Behind the looking glass of culture

“You are stubborn!” I heard this sentence during the last weeks from two of my male friends. I was like: “Stubborn?! Me? I am not!”, knowing by saying that it could be interpreted right away as a sign of stubbornness.
As the first friend of mine said it to me I just thought to myself: “Ok, maybe he has a certain type of personality and that’s the reason why he is saying that.” But as this other friend said that I might could be considered as stubborn in Batswana culture it made me think about it more. So the message I got from him was that, traditionally spoken, a Mosadi (a Motswana woman) would never behave like that. Stubbornness is a bad habit which women shouldn’t have. Why not?
So I asked this first friend why he says I am stubborn. And he said to me that I am not able to take orders.
Yah….why would I? Should I?
He didn’t tell me to do specific things for him. This topic came up in a discussion about being a Motswana. He said to me:

“A Mosadi is to be expected not to ask when her boyfriend comes home late at night. So, if he said he comes at nine but comes at ten she should not ask where he was.”

This is a very traditional view, but I guess it still exists in some people’s minds. In fact, this kind of behaviour has been told – and is still told – to the bride on her wedding day. For that, older women go together with the bride in a separate room and tell her about her duties as a good mosadi. Besides cooking for the husband, doing his laundry and preparing the bathwater, not asking too much questions belong to that good qualities of a mosadi. That’s what other people told me. And this is a traditional view, of course. But they told me that this kind of ritual is still practiced but nobody would give much about the content. It’s more like a remains of some important cultural value.

So, I asked this friend why a woman should not ask when the boyfriend comes home late, and this is where the stubornness talk about me started.
Actually, I felt like I had to defend women in general. But he said, that this is not a case of oppressing women. I would scream: What else? But cultures are different, aren’t they? And this means at least try to understand where the difference is coming from and that maybe it’s just too easy to scream out lout: of course, it’s a way of opressing women!
So, I tried to shift away from my own point of view which was not easy because when it comes to gender inequality it gets to the core of my own identity. But I tried thinking about other situations which are comparable. I found some of them in my memory but one is very good to illuminate my thoughts further:
In Botswana, it is quite common to call girls or women “babe”, even if they are not the girlfriend. Even that friend I am acutally talking about called me in the beginning like that. I told him that in my culture it’s not common to call a girl, which is not the girlfriend, like that. And personally, I feel very indifferent of being called “babe”. It feels like I am subordinated to men, being something like a “little one” who has to be taken care about. On the other side it has something flattering…however: with all the men I talked about this topic I had discussions about why it is a problem to call a nice girl “babe”. Everyone was just surprised where there could be a problem! They would say: It’s normal!
And this is the link to the stubbornness-topic: for them it is normal. But what is normal? Normal is what is in general accepted, but though it hasn’t to be right. Normal is not universal, but cultural. We easily forget that in everyday life.
For my examples that means that it is normal for men not being asked by their women: “Where do you come from late at night?” And for women it is normal to be called “babe”.
There’s no problem as long as nobody complains. And for me it is important to emphasize that men are not just perpetrators. If there are no women to tell the men that they might feel accused of being stubborn or feeling offended being called “babe” who could blame only the men? If the women don’t tell their guys what they’re up to, those women play their role in the game as well. And I am convinced that women in Botswana can tell to a great deal if they like something or not. It’s rather a problem of not being used to it, or maybe don’t even recognize something as problematic. What’s wrong in being called “babe”? Maybe the ladies go crazy about that? And maybe the girls also don’t scrutinize if their guys come home late? Who knows?
Does that automatically mean that it’s a case of oppression even if there’s no perception about it?
But if there’s somebody who complains all of a sudden, then people are forced to look upon their own perception of that cultural meanings (by the way: this opens the space for change in that particular perception…).
This is valid for both directions, so not only I say: “Listen guys, call any girl a ‘babe’ is disrespectful”, but also listen to what they say. So they would say: “I call a girl a babe when I think she’s beautiful”. So from their point of view it’s an act of honouring.
Now: Who is right and who is wrong?
I think it has to begin and end with respect.
I explained this friend about my indifferent feeling being called “babe” by him. So he just stopped calling me like that. So easy. That’s how I felt honoured.
But concerning our conversation about me being stubborn, I have to say that we didn’t get along with that. Actually, we almost had a fight about it. And it is an ongoing topic in our discussions: He keep’s on saying that I am stubborn and that it drives him crazy and I am saying that I am not, but that I just have my own clear opinion.
Culture works!

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