Who Owns Our Bodies?

I had lunch with my girls the other weekend after not seeing each other for some months. Like so many of our other conversations, the topic was about our bodies. This time it was about one of us who had been hospitalized due to injuries from an altercation with her boyfriend. This was not the first time she ended up in the hospital because of the altercation.  

There was a pain, not only from this incident, but from the many times we had picked up calls from our friends begging for help in fear of their lives or lives of their sisters and mothers—calls that each of us had made to each other and at times the Police because of the violence in our own homes and the sadness felt because we were unable to do something about it. 

In our sisterhood as Black women, we share a history of beauty, strength, joy, wisdom and culture. We also share pain, tears and struggle in a fight since the dawn of humankind—to be treated as human beings. We share the deprivation of a right to live equally, without fear of societal punishment enabled by the powers that be. This is not the version of Black women’s history taught to us as we start out in Primary school.

Our history was taught differently, with praises sang for the women who followed the rules and damnation given to those who stood and fought for our freedoms—something they continue to do today to all women who refuse to live under the confines of the patriarchy.

They do not teach young girls of the bravery and activism of women like Ugandan Stella Nyanzi, who was imprisoned for calling out injustices against women and the people. They will never speak of how she protested with her body, nor will they understand the importance of our bodies as women once control is not in their hands. They will however say, she insulted the dignity of women and that is why she was punished. 

For years, the Black woman’s body has been viewed as an item subject to hyper-sexualization and fetishization in various platforms, be it on mainstream media, traditional media and widely by social media. 

From childhood, little girls are taught the rules on how to sit, talk, dress, walk and how to exist.

We are taught how to avoid punishment in the form of violence on our bodies because that is what happens to little girls and women who do not listen or follow the rules.

We were told in technical terms and drawings, about menstruation and taught that shame must be attached to it by our mothers and aunts. Advanced lessons were saved for secondary school Biology where we were taught reproduction, for myself by a male teacher in an all-girls school. He taught with a severe discomfort narrating the menstrual cycle with emphasis on the ovulation days and how conception occurred and then childbirth.

I remember the requirement for our school uniform skirts to be ankle length because they did not want the male teachers tempted by the sight of our knees. The same rules applied at home especially if there were fathers, uncles and male family friends. That is how little girls even today grow up learning about their bodies, in many parts of Africa.  

The unfortunate reality of our bodies is that we still cannot discuss our bodies without discussing the violence against our bodies in nearly all the spaces in which we exist. The violence that is enabled by two branches that function on patriarchal fuels. Body Politics and Women Citizens: African Experiences

First, the systemic regimes are responsible for the decisions made for and about our bodies, excluding the opinions of women. In many of our African societies, decision-making positions in government are held by men, including in institutions where decisions about women’s issues are made. This is where regulations on basic needs such as menstrual health management, safe abortions, ending physical and sexual violence are discussed. 

Second are the social norms of society that govern the functionalities of all our daily lives and, by extension, feed into the workings of the political sphere where decisions for countries are made. These harmful social norms influence the rules that are facilitated in households and celebrated by society, in our homes that are supposed to be safe.

More disturbing is that today, we continue to place this weight on women from birth, punishing little girls for the actions of grown men who prey on them. Instead of protecting them, we protect the men who harm them – making the active decision to prioritise predators over young girls and our fellow women.

Any activism against these systems is seen as threatening the norm. We teach young girls their agency, to take control of their bodies and dismantle the norms that dictate a dress code for women; we remove the basis of many justifications given by both society and justice systems that sexual violence is women’s fault. Ultimately, we challenge the power dynamics, which are the root cause of various forms of violence against women, and that is precisely why we must do it.

Our bodies have belonged to both these systems, enabling and normalizing restrictions on women’s bodies and suggesting these rules are for our protection, basically saying,

‘Cover up and be submissive in order to avoid violence against you,’ says the social norms while the justice system asks you ‘why you did not cover up when society told you to, now see, you have been violated, and so this is your fault, we cannot help you.’

This is the fate that we were dealt with from birth, but this is a fate we must refuse because we want more. We are more.

The movement is growing, built from that same sisterhood wherein our pain and tears we have found the beauty, love, joy, wisdom and culture that these systems have tried to suppress for years.

The sisterhood breeds the fire in us to stand tall, and not only to stand together in unity but to hold each other up whenever society says no. A sisterhood that has joined together to scream until the barriers break.

Our shared sisterhood that brings us all together from the different corners of our continent Africa, on all the platforms, be it conferences such as African Women in Dialogue to online strongholds where we converse of the different facets that make our lives and validate our experiences as women. It is refreshing to see and exciting to know that the sisterhood is growing stronger each day as we shatter the confines of the patriarchy.

Jessica Mandanda, is a young African feminist from Malawi. She is a writer and communications specialist specifically works on gender, development and the protection of women‘s rights. She is passionate about bodily autonomy, sex positivity, body positivity, ending sexual violence against all women and girls and the liberation of women in realizing our sexual and reproductive health and rights with zero discrimination, stigma and societal backlash.

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