Chapter V Disadvantaged or Privileged? A Conclusion.
This study sought to examine the widowhood rituals and practices in a rural Igbo society. Certain of the conclusions in this paper can be presented with some confidence, whereas others represent more tentative forays into problems that for the moment are difficult to conceptualise.
I started this study by looking at the problems associated with the study of women's history in Africa. It is imperative that I also make some concluding remarks in this area. It was noted that the studies of African women have been plagued by more than the methodological and ideological question of male perspective. In the main, it has been observed that this reflected the changing attitudes in European society towards women's issues. In effect, African women have sometimes become a field upon which the Western world has played out some of its concerns about women in general (Hafkin & Bay 1976:2). Colonialism in their view for example would foster the emancipation of non-western women by raising living and educational standards. At the same time, women would be freed from the drudgery of farm labour and oppression of social customs-evils that were said to include early betrothal, lack of choice in marriage partners and few or no divorce rights. Writers dealt with the problems of women's education and supported reforms designed to abolish bride-wealth and polygamy and to improve women's inheritance rights. Such analysis reflects the conception of African women as subjugated and oppressed members of a largely patriarchal society.
This study has highlighted the extent to which these conceptions are not so easily converted to the Igbo. Evidence has shown that women were sometimes active in the economic and social process. Uchendu's assessment of the Igbo woman needs to be restated here:
The African Woman regarded as a chattel of her husband, who has made a bride wealth payment on her account is not an Igbo woman, who enjoys a high socio- economic and legal status. She can leave her husband at will, abandon him if he becomes a thief, and summon him to a tribunal, where she will get fair hearing. She marries in her own right and manages her trading capital and her profit as she sees fit. Though women are not the normal instrument through which land rights are passed, and though their virilocal residence after marriage makes it impossible for them to play some important social and ritual roles in their natal villages, yet they can lease hold, take titles and practice medicine (1965:87).
In spite of the fact that women generally have received little or no attention in historical writings in Africa, Igbo women, were among the first to receive attention in anthropological research and literature as a group distinct from Igbo men. This study of Igbo women as widows revealed far reaching differences between their relationship with men as opposed to the general notion that women are a subjugated group in all societies. Studies of any aspect of women's lives should therefore be approached with a broader frame of mind than the popular conception of the victimisation and subjugation of women found in most literature's about women in most African societies.
To a large extent, the presentation attempted to analyse women not as objects but as actors in the social and economic process. In looking at women and their activities in this study, we have gone beyond description of roles and status. Igbo widows like other women have been found to interact with their society. They are also visible and are an integral part of the social system. At the same time this study has recognised that women cannot be wholly in control of all the social and economic forces which affect their lives. In this regard, women's and men's existence and activities are closely interrelated to the extent that changes in the sphere of one must necessarily affect the other even in societies where labour, social and political realities are strictly divided along sex lines.
In her discussion of Igbo women's roles, Judith Van Allen has noted that women's organisations were very influential in policy making and community affairs via such organisations as mitiri, (meeting) which is the association of wives of a village. While we recognise from this study that it is a wrong concept to generalise all African women as oppressed and subordinate in society, we equally have recognised that there are social structures and mechanisms that prevent women from enjoying full equality with men.
In general terms, the variations in the presentation of African women discussed in this work have all been shown to produce inadequate representations in terms of viewing women as actors in the historical process. The need for a development of a final trend in presenting women in history is therefore clear. In this study we have brought out both the specific social and economic and ideological constraints within which women have lived and ways in which women have interacted in relation to them. This presentation has emphasised also the need to understand some of these constraints so to say from the perspective of the cultural setting in which they obtained. This should be the ideal trend.
Looking at widows in particular, it was found that widows constituted a large proportion of the adult population among the Igbo. This is confirmed in previous studies. In addition, it has indicated how little widow's lives as a group and as individuals have been studied. From this study, we may state that when examined from the perspective of the widow, many social processes look different. These include the extent and nature of corporate kin group responsibility, the significance and durability of marital alliance and the differential importance attached to conjugal and filial bonds. Others are the pattern of affinal relationships, process of household and community development and dissolution, and the nature and continuity or discontinuity of women's different ties to the community.
