By Refiloe Makama
On the 19th of May 2018 the world watched the wedding ceremony of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. With over 29 million people watching, the wedding was filled with every detail that marks a ‘true fairy-tale‘.
Right here at home, every Sunday on the popular channel Mzanzi Magic, on the show Our perfect wedding, South Africans are invited to share in a couple’s journey to happily ever after, witnessing the highs and lows of their relationship, as well as events leading to their Perfect Wedding. Stories of happily ever after and the beautiful white dress on that ‘magical perfect day’ entice girls and women to view marriage as an important and desirable social milestone.
Growing up, I remember being asked on numerous occasions after attending a wedding if I had seen the bride and “How did she look?” Before I could answer, almost immediately the rhetorical question will be followed by the comment “of course she looked beautiful, because we all know that nobody is more beautiful than a bride on her wedding day”. On the day of her wedding a woman is viewed as the most beautiful on the happiest day of her life. At that moment of being a bride, a woman is seen as the luckiest one, the chosen one. The wedding day is not only a demonstration of class, status, and privilege but also a performance of beauty, sexuality, love, and ideal heteronormative femininity.
Marriage and black people
The concept of marriage amongst black people is an ambivalent one. Marriage is constructed as both an assumed or mandatory social arrangement, as well as a site for suffering and hardship (particularly for women). Young couples are encouraged to “do the right thing” (Baloyi, 2016) by getting married and in the same breath warned about the difficulties associated with marriage. Some of the most popular African wedding songs such as makoti ke dinako (Bride, it is time) and idioms such as Kuyabekezelwa emendweni (marriage requires endurance) all serve to communicate to the couple, particularly the bride, the difficult journey ahead.
This complexity raises questions about why black women encourage other black women to marry if it is such a difficult journey? Looking back on these interactions in my adult life I wonder if it’s perhaps not the only day that some black women get to be “the prettiest” and perhaps even “the happiest”? I arrive at this question after giving much thought to relationships, particularly marriage, and having asked myself questions around why the odds are stacked against black women when it comes to marriage and why black women still even bother with this pathway.
I am convinced that black women get married because they simply cannot afford not to: unless she becomes the “Mrs” (one that belongs to a Mr.) does she have any reason to be happy, content or accomplished?
On becoming a “Mrs.”
I remember a conversation I had with my grandmother before I started my PhD. Although she was genuinely excited, her excitement soon turned to pity when she learned that this meant instead of “Mrs” my title will be “Dr.” I was not expecting this sombre response from a woman who got a divorce because she didn’t think she was – as she puts it – “motho wa lenyalo” (marriage material) and had only one child because she just didn’t think that all women should be mothers. This was now the same woman who could not see how having a doctorate might be better than being “Mrs”!
The term Mrs. in township slang is associated with upper-class women (a woman that represents white femininities). While white femininities are associated with fragility, beauty, poise, worth protecting and worth loving, black femininities are associated with strength, endurance and suffering. She is Imbokodo. While it appears that these terms appear to celebrate black femininities, disrupting sexist constructions of femininity, I often wonder if it is not these very discourses that make it so easy for society (often black men) to harm black women? Why is it expected of black women to be strong? These discourses surrounding black female identities romanticises suffering and normalizes pain in the lives of black women. It is as if it is only through hardships and physical pain that black females get to be ‘real’ women or women enough.
The socialization of black women prepares women for this hardship inside and outside the home. Black girls are not only taught that one suffers in loving herself and suffers for beauty, they are also taught that suffering should be expected in loving others, particularly romantic partners. True love is sacrificial and true love hurts, one suffers for love. For some women, pain and suffering within intimate relationships is often equated to love. Besides being taught from a young age “if he teases you he likes you”, this sort of problematic socialization continues into adolescence and is reinforced in toxic, intimate adult relationships. It’s strange that while girls are raised to be women, wives, and mothers through various continuous processes, training, and interactions, boys are socialised to be men within problematic discourses of hegemonic masculinity that position men within constrained subject positions: protector (violence) and provider (material).
The discourse of hardship in marriage is consistent with this problematic discourse of strong black femininities. Marriage becomes the site for where black women become real women, an institution that separates her, the chosen one, from other women who have not been chosen nor had their worth affirmed. For black women, marriage is not a “happily ever after” but the actualization that justifies and celebrates “strong” black women. While these ideologies seem to celebrate the resilience of black women they also tend to normalize them and, in some cases, even alter the discourse of what it means to be a woman; specifically, a good black woman. A real black woman is one who has seen suffering but a good woman is one who has seen suffering, can take suffering, embrace those who violate her and lives to tell the story (or lives through the stories told about her). This is the black woman that society has come to know and celebrate. This has somehow become the single acceptable narrative of black women.
Refiloe Makama is a PhD candidate and researcher at the Institute for Social and Health Sciences, UNISA-SAMRC. Her research interests are in Gender, men and masculinities, African Psychologies and narrative methodologies. This piece is written in her personal capacity.