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February 17, 2019

Women make societies

My sister is getting married and her 'itara' took place this last Saturday. Assuming that you have seen the inside of a mud hut, the itara is the rack over the three-stone jiko where families store firewood and some kitchen essentials.

When it comes to marriage, the itara is the final function when a young woman’s mother in-law invites a bride and the women in her family over to inspect the marital hut and ensure that the itara is full.

Traditionally, a bride would leave her family and move in with her new husband. She would not be acclimatised to her new surroundings and thus not know where to fetch water and firewood, and obviously she wouldn’t have harvested anything. The itara is a mother-in-law’s opportunity to welcome the young bride into her family.

It is a feminine event that allows women to bond and pass on last-minute advice to the new bride and other young women who are present.

These days the function has received a bit of a makeover, and men from both sides are allowed to attend the lunch. The main event, which includes the handing over of ‘the hut’ and the inspection of the kitchen, is however still done by women only.

 So anyway, there I was at my sister’s itara, and what was new this time is that I sat in when the married women were passing advice to my sister.

What they had to say resonated with me. You see, I grew up feeling that I had to fight for my space in the world as a girl – to prove that I was as, if not more, capable and intelligent than the boys. Typical advice for women at these functions says ‘shut-up, submit, and of course, cook well’.

The visual of a good wife then becomes that of a silent woman, pounding her frustration into chapati mix, ugali or mash potatoes (I rebelled against that, becoming a loud woman who hides her estimable culinary skills). I find the advice annoying on a good day and infuriating if I am hormonal. This time, however, it hit me differently.

 In fighting for women’s rights, and insisting on parity with men, the feminist movement denigrated what is feminine as weak. As feminists emulated the powerful (read male) they disregarded feminine gifts, and indeed if you call a woman ‘feminine’ in a boardroom today, she might just demand an apology.

The movement has borne lots of fruit and opportunity for women but it has cost western women and those of us educated by them gifts that my aunties were reminding us not to let go of.

 What I heard at the itara is that the role of a wife is to set a tone in the home – welcoming, warm or austere. It is mum’s choice. The feminine instinct to nurture a family, to create a space where your family can express themselves and thrive emotionally is not only sublime, it is divine.

If you think of the home as the trampoline from which we all project into the world, and form society as a whole, the feminine role gains gravitas, and it is no longer weak.

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