However, as actors, widows make choices from the possibilities available to them in Igbo society. Although behaviour cannot be explained by such abstract principles as descent, affinity, or sibling solidarity, and conformity to norms is not automatic, it is clear nonetheless, that some norms have strong institutional support and others do not. Rules concerning marriage and child custody, rights of residence, access to productive resources, the sexual division of labour and the labour requirements of productive technologies, are aspects of the structure that influence, but do not determine what widows do. Others are moral values, religious beliefs and supernatural sanctions, the basis by which prestige is accorded, and available channels for meeting sexual and emotional needs. In the main many of these processes while limiting the options open to the widows in some ways, frees her from perpetual control by the husband's kin in other ways. Hence the widow in Igbo society while better off in terms of independence to control her social and economic life is constrained in terms of access to productive resources in the husband's family.
In Chapter two, we examined the rituals undergone by the widow in Igbo society. We also examined the rationale behind these practices. Widowhood practices among the Igbo are closely tied to traditional beliefs about death, inheritance and feminine roles, family structure and family relationships. Of significance is the ritual aspects of the practice. These rituals consists of agreed practices derived from the belief that death brings corruption and the dead still have contact with the living, especially their closest partners in life. These rituals also arose from the strong sense of community between the living and the dead which formed a basic ingredient of the cosmology of the Igbo people. This situation has to be remedied before the widow is free to return to a new life. The people rationalise these practices arguing that they perform important functions: They give the widow protection from her deceased husband whom the people believe would still attempt to make contact with his wife. Practices and rituals were to sever this bond between the man and his wife. They also acted as a means of ensuring that the deceased was accepted into the congregation of his ancestor who had died before him.
For one thing, the strong survival of traditional burial forms account for the continued survival of traditional widowhood practices some of which may imply humiliation of the widow. At this stage of the development of Igbo society, one would have expected that these traditional burial forms and the rituals associated with them would have been discarded. However, some reasons for their continued existence may be advanced.
To a large extent, both Christianity and Western education, two major factors that have influenced the Igbo since the early nineteenth century, has been helpless in the face of the continued existence of these traditional burial forms. Trimmingham (1959:116) has shown that instead of abolishing the irrational and superstitious fears connected with witchcraft, ghost haunting, sorcery and the like, converts feel themselves more exposed than hitherto because they have given up the charms which traditional society consider adequate protection and without acquiring substitutes. It is this apparent impotence of Western religion in the face of superstitions that explains why traditional funeral rites and forms survive in Igbo society. This was apparent while I was doing field work. I witnessed a widow holding a crucifix instead of a broom stick or knife (which were the traditional instruments used to protect the widow from the spirits). Irrespective her Christian faith, this widow still clings to the old rule. In other words, we are faced with a problem which is purely cosmological. I think that many widows would not view the rituals as oppression and subjugation. For many of them, this is the only way to express ones love for a deceased husband, and to protect oneself.
I have also raised the practical issues involved. This has to do with the widow's association with the Umuada and her husband's relatives which is dominated by their assessment of her personality and her performance as a married woman both towards her husband and his kin. We noted that the Umuada performed these widowhood rituals. We also raised the issue of how discriminatory or spiteful these practices could be. Some may view this as discrimination. But these Umuada are married somewhere else and one day will face the same ritual on the death of their husbands. If the regime gone through by a widow is so burdensome as some writers have noted, it would be irrational for the Umuada to encourage it since they will face similar treatment. We can therefore say that these rituals were performed by the Umuada because there was at every stage of the process a sense of community between the dead and the living. This involved a much wider group ranging from the family, the kin group and the community as a whole rather than the widow alone. It is assumed that it made everyone so mutually interdependent that what affected one adversely also affected the other in the same manner, the Umuada included. But this point notwithstanding, there is no doubt that the regime gone through by a widow is burdensome.
In chapter three, I have taken up the question of how domestic and affinal relationships affected the widow in Igbo society. With regard to this, I touched on the rationale for marriage among the Igbo and its importance to women. Marriage was identified as essential for completeness of the individual in Igbo society. In order to understand the mechanism by which this functions or the direction of its change, I discussed the various forms of marriage and its impact on the Igbo social system. I emphasised the importance of kinship relations among the Igbo in order to understand how it can affect the widows as well as how it is related to gender issues in society.
I attempted further to show how marriage in Igbo society was vital in creating social bonds and alliances between different groups of people since marriage was essentially exogamous. Its impact in the woman's relationship as widow were highlighted. This section also showed some of the common experiences of women in marriage, some aspects of gender relations and what defined choice of a marriage mate. Other features of Igbo domestic and affinal relationship such as the levirate and polygamy were examined.
