It is quite interesting to listen to a discussion on culture. People talk of its importance and value, but curiously it is often unclear exactly what is meant by culture. In recent years it has become evident that culture can also be used as a tool of oppression. In a fast changing world which demands fast changing responses towards life’s issues, it is important to take time to understand the role of culture and how it is supposed to benefit individuals.
We all believe in something and our beliefs shape our attitudes towards ourselves and others. Some beliefs are so strong that people are prepared to sacrifice their life in order to uphold a belief, especially one acquired in the formative years. The trouble with such rigid belief systems is that they can do harm if not properly balanced in an objective manner.
Let me share with you a typical case where culture clashed not only with human rights but also produced physical violence.
The police brought Esther’s matter before me as an assault case. The young woman’s husband had died just the previous week, and she was laying a charge against her brother-in -law, to which he pleaded not guilty.
She related that after the death of her husband, his brother Isaiah arrived from a neighbouring country for the funeral. After the funeral he gathered relatives together and explained to them that he had a duty to look after everything that his late brother had left behind. The list included Esther, her children, and three vehicles.
Esther protested strongly to the arrangement, maintaining that she did not need a caretaker. This objection surprised and angered Isaiah whose answer was to stand up and slap her on the mouth, telling her to shut up. Esther ran to the police station which fortunately was not far from her house.
Isaiah was given an opportunity to cross examine the complainant and his line of questioning was quite an eye-opener, exposing as it did male supremacy at its highest. The following are some of the questions he demanded Esther should answer, allowing for little elaboration beyond a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
a) When you married my brother did you bring any children?
b) Did you bring any property from your household when you married into my family?
c) Was I not merely reprimanding you for your rudeness when I slapped you?
d) Did you ever report my late brother when he reprimanded you?
e) Are the Police going to help you raise the children?
f) Did you kill my brother so that you could take over his things even when I am still alive?
Other family members who witnessed the incident were listed at the back of the charge sheet as witnesses. The first and second witnesses gave evidence and confirmed that indeed Esther was given a slap on the mouth, but the blow was dismissed as just a “small reprimand” rightly administered because she had shown defiance.
Isaiah told how he had come not only to bury his brother but to put his house in order as was demanded by their culture. As the surviving brother he had a duty before God and man to ensure that Esther and the children were well provided for. He was annoyed that Esther had the nerve to be defiant before the whole body of elders and reject what she knew had to take place.
He admitted that indeed he had slapped Esther on the mouth, but he was shocked that the police were now involved in such a ‘small thing.’ He concluded his evidence by questioning that since Esther was not seriously hurt, what was this ‘big thing’ of wasting time with the police and the court.
The murmur from the court indicated that there were elders who desired to comment on the matter. Uncle Peter stood up to tell court that he was a senior member of the family and a custodian of their cultural practice. He said Isaiah was acting properly to offer Esther his hand as caretaker and provider for the children.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WERE THE JUDGE?
It was quite obvious that an offence had been committed and Isaiah was found guilty and fined accordingly. Although the matter was purely criminal I took it upon myself to dig deeper to explore the socio/cultural dimension of the matter with the concerned parties, who were willing to feed my curiosity.
I asked Uncle Peter how far Isaiah’s responsibility for his brother’s household should go. The elderly uncle said Isaiah had to replace the late brother in all respects. Since the wife was still young she would get children from Isaiah, and Isaiah would do all that was expected of a husband.
My next question was, “Supposing the late brother died of AIDS?” Before Uncle Peter could answer, an obviously agitated Isaiah stood up and spoke. “Do you think I am scared of AIDS…… me? AIDS has not and cannot come to disturb my culture. If I must die I will but I cannot abandon my responsibility as a man and your court will not stop me.”
He ended by saying: “I will pay your fine but we are going home and Esther will have to live with being the first woman to defy our culture.”
I was concerned to bring peace between Esther and Isaiah. The criminal aspect had been dealt with, but there was evidence to suggest that the matter was far from over. In the end Esther offered to walk out of her matrimonial home, leaving Isaiah as caretaker of the children so that she could start her life over again. That seemed to please Isaiah and the matter was laid to rest.
Isaiah was raised to be a protector not only of himself but of those around him, whether they needed his protection or not. It was a cultural conviction he was prepared to fight to impose.
Esther on the other hand grew up in the era of free thinking and self determination. She found certain cultural practices outdated and had the courage to challenge them and risk being chastised.