Many women generally, but particularly in the context of matrimony, have mothers, grandmothers and/or aunts who inspire courage and tenacity when facing adversity. In some instances, these women end up sacrificing and providing for their families in multiple (and at times, precarious) ways. The source and drive of their courage, strength, resilience, and endurance often stems from the ways in which they have been raised. Especially in more traditional and patriarchal contexts, women of older generations tend to engage in the process of preparing young girls for marriage, motherhood and a binary world in which they will be expected to have particular identities, occupy particular spaces, and perform particular roles. In most African societies, while this is considered to be critical for the young girl’s development, it is also potentially detrimental. The oral discourses and proverbs used often influence women to perform their gender identities in ways that are docile and silent. The discourse of ‘persevering’ through difficult circumstances and toxic relationships is thus gendered, and often positions women as subservient – the expectation being for them to endure the unthinkable in order to conform to the status quo of a ‘strong black woman’ (Matsila, 2020).
Using the concept of Bekezela, my aim is to show how the proverb, often used as the basis for constructing femininity/womanhood, is a double-edged sword. On one hand, I show how this concept can inspire young women to be bold, persistent and resilient to the extent of occupying spaces previously reserved for men. For example, the concept can be used in positive and subversive ways, to motivate and inspire women to start businesses or projects that might result in the empowerment of present and future generations. On the other hand, however, the concept can also contribute to silence regarding domestic violence; the tolerance of unequal and oppressive power relations in the family system and the workplace; and tolerance of men’s infidelity which often has negative impacts on the sexual and mental health of their partners. This is especially so if bekezela is thought of in the simplistic and ‘conventional’ sense of conforming to, saving and servicing the normative family, where power hierachies make patriarchy visible and dominant; and women invisible, submissive and subservient.
The process of constructing ‘gender’ and gender identities is social and psychological. It is also comprised of multiple concepts which are associated with the roles and expectations imposed on a particular sex in accordance with prevailing gender norms. Evident here is the fact that, at a social level, gender roles serve as various prescriptions or ways to act in a given situation. Thus, in relation to the process of socialisation, people are taught how to behave and interact with themselves and others and, subsequently, translate prevailing scripts of behavior into manifestations of their own identities by performing specific gendered ‘selves’.
The socialisation process reflects broader gendered power structures within which women are subordinate to men, and in turn, some women attain higher status than other women through their successful enactment of prevailing feminine scripts (Cole & Zucker, 2007:1). These systems of relating, often create hierarchies of womanhood. This is evident in various popular discourses, whereby women are often competitively compared with each other on the basis of their behavioral attributes, physical attributes, success, marital status and/or whether they have husbands and children.
Proverbs are regarded as nuggets of folk wisdom which are rendered in the form of succinct sayings. According to Ralph (cited in Mmadike, 2014:98), “a proverb is any saying which expresses an opinion or attitude about life, is fairly common knowledge within a community, and is regarded as traditional.” This serves as the broth or medium in which words are consumed and social behaviour is regulated. African societies often appeal to proverbs as a means of framing their moral stances towards gendered issues, including infidelity and multiple concurrent sexual partners, womanhood, and manhood.
The proverbs are also often sexist in nature and laden with derogatory reference to any member of the opposite sex (Mmadike, 2014). Most African cultures have a number of such proverbs which are targeted predominantly at the ‘female’. They serve to conceptualise the images of femininity that many African people ascribe to women. The choice of proverbs in this paper is based on the fact that proverbs form part of wider oral discourses through which one can gain insights into prevailing societal configurations
In 2019, when I was conducting a study on the constructions of black femininities in rural Venda (northern South Africa), I noted that when I asked mothers and their daughters questions about womanhood, the word “perseverance” came up multiple times. I conducted 18 interviews in total, and was intrigued to discover that the word was strongly connected to marriage and was constructed as one of the essences of womanhood. What I did not realise at the time was that the participants were offering me a translation of the Tshivenda proverb “musadzi ndi wa u kondelela,” which means “a woman perseveres / womanhood is perseverance”.