From this study, there are indications that issues of polygamy, sexual conduct, allocation of economic resources, marriage, divorce and widowhood practices often transcend the immediate family and are affected by group social norms and values. From this study, we can state that domestic relations are at the heart of the Igbo society. In this area, in we have noticed that domestic relationships involved far more people than a nuclear family. To a large extent, the concept of family most often functionally (not conceptional) encompass a wide range of relatives including grandparents, parents, children, brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles etc. It is evident from this study that the Igbo sense of communal living makes it imperative that responsibility, obligation and authority is wide-ranging and encouraged. The importance of the individual, as a general value is still submerged to that of the collective will. In this situation, domestic relationships and decision making within a nuclear family are often influenced by a wide variety of individuals and situations.
In terms of marriage in particular, the Igbo people do not stress that biological and social paternity must coincide; hence the institution of levirate. In this circumstance, marital fidelity is not emphasised. Therefore, although marriage is an extremely important institution in defining adult status for women in Igbo society, the rights transferred to the husband and his kin at marriage do not bind a wife to continue the marriage after the death of her husband. This is related to the fact that although Igbo kinship relationships have a strong patrilineal bias, the woman is open to other ties such as remarriage. Let me quote Henderson's description of the Onitsha situation which I believe fits partly into our own analysis of the Mbaise people. He writes of the "four possibilities" of a widow under these circumstance: she may be sent to her natal home to be maintained by her people there; she may return to her natal home but continue to be maintained by her husband's successor; she may be allowed to remain for her husband, living in his house and continuing to bear children in his name; or she may be formally taken over in marriage by his successor or the latter's designated equivalent (1977:223).
In all cases, this study shows that these possibilities have consequences for ownership of the children she has produced or will produce, the upbringing of those children and the support she may get. Sending a wife home without support is viewed as an act of divorce by the Igbo people, and it frees the woman and her kin group from any future obligation to the husband's people. It is likely to occur only if the woman has no male children. All in all, levirate relationships are being reduced by economic and ideological changes. This also holds for polygamous marriages.
From our analysis, if we refer to any comparative scheme for classifying widows, the Igbo will be difficult to place in the scale that classifies "solutions" to widowhood according to how much change occurs in the widow's lifestyle upon the husband's death. While most of the liberating factors are present and open to widows, social constraints appear to be an unending factor. We assume that remarriage can jeopardise a woman's right to use her husband's land and support from her children, but widowhood need not, particularly if the woman lives in her husband's family and has male children. We realise also that in a society that defines marriage as existing to produce children, the options open to women also depends on their continued childbearing capacity.
Divorce and remarriage are not common even in contemporary Igbo society. But given the possibility of remarriage, as well as the economic opportunity open to Igbo women, widowhood ought to be for most Igbo women a phase in their lives. It is a point at which many women have the largest number of options-more than during or before marriage. Age for example determine the number of options open to a widow in many societies. But in practice today, this does not seem to be the case for the Igbo widow. Social circumstances, the close knit ties created by the marriage system between mother and child as well as the husband's family puts a constraint on options open to the widow.
In chapter four, I have discussed the widow and the economy in Igbo society. To understand the nature of the widow's position, I have reviewed those activities which women undertook as well as the constraints which they face in terms of inheritance of land in particular. Attempt was made to show how important land as a resource is in Igbo society and why widows could not inherit it. I offered three explanations for this. Women had no customary right over land, they could not inherit it and the spiritual value attached to land made land a male prerogative. Traditional religious value have been a source of power for men. It has also been a source of subordination for women. Inspite of over one hundred years of Christianity, traditional religion has been little affected in terms of its aid to male control of land. In this regard, religious beliefs reflect and reinforce the subordination of women. I argued that men used these reasons to rationalise their continued control of land.
In terms of economic activity, I contended that in the main agriculture was the single most important activity for Igbo women. The division of labour on gender lines were implicated in the politics of resource control. To a large extent men controlled and manipulated the rituals involved in planting the most prestigious crops, such as yam. Men also had control of land for its production. Coco yam, was grown by women and required less specialised knowledge than did yam (Amadiume 1984:29).
It has been identified that women in Igbo society have some access to land within their husbands' household. But they could not inherit it. The importance of land in Igbo economy and its social and cosmological increases its value. It also increased interest in its inheritance as well as strengthening patrilineal descent. It would appear that as land became more individualised under the influence of colonial requirement for agricultural products, women's access to land for subsistence farming, especially for market farming, was circumscribed. Of course, the colonial legal system also barred women from owning land. The system recognised the patriarchal power in land ownership. In this regard, while the modern legal system offer the formal possibility for the inheritance of land by widows, actual legal judgements commonly defer to the traditional customs which routinely deny a woman's right to land. In order words, ignorance, poverty, tradition and outright male opposition are formidable barriers to women's ability actually to obtain the legal rights they have on paper. Not only do women receive land of declining size and quality, their use rights are becoming increasingly insecure. This not withstanding, women who have access to money could buy land.
