, strips her bare and exposes her to humiliating physical and psychological violence; often in the name of culture, usually by those who should console her and support her in her time of bereavement.

Widowhood practices in West Africa are considered part of cleansing rituals designed to remove the bond that links a living spouse to a dead one. These practices are carried out as part of culture. Therefore, anyone who fails to fulfil the requirements of the rituals risks social exclusion and family or personal calamity. The Igbos of South-Eastern Nigeria (comprising Imo, Ebonyi, Abia, Enugu and Anambra States) widowhood practices impact on the life, health and wellbeing of women.

Violence against women, by Article 1(j) of the Protocol to the African Charter on human and peoples’ rights on the rights of women in Africa, accounts for “all acts perpetrated against women which cause or could cause them physical, sexual, psychological, and economic harm, including the threat to take such acts; or to undertake the imposition of arbitrary restrictions on or deprivation of fundamental freedoms in private or public life in peace time and during situations of armed conflicts or of war.”

When violence is directed against a woman because she is a woman or where such violence affects women “disproportionately,” this has been described by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women General Recommendation No. 19 (a) as gender based violence. This violence also includes “acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty.”

Widows suffer a disproportionate form of ritual cleansing compared to widowers in Igbo culture. Widows may be subjected to the following:

1. Scraping or Cutting of hair (on the head and pubic area) with a blunt razor

2. Crying loudly for long and sustained periods

3. Lying down or sleeping next to the corpse of the dead spouse

4. Forced to drink water which has been used to wash the dead spouse

5. Stripped naked or made to bathe in public

6. Jeered or pushed around if she fails to cry loud enough or long enough

7. Made to sit on a hard floor while she cries

8. Dressed in filthy clothes or rags as a sign or mourning

9. Subjected to hurtful comments and possibly accused of causing the death of her spouse

10. Prevented from washing or having a bath for a given period

11. Forced to eat from unwashed bowls

12. Requested to be in a period of mourning for 1 year

A widow may suffer one or many of the rituals listed. Her treatment differs from state to state and even village to village, according to Dr. Esther Nzewi in her book Widowhood practices: A female perspective.

The most common sign of bereavement is the scraping of the widow’s hair probably, all of it by the “Umuada” – women related to the dead spouse, often his sisters. They play a unique role in the widowhood practice as they ensure that the widow complies with the demands of ‘culture.’ The number and cruelty level of rituals inflicted on the widow depends on the relationship she has with her in-laws, often whether or not they are jealous of her. If relations are poor and plagued by jealousy, the period of mourning provides the sisters with an opportunity to demean their widowed sister-in-law. If the widow is lucky enough to have mature daughters, her treatment will be less severe, as through connection to their father, are part of the Umuada and can protect their mother from harsher treatment. (In addition, if the widow’s relatives are influential or wealthy, they can offer bribes to the leaders of the Umuada to be lenient towards the widow.

A widower on the other hand, enjoys lighter treatment. In some Igbo towns, he may be required to shave his head, beard and moustache as a sign of mourning often done by his brothers or male relatives. Compared to a widow, whose hair is shaved by her in-laws, even when her daughters are part of the Umuada, they are not permitted to shave her hair. The widower may be contained to his compound for 28 days whereas a widow can be held up to a year. Moreover, men are free to continue to conduct their daily business, whereas women are barred from having social calls or going to the market (Nzewi 1989).

Scholars have tried to understand and explain the rituals imposed on widows, yet there are few answers. Social Scientists, Shirley Ardener and Joseph Therese, likened the mourning period to the Igbo Calendar year (“mgba aho”) which is 9 months long. “It can be as a ritual assertion of the continuous informing and reforming dimensions of a woman’s life.”

Regardless of possible explanations the physical and psychological violence inflicted on widows as part of ritual cleansings is now an opportunity for abuse and dominance. It maintains unequal power relations for women and perpetuates the belief in the superiority of men over women, through the imbalance of severity in cleansing rituals.

The imposition of widowhood practices in present day is inexcusable given the culture of human rights and gender equality that exists. It is not international regulations that have affected widowhood practice, as much as I would like to say it were, it is the changing work environment in Nigeria, as many women now have full-time jobs and have migrated from rural to urban areas. However, while the length of a widow’s mourning may be reduced, she is still at risk of being subjected to the cultural shaving and wearing of rags. Some Igbo states in Nigeria like Enugu (Prohibition of Infringement of Widow and Widower’s Fundamental Rights Law 2001) and Anambra (Malpractices against Widows and Widowers (Prohibition) Law, 2004) have enacted laws prohibiting harmful widowhood practices and refusing to recognise them as part of culture. However, implementation of these laws is very poor as culture is ingrained in the people and the custodians of these traditions are unwilling to modify them.

The existence of the Umuada, a group of women, provides a platform to stop the infliction of violence against women during the mourning period. With education, one would think the incidences of abusive cleansing rituals would be reduced, however, educated women continue the practice. This is perhaps because they are also at risk of being violated by members of their husband’s family on his death. Sustained and active human rights education aimed at improving women’s rights knowledge and increasing women’s opportunities to economic and social welfare schemes may help to curb this perpetuation of violence which has been sustained under the vehicle of ‘culture,’ writes Amobi Linus Ilika and Uche Rose Ilika. It is imperative to reach the Umuadas, they write, as they can be instrumental in changing traditions prescribed by men by refusing to partake in such practices against other women. Yet, in the end it is the Nigerian State which has the greatest responsibility to take appropriate and effective measures, not only legislative measures to modify social and cultural patterns of conduct, protect women’s right to dignity and freedom from violence, but also in practice. It must prevent, punish and eradicate violence against women and ensure equal treatment as stated in the Protocol to the African Charter on human and peoples’ rights on the rights of women in Africa. The most useful tool the state can use to eliminate violence against women within the cultural context is education; particularly directed at custodians of culture including the Umuada who can help eradicate widowhood practices that harm women. It is my hope it will. But until then women with shaved heads lay bare.

About the author

Osai Ojigho is a Programmes Officer with the Alliances for Africa’s African Court Project. In this role Ojigho advocates for the justice and human rights and the Africa Court. She has studied Law in her home country of Nigeria and at the University of Wolverhampton in England. She is passionate about human rights and women’s rights.

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