If you are considering marrying a man and you want to know whether he beats his wives, you ask your brother to infiltrate his social circle and find out. Or you ask his first wife. If the man doesn’t have any other wives, you find out whether his father beat his wives. If all your research says he’s good and hardworking and doesn’t beat his wives, but then he decides to move to another country after he’s already had a kid with you and stops sending you money, well, I guess you’re shit out of luck. Really, though, you were shit out of luck the second you were born into a culture in which you had to ask yourself that question.
The above woman is not my mother. But it easily could have been and she’s very aware of that. The above woman is a very distant relative of mine. Her husband won’t divorce her. She can’t divorce him. The social backlash would make life impossible. She’s currently benefiting from our society’s sympathy for women in her situation. Were she to divorce him, she would lose all the sympathy and pity and simply become another foolish woman who decided to leave her husband and leave her child fatherless. If she were unlucky, she’d have to leave her husband’s family house and leave her son there. Then she’s just a woman who destroyed her marriage and had to run home to her family’s house, where she will probably be scolded if not beaten for failing as a woman and abandoning her child.
I am a somewhat interesting case. I was born into that culture, but even if I married a Ghanaian man, I almost certainly would never have to ask myself that question. I am in a relatively high social strata, and due to my father’s influence, almost any man I’d marry would understand that the difference in social stratum gives me certain privileges. One of those privileges is that were I ever to want to separate, society would give me some benefit of the doubt. Were I to leave because my husband beat me and I could show evidence of it, society would cluck and the women would sympathize with me and talk about the plight of women and how lucky I was that I could leave with the hope of remarrying. I am also an American citizen. That gives me another advantage over any Ghanaian man I marry. You don’t beat American women because American women have money of their own and have strange ideas of their place. If you’re not lucky and you beat your American wife, she’ll beat you back and return to America. You’ll forever be known as the man who let his wife beat him and you will lose all the social and economic advantages of marrying an American woman. And, as my mother keeps reminding me, if I sponsor my husband and allow him to come to America, I will be the dominant person in the relationship. I will have enough power that my husband will not be able to beat me or hold undue social power over me.
This frustrates me immensely. I have to do all that work and maintain a certain social and economic advantage over my husband simply to have the hope of a relationship that is externally egalitarian only through the balance of various power struggles. I don’t want to be locked into an eternal power struggle with anyone, but especially not my husband. Yet my frustration seems to be invalid. I don’t feel as though I can decry the injustice of a system when I choose to benefit from it.
If I ever married a Ghanaian, you can be sure I would use every channel and loophole available to me to have as much agency and power in the relationship as possible. Circumstances outside of my control ensure that I never really have to deal with the most odious parts of this system. When it suits me, I take advantage of it. Otherwise, I pretend this system doesn’t exist. I refuse to entertain the idea of having a relationship with a Ghanaian. I effectively ran away from home. I interact as little as possible with my family. And then I go on the internet and write and rant about how terrible my culture is in the sexual and gender equality department without really doing anything about it. And not just sexism and misogyny. I feel the same way about how my culture treats mental health, sexual orientation and gender identity, corruption and nepotism, ageism, and a myriad of other social ills. But I don’t do anything except benefit from it, think about it, and occasionally write something when I get scarily close to a deadline. I’m scared this is because I simply don’t care.
Will be continued.
Contact Dabiyyah Agbere at bagbere ‘at’ stanford.edu.