Through conversations with colleagues, I have since learned that the notion of ‘perseverance’ as a necessary component of successful womanhood is characteristic of many African societies. For example, in Zimbabwe, the word kushingirira/kutsungirira (perseverance) is largely associated with women. In South Africa, the word bekezela (perseverance) is also associated most saliently with women, as the responsibility to make their marriages work often rests largely on them. Moreover, in many contexts, women bear the social cost of marriage failures.
Men, are often reminded that “munna ha lili” (a man does not cry), they are encouraged down this route by a culture and environment which cheers a laddish and overtly masculine mind frame. Traditionally, men are seen as being weak or unmanly in some way if they expressed themselves through crying, as a result, they bottle up their emotional feelings and rarely express themselves when facing challenges. Over the long term, this can have negative impact on their ability to manage emotions and, of course, this will have a negative impact on their mental health and possibly on their ability to form close, open and honest relationships as adults. Moreover, “they may also begin to internalize the damaging stereotype that to be a ‘real man’ they need to be tough and invulnerable, which may be completely at odds with their authentic selves, which may be sensitive and gentle” (Walsh, 2019).
The bekezela ideology is also used to encourage people (regardless of their gender identity) to be patient amid challenges and chaos as perseverance is thought to result in triumph. This ideology has also been expressed by African novelists, discussed next.
This novel by Buchi Emecheta is rooted on the notion that it is a necessity for a woman to be fertile, and above all to give birth to sons. This novel explores the life of a Nigerian woman Nnu-Ego. Nnu-Ego’s life revolves around her children and through them, she gains the respect of her community. Nnu-Ego in the Joys of motherhood reveals the complex effect of persevering. She dutifully accepts and fulfills her role as a woman in Ibo society. Her initial quest was justification and validation which one achieves through bearing sons. When she could not conceive with her first husband, the marriage is dissolved and she is filled with apprehension and shame. Her second marriage produced a highly prized son, and she realises the happiness denied to her, only to have that joy shattered when her son dies in infancy. The death of her son becomes, by extension the death of Nnu-Ego. She sees no reason to live if she cannot succeed in the single role of bearing and rearing children. Slowly she comes to new realialisation about what is truly important to her, forcing her to re-examine her role and function as a woman in her society. Although she becomes a vital economic force in the community, essentially setting up her own business to help her family survive, she is seen as merely an economic unit, a machine for producing and rearing male heirs. Nnu-Ego comes to believe that aspirations of being solely a mother and provider are too limiting and dispiriting. Rather than serving the collective unit of the family, her children pursue their own course and seek to place their own self-fulfilment and individual destinies before their family responsibilities. Nnu-Ego’s hope and joy become disillusionment as she dies, alone, at the side of the road, an ambivalent figure with little to show for her years of selflessness and sacrifice.
Through Nnu-Ego’s journey, Emecheta reveals and celebrate the pleasures derived from fulfilling responsibilities related to family matters in child bearing, mothering, and nurturing activities among women. Furthermore, the author also highlights how the ‘joys of motherhood’ also include anxiety, obligation and pain.
So Long A Letter follows the story of two women from Senegal, Ramatoulaye and Aissatou. They are childhood friends whose path diverge in adulthood when Aissatou moves to America, leaving Ramatoulaye behind in Senegal. The novel is written in letter form by Ramatoulaye to her friend, recounting the latest events in her life and reminiscing about their shared childhood and adolescence. In the novel, the author, Mariama Ba grapples with changing social climates and the role women play in them, paying particular attention to the ways in which education allows women to lift themselves up, while lack of education leaves them stunted and with few options. Moreover, through Ramatoulaye and Aissatou shared past and divergent adult lives, the author shapes a narrative of the many ways in which women can resist tradition, and create new spaces and the roles for themselves and their daughters.
