Note: on being a “good wife” in the Gambia.

You must obey your husband. You must keep his secrets. You must bear the pain he inflicts in secret because that is where the blessings of your children would come from. Remember! A good wife, is a wife that would get beat up by her husband at night and tell people she fell when asked what happened to her face. A good wife would provide for the family in secret and pretend that her husband is the one providing for the family.

These are some of the things I hear people tell new brides and I have been told that I should do when I ever get married (if I want to be considered a good wife). Bell hooks puts it perfectly in her book when she says “we are not allowed in this culture to speak the truth about what relationships with men are really like….. To be true to patriarchy, we are all taught that we must keep men’s secrets”[1]

This is true and it reflect The Gambian society to a great extent, from childhood women are taught to keep the secrets of men. One of the things that wives must do is “sutura” (keep the secret of their homes). Other people must not know what women really face in their homes. Women are supposed to find pride in keeping the secrets of their husbands, regardless of what those secrets are.

I have a neighbor who beats and humiliates his wife publicly. The wife is praised by both men and women. She is referred to as an exemplary woman because regardless of how badly her husband treats her, she never talks back at him or complain about the physical abuse she endures. She is the “Perfect” Gambian wife, she let’s go of her dreams, aspirations, and what little independence she had, and commits to serving her husband. She takes the slaps, the punches, and the kicks without complain. She quits her job because her husband does not want her to work, she takes care of the family and all that comes in between without complain.

Generally, this is what is expected of a wife in The Gambia. The first thing I hear people tell new brides is “sey mung la” (marriage is about enduring pain). Your worth as a woman and a wife is measured by how much pain you can take. As a result, when women are in abusive marriages, society encourages them to stay in these relationships and when they do, society applauds them. The pain women endure is seen as an investment to the future of their children.

Women are convinced that the blessing of their children is dependent on how much pain they can take in silence. Perhaps this is because from childhood women  are told over and over again that legai yee ndey anig yee dom (a mothers work is the childs lunch), or perhaps it is because everytime people talk about “successful people” they talk about how their mothers “worked for it” how they took every ounce of pain thrown at them by their husbands, how they carefully covered their scars and never left their marital homes regardless of how tough it was as if the road to success is through your mothers pain.

I have witnessed several occasions where people try to encourage women to stay in abusive marriages “for the sake of the children”. Similarly, I have heard many women who are in abusive marriages, say that they stay in these abusive marriages “for the sake of the children”.

This is society’s way of making women feel that they have to stay in abusive marriages; if women belief that enduring both physical and emotional abuse from their husbands, somehow contributes to the future of their children and may determine whether their children will succeed in life or not. Ultimately, some women will stay in abusive situations and sacrifice their happiness, as well as endure all that is thrown at them for their children.

As a society we have somehow normalized domestic violence especially between husband and wife. Violence towards women is never justified. But, society has a way of making women feel that it is their fault that they are being abused by their husbands. Women are told to be silent when he is angry, to dress better, to cook better, to always ask for his permission before going out, and change all that he wants them to change.

Women are expected to change almost everything about themselves upon marriage; if she is a very outgoing person, she would be expected to stop going out as much. If the way she dress does not fit in societies narrow definition of what is considered moral, she would be expected to change the way she dress. If she works, and her husband does not feel comfortable with her working, she would be expected to quit her job as long as he can provide for the family (especially if he is rich).

This is an outrageous double standard, women are expected to change all that is undesired by their husband and adjust to what he wants them to be while the husband is expected to change barely anything . In the exceptional cases where the husband is expected to change something upon marriage “he is a man” is usually a justification when he does not change but “she is a woman” is never a justification when a woman fails to adjust to what is expected of her upon marriage.

The man should be the one to have all or almost all of the economic control in the marriage. I have been told by both men and women that I should work hard but not too hard because if I have “too much” money I would never get married because no man would want to marry a woman richer than him. Similarly, I have heard men say they would never marry a rich woman because a rich woman would “disrespect them”. When men say that a rich woman would disrespect them, usually what they mean is that; she would actually have a voice in their relationship and refuse to conform to the traditional gender roles. Growing up I have seen many women who quit their jobs upon marriage because their husbands insisted that they do.

This feeds to the narrative that women are supposed to be controlled by their husbands; the person who is responsible for most of your financial needs will definitely have a certain degree of control over you. Furthermore, if women depend on their husbands financially for everything, it makes it harder to leave when things get unbearable.

All women are born whole and worthy. Our worth as women should come from our character not our gender. As women we should be at liberty to choose what is important to us and be who we choose to be; not society telling us what should be important to us and who we should be.

Each woman should decide what her character should be without being pressured to conform to the patriarchal gender roles, just like each woman should decide what being a woman means to them. In a nutshell, every woman should have the freedom to choose how she wants to live her life.

Marriage as we know it stems from a long-standing tradition of institutionalized patriarchy, which basically perceives the wife as the property of the husband. The Use of pain, obedience and submissiveness as a yard stick to measure the worth of a woman in a marriage further enforces the patriarchy.

This is quite problematic because this is the “system’s” way of ensuring its longevity. Mothers teach their daughters to endure the pain imposed on them by men in silence and secret, as they have been taught by their mothers and the cycle continues.

Marriage can be a great source of love and happiness, but the social rules governing marriage are deeply rooted in a system that punishes women and girls for their gender. It is time to change the rules governing marriage to fit the needs of both genders and protect the dignity of both men and women.

It is time to #changetheculture .

8 thoughts on “Note: on being a “good wife” in the Gambia.

  1. This is what women are facing every day but they are afraid to raise their voices some lie to cover up abuse. If you can bear pain you are a true woman and your kids would prosper that’s what your elders tell you . Thanks dagen you are the kind of writers we need in our country.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is one of the most informative pieces I have read this year so far. It is quite refreshing to see young women who have yet to enter the institution of marriage speak their truth and understand their rights. This means there’s hope for the future and that we will do a better job changing some of the deeply rooted norms for our children and generations to come. Keep typing Degen! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Long time supporter, and thought I’d drop a comment.

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