Allow me to share with you a statement from one of my favourite authors, Anne Bronte, one of the first feminist writers. It reads “Sick of mankind and their disgusting ways”. Ironically the statement was scribbled in her prayer book and one would wonder how such a statement got into a prayer book. This shows that even in those early times there were strong women who saw that there were many mistakes being made by society that needed to be changed.
Anne wrote her works in the 1840s, a period known as the Victorian era when women were so disempowered. In her novel “The Tenant Wildfell Hall”, Anne questions the societal values and beliefs that gave men so much power over women. The novel portrays Helen’s eloquent struggle for independence at a time when the law and society defined a married woman as her husband’s property. Women were married off at very tender ages to “rich” men. During this period, wealth was highly regarded and women would scramble to get married to rich men. Parents also played a major role in arranging suitors for their children. This probably is what made Anne “Sick of mankind and their disgusting ways”. Anne never married. She died at 29, already labelled a spinster. She also wrote her works under a pseudonym “Action Bell” because women were not allowed to work and her books were published after her death.
As I read through the novel. I could not help reflecting on the life we are leading these days. Is history repeating itself? Will we ever get to the stage where we can totally empower the girl child? These are some of the questions that ran through my mind. At least we’ve passed the stage where women were not allowed to work, where women were confined to the home; a stage where women were numbered amongst men’s property. I salute women’s rights activist organizations that are working tirelessly in empowering women.
My fear though is that history might be repeating itself in another form. I get very worried with the age at which girl children are getting married. I read an article in The Herald where parents gave away a fourteen year old virgin as compensation for her older sister who gave birth just before her marriage. The suitor intended to marry the elder sister but upon discovering that she was already pregnant by another man, parents offered the younger sister as compensation. Parents have also adopted a carefree attitude towards marriage. They are accepting lobola as a “bribe”if their daughter is impregnated while she is below 16 so that they will not report the matter to the police even though the law says that having sex with a girl under the age of 16 is a crime.
Also, the topical issue these days are about some religious sects that are forcing young girls into marriage under the guise of the Holy Spirit. Are we going back to Anne’s era where girls and women are numbered among men’s property? Have we become so obsessed with marriage to the extent that we accept any suitor as long as that person is able to pay whatever bride price we ask for? Or has religion become a marriage ground where elders can just decide to offer girls to any man of their choice.