For instance, much of Ramatoulaye’s character development over the course of the book involves her growing ability to see women, including herself, as fully autonomous humans deserving of equality. Aissatou’s decision to leave her husband after he takes a second wife is a feminist act. Especially, since she was counselled by women and men alike to accept the new marriage, as she and her sons “belong” with Mawdo (her husband) and “cannot succeed” (p32) without him. Evident here is the fact that she was being asked to persevere in the marriage. However, she leaves the marriage with a strongly-worded letter making clear that both she and her sons are separate, equal, humans. “I am stripping myself of your love, your name” (pg33). She writes, “clothed in my dignity, the only worthy garment, I go my way” (pg33). While Ramatoulaye praises her friend for the bold move, when faced with an identical situation years later, she struggles with whether to leave her husband. “Leave? Start again at zero….?” (pg41) she wonders. Ramatoulaye laments the fact that in a patriarchal society, as women age their worth diminishes, but men become distinguished, and she stays in the marriage.
Nervous conditions, a novel by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangaremba, was first published in 1988. The novel is set over a period of about ten years, from the 1960s to the early 1970s, and takes place in Zimbabwe before the country had attained official independence from Britain and while it was still known as Rhodesia. The author draws on her own experience of growing up in Rhodesia during that period. The novel centres around the experience of several female characters as they either challenge, or come to terms with, the traditional patriarchal structure of their society. For example, the young narrator, Tambu, shows great determination as she overcomes all the obstacles to her progress in life. She is sensitive and highly intelligent, she discovers early in her life that being a girl deprives her of some of the privileges that are automatically enjoyed by boys. She resents the fact that in her family, her education is less a priority than that of her brother. She is dutiful and respectful to authority of her uncle and grateful to him for giving her educational opportunities. Eventually she learns not to take everything at face value but to evaluate it for herself. By the end of the novel, she is well on the way of becoming a mature young woman, who has had the courage and perseverance to grow beyond the limited role that was prescribed for her in the poor rural family in which she grew up. Tambu’s mother, Ma’Shingayi, comes from a poor family background and has endured 19 years of unhappiness in her marriage. For most part, she is resigned to her fate and the restricted life of poverty she leads and counsels the young Tambu to accept her lot as a woman (i.e. persevere).
Nyasha is Tambu’s cousin, and is a radical young woman with a rebellious nature. For example, she reads books that her parents consider unsuitable, and she secretly smokes cigarettes; she wants to act independently and refuses to accept traditional gender roles. For Nyasha, perseverance revolves around her ability to remain steadfast against traditional gendered notions of femininities that render her inferior and subservient; she enacts this by actively challenging her father’s authority. Everything about Nyasha spoke of alternatives and possibilities of womanhood/ existence as described by her cousin Tambu.
The ‘perseverance’ proverb is often used to encourage women to remain with their husbands, even through compromising or difficult circumstances. However, the novels also reveal the multiple ways in which education and economic empowerment serve as emancipatory mechanisms. The women’s myriad ways of persevering towards achieving their personal goals shows that bekezela is not only negative but serves as a tool that women can use to challenge restrictive patriarchal norms.
According to the women that I interviewed, the ‘bekezela’ proverb is also directed to young girls in preparation for their future marriages. When I spoke to Sarah, a 55-year-old traditional healer, she told me that when a woman gets married, she is told by women elders that she has to “persevere” because “munna u nga nwana,” which means that “a man is like a child”. When asked to elaborate, she mentioned that this means that a man can go out and do whatever he wants and the woman must persevere, and be patient with him as “women mature earlier than men”. The idea is that, if one perseveres long enough, then the man will eventually grow up, and be faithful. Moreover, this also means that since a man is a child, he cannot and should not be abandoned.
Against this backdrop, men and women operate with very different ideas about marriage, or perhaps I can say that when these proverbs are not challenged and taken to be the basis of gender dynamics in marriages, they allow for different behaviour from men and women. Specifically, while women are told that marriage and womanhood are about perseverance, men are told that they are like children. Furthermore, men are also told that ‘real men’ don’t cry even when they are struggling, meaning that they are not only burdened with the responsibilities they must take on as head of the household but, are also given mixed messages regarding manhood and marriage. Although neither proverb overtly refers to fidelity, in both cases, this is the primary application. Therefore, while women shoulder the burden of responsibility modelled for them by proverbs about women’s role in marriages, men can engage in the sexually undisciplined behavior modelled for them in discourses of male irresponsibility (Hayes, 2016:59).