Trading was one important activity for many widows. Although trading was not as important as agriculture during the pre-colonial times, this pattern changed during the nineteenth century. Women responded to increasing levels of trade during the nineteenth century by turning to marketing, in part because of their discriminatory role in the subsistence economy. In particular, petty trading offered women especially widows, independence that they might not ordinarily have contemplated.
All in all, this study shows that women, especially as widows play important part in local and regional or long distance trade. For the widow, her obligation to her family and to herself in terms of sustenance made the acquisition of marketing profits appealing, allowing them to provide more to their family than they might simply from farming. This was more pronounced for the widow whom we identified is now very active in long distance trade, a predominantly male area of activity in the past.
On the other hand, there is considerable decline in communal and kin group assistance to the widow. The lack of communal support may be attributed to a breakdown of kinship institutions resulting from tendency towards individualism and capital expansion. Certainly these developments have transformed most societies including the Igbo, modifying social structures, but change has not been unidirectional. There has been a varied impact on the organisation of the Igbo society, different types of adoption to a cash economy and labour migrations and different implications of such adaptations for the case of the widows. This is indication of a general transition from communal to more individualistic systems. We have also identified a new and emerging trend with regard to the educated widow. The professional and educated widow will be the emerging trend in the future. In this regard, we assume that the civil and public sector will be a major contributor to widow income in the future.
Generally, we must note that economic issues are of great importance to Igbo women. Their significant emotional and social relations are ties to children, particularly their sons. Women work as hard as men to support themselves in a cash economy and to educate their children. They usually hope that by having sons, they will be in a position where one or more will succeed financially and be able to provide for them in old age. From the analysis of the Igbo family structure, motherhood brings important change in a woman's status, a change from a mistress who simply attracts and allures to a mother who shares the dignity of her husband and who increased the lineage membership. Uchendu (1965) has observed that the husband-wife relation does not last as long as the child-mother bond. This study shows that children are a great social insurance agency, a protection against dependence for women in old age. To have a male child is to strengthen both the social and the economic status, for it is a male child who inherits the father's property. It may be assumed that a woman or man who has no male child contemplates old age with particular horror.
As a woman becomes a widow, her relationship with her husband's kin and access to productive resources depends on this mother-child bond. This bond not only guarantees a woman right of residence, it also acts a social and economic insurance in old age. It also ensures that the widow is guaranteed continued right of residency in her husband's family. In present day Igbo society, labour migration is one factor which has affected child-mother relationship in terms of control and use of land. Migrant sons have less need for land, thus leaving the majority of widows access to productive resources that would otherwise have been out of their reach. Moreover, migrant children also send cash to their mothers. Well to do daughters also assist their mothers in cash and kind.
Gender relations in Igbo society are rooted in the family and kinship system, especially the inheritance system, and in the economic and cultural practices connected with this. Though the Igbo culture has been exposed to external influences, these features remain basically the same over a long historical period. Social features of widowhood rituals and kinship relations have changed little. despite the influence of colonialism and Western civilisation.
Now wealth is based on trade, farming and wage or salaried employment. In this situation widows can be obstacles to their "inheritors" full enjoyment of the property. A widow now more or less struggles to be economically independent. She wants to have more control of and defence of her rights to a portion of the husband's property. The transition from one situation to the other constitutes a battle over many different elements of the resources system, widow's included. This complex transformation of social relationships and the implications for widows can therefore be traced to cultural practices that have survived with the changing society as well as increasing impact of societal transformation.
It seems misleading, however, to see a static situation here. Though an Igbo widow's behaviour is constrained in some ways, it is quite unconstrained in others. An Igbo widow is free to remarry. She is free to leave her husband's family. She is also free to hold and manage her own property. The society gives her freedom to take part in any economic activity of her choice. I would suggest that it is precisely because of the constraints imposed upon a woman's right to inherit from her husband that she is able to enjoy the freedom cited above. The Igbo woman's freedom of choice and action has its basis in her largely independent status as a married woman. Although the inheritance rule do not confer a permanent estate on a wife, the constraints on Igbo widows in exercising certain options, and the usual autonomy they enjoy in other spheres, are best viewed as two sides of the same coin. Igbo women are hard working and self-reliant. Many do not need help, since widows are normally middle-aged rather than elderly. For the Igbo woman, the period of widowhood is not just a ritual phase but one that may be regarded as a permanent status of some independence.