While perseverance may be the centre of strong and long-standing family networks, it poses multiple dangers to the wellbeing of women. Since women are less likely to seek divorce because women ‘persevere’, many of them remain with flagrantly adulterous husbands which may result in HIV infections and emotional duress as a result of indiscreet adulterous affairs. Dangerously, the conception of perseverance as the epitome of womanhood may also contribute to silence regarding domestic violence. The gendered and patriarchal nature of bekezela continues to silence and dispossess women of their power to choose themselves.
The discussion above shows that bekezela constitutes an aspect of African orature and folk wisdom which helps to define and evaluate women from the perspective of a patriarchal culture. The use of such proverbs in the construction and performance of femininity/ womanhood has, therefore, contributed in shaping and sustaining cultural biases of the ‘male against the female’ mindset in African patriarchal societies, making it difficult to change the cultural stereotypes. However, for the women in my study, while the mother’s groups expressed that endurance is key to marriage, womanhood, and motherhood, the daughters aged between 18-25 acknowledged the negative impact of such associations. Specifically, they expressed that their mothers are often silent when they should be screaming; they do not speak against that which hurts them (Matsila, 2020). Instead, the daughters spoke of perseverance as a positive attribute to embody in relation to academics and female independence. For example, Ndivhuwo, an 18 year old young woman expressed that,
“My mother is too quiet; she does not speak up for herself. They make her work too much, she just keeps quiet even when she is tired. Her husband does something bad; she just keeps quiet. I don’t want to be like that, I think it is because she is not working and they told her to be strong in marriage. But I will study hard, work and be able to have a voice in my house. I will not keep quiet when I am hurting and allow people to walk all over me. Even men abuse you if you are too quiet, you see. I don’t want that.” (Matsila, 2020:62).
This concept can inspire young women to be bold, persistent and resilient, to the extent of occupying spaces previously reserved for men. For example, the concept can positively and subversively be made use of to motivate and inspire women to start businesses or projects that might result in empowerment of present and future generations. In a study to better understand the perspectives of successful female entrepreneurs, for example, KPMG’s (2015) survey found that women who succeeded in entrepreneurship cited the same core traits that are espoused by the concept of ‘perseverance’ – hard work, a willingness to take risks, the ability to persevere in times of crisis, and a talent for making smart hires. It further highlighted that female entrepreneurs who embody these traits are better able to navigate the bumps in the road that they will undoubtedly face (KPMG, 2015). Although the embodiment of such characterists may be survival tactics used by women to fit into corporate culture, which is often inherently masculinist. Nonetheless, the empowerment of women suggests that persevering is not always a bad thing, sometimes serving as a critical attribute that allows women to become change makers and set the tone for future generations.
The daughters in my study recognised that their mothers could not move out of their matrimonial homes because they depended on their husbands for financial support. Hence, the daughters were persistent in accomplishing their academic goals so that they could define their womanhood in ways that makes sense to them. Furthermore, the daughters expressed that it is important for them to find their voice in a society that seeks to silence them (Matsila, 2020), all of which requires one to embody perseverance at all times. Perseverance in this case can be considered positive, as it encourages women to press on and venture in different territories. Moreover, the notion of perseverance as shown in the novels discussed above, encourages women to transgress and challenge strict gender rules in different ways.
The marginalisation and oppression of women are evidently entrenched in the cultural practices of diverse societies. Women are generally assigned inferiority and insignficance in cultural values. However, some cultural norms speak highly of women and value their roles as mothers and nurturers-the back bone of the society.
According to Hayes (2016:95), the use of proverbs such as “marriage is perseverance” and “men are like children” serve as windows to the structural violence that enjoin wives’ perseverance in the face of husbands’ infidelity and domestic abuse. While proverbs are oral discourses that serve as moral statements designed to evaluate and shape behavior in a society, this does not mean that people do things just because proverbs and adults tell them to. In opposition of theories of power which focus on the domination of one group by another, Foucault (1975) developed the term “biopower” which refers to the ways in which power manifests itself in the form of daily practices and routines through which individuals engage in self-surveillance and self-discipline, and thereby subjugate themselves. Biopower is not solely enacted though official institutions but everywhere and anywhere that there can be social relations and discourse, it is threaded through the fabric of the entire social order (Anders, 2013). This means that individuals are no longer simply subjected to power, but also vehicles that produce and channel it (Rangan and Chow, 2013:401 This concept is useful because it reveals the ways in individuals are implicated in their own oppression as they participate in habitual daily practices such as persevering under different circumstances. While the conception of perseverance/bekezela fundamentally served to convey patriarchal social and moral expectations, it also served as patriarchal surveillance on women and helped to maintain the patriarchal order.
The prevailing HIV&AIDS crisis, domestic violence, and the rise of absent fathers should problematise the “marriage is perseverance” concept even more because perseverance is now more associated with silence and oppression of women more than a ‘strong marriage’ (although it is difficult to imagine a strong marriage in this context without the silence and oppression of women to sustain male dominance). For the older women in my study, the proverb has encouraged the perseverance not only of the institution of marriage but, rather, of the structural violence associated with imposed gender hierarchies. Moreover, the persistence of these conventionalised frameworks in the face of obvious disadvantages for both men and women indicates the power of ideology upon which they are based.
I am not trying to suggest that this state of affairs is exclusively due to the bekezela/perseverance conception, but the older women in my study were strictly counselled to persevere and felt the moral force of this advice sufficiently to remain in their marriages. In addition, the majority of them were financially dependent on their husbands and other men. Nonetheless, it should be evident that in many cases more women are entering the workforce, becoming financially independent, and associating perseverance with independence. In an effort to dismantle the shackles of patriarchy, young women should be empowered to walk away from toxic relationships instead of staying for the sake of persevering.
Ahaoutu, J.O., Onuagha, M., & Ibrahim, A.A. (2013). Gender politics in so long a letter: Mariama Ba’s peculiar approach to a common issue. [online]. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344118960_Gender_Politics_in_So_Long_a_Letter_Mariama_Ba’s_Peculiar_Approach_to_a_Common_Issue [Accessed 06 June 2021]
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Emecheta, B. (1979). The Joys of motherhood. Oxford, England: Heinemann International
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Hayes, N.C. (2016): “Marriage is perseverance”: Structural violence, culture, and AIDS in Malawi, Anthropologica 58(2016):95-105.
KPMG (2015). Women entrepreneurs: Passion, purpose and perseverance. [online] Available at: https://assets.kpmg/content/dam/kpmg/pdf/2016/02/kpmg-women-entrepreneurs-passion-purpose-perseverance.pdf [Accessed 06 June 2021].
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Mmadike, B.I. (2014): The Igbo perception of womanhood: Evidence from sexist proverbs, Research on Humanities and social sciences 4(18): 98-104.
Rangan, P. & Chow, R. (2013). Race, Racism, and Post coloniality, In The Oxford Handbook of Postcolonial Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 397–410.
 Bekezela: Direct translation from isiZulu to English: To be patient, or to endure; persevere, and/or tolerate. The word is translated to different languages in the word cloud above. South Africa is multicultural, and within each of these cultures the concept of proverb (translated according to the varying languages) is used as the basis for constructing femininity/ womanhood. Similar to other Patriarchal contexts, bekezela has become a default expression used to conceal problematic power relationships – particularly in the context of persevering in difficult relational/marriage circumstances. Moreover, the proverb may also disempower and silence some women as when they try to speak or act against challenges, they are constantly reminded that it is in the woman’s nature to persevere.
 Munna ha lili (A man does not cry)
 Direct translation: A woman bites her tongue-Meaning that she remains silent about the trials and tribulations she faces particularly in her marriage.
 A man is like a child