Thirty years ago, the notion of an African alpha female might have been unfathomable. Africa had generally done very little to overcome the traditional view of a woman’s role in society. In many African states, women were regarded as chattels to be inherited. They were given no formal education as their primary purpose in life was to be given out in marriage. Women, despite their age were considered to be forever under the control of either their husband or male relatives. Women and girls could not inherit or own property nor could they participate fully in public life or any decision-making within their immediate community. They had no right over the children they bore and were commonly the victims of domestic violence.
Today, with varying degrees of success, African countries have overcome the notion that a woman is a perpetual minor, with no capacity to make any decisions of her own. A number of superficial attempts have been made to project an image of gender equality through, for instance, forced quotas for female representation in Parliament, an appearance of access to education and the promulgation of anti-domestic violence legislation. More African women have made it to Oxbridge and Ivy League universities. More women are becoming law, medicine, architecture, engineering and accounting professionals. More women are employed in all sectors of the economy. We even have the odd African female president. Notwithstanding these apparent gains, huge remnants of Africa’s discriminatory past continue to haunt the modern African woman, worse so if she is an alpha female.
To illustrate the point, I take the example of the modern, black, Zimbabwean alpha female. She is well-educated, financially secure and intelligent. The usual charge of a gold-digger waiting to be rescued by an upwardly mobile man simply does not apply to her. She is more than able to fund her taste for the finer things in life. Due to her fierce work ethic ingrained in her from a very early age, she is fairly accomplished. Rising steadily through the ranks of her career ladder, she has all the hallmarks of a success story waiting to happen. She is the kick-ass female who gets things done.
However, she, at twenty-seven, is unmarried. [Insert loud gasps, looks of disdain and feelings of societal pity here.]
One of the biggest dilemmas that confronts her is that her parents will not let her move out of home. Apparently, for a woman to live alone is ‘taboo’ and emblematic of loose morals – “hazina hunhu”, so they say. The real explanation for the reluctance of Zimbabweans to allow a right-thinking, financially independent, adult woman to move out of home lies in the hangover from traditional African culture highlighted above: according to the precepts of African tradition, an African woman is a perpetual minor. Throughout her life, she is required to fall under the guardianship of her father until she is married. Upon marriage, her husband takes up the role of guardian. Curiously, African culture does not appear to accommodate that middle-of-the-road situation where a woman is no longer dependent on her father for her livelihood but has not found an appropriate suitor (should she be minded to do so). Society frowns upon her for being alone.
The difficulties surrounding such an approach are myriad. At twenty-seven, an African woman has the maturity of a mother who can run an entire household. Focusing on one’s career often means subordinating the need to get married for a time – either to find the right kind of African man (the type which is self-assured but won’t feel threatened by female success) or to ensure all career objectives are met by the appointed time the alpha female has set for herself. Constantly and from a young age, the African girl is told – by her parents, mentors and society – how boys are bad and that she should focus instead on school. Even upon completing high school, she is told that having a boyfriend is somewhat shameful. Yet upon reaching twenty-five, there is an inexplicable, unspoken 180 degree shift in attitude. She has to get married – and NOW. Today, if possible but by the end of this year will also do. [Insert all manner of expletives here.]
To the African alpha female, such a proposition is contradictory and patently nonsensical: her career has taken off, she wants to travel and see the world, world domination has become her focus in life and she realizes that there is more to life than becoming little more than a domestic appendage to a man’s life. Her bucket list now includes getting a book published, giving a speech to over 10,000 people, parasailing, swimming under a waterfall, learning to play a musical instrument and touring Prague and Paris.
And all society can do is ask – why are you not married? [Snore.]
Her dilemma does not end there.
Feminism is a dirty word in Africa: it conjures up notions of women who disrespect the patriarchy. You know, the type of woman who will report her husband to the police for domestic violence instead of apologizing for what ‘she did’ to prompt the abuse and undertaking to be more submissive in the future. [Sigh] As a general principle, the traditional African male prefers to be treated as a demi-god, does not like to be questioned and views a woman as part of his accumulated wealth – after all, he paid a healthy quantum of lobola (bride price) for this acquisition. For reasons that are self-evident, this mindset is illogical and unacceptable to the African alpha female. She is not a domestic servant, though she may love to cook and clean on her own terms. She knows better than to take instructions on how to live her life. She chooses not to act without first interrogating the merits of such action. In short, she is looking for a partner who edifies and complements her not a master to dominate her. She has no hang ups about a man taking the lead but he must be competent to do so. Unfortunately for the African alpha female, the man described here is an endangered species in Africa.
Too old to be unmarried but not old enough to move out of home, she faces the grand dilemma – should she give in to the pressure to get married or should she suffer the stigma of remaining the sad, unattached woman for whom African society has no respect?
Sadly, many African women do give in to the pressure to get married – all at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons – on everyone else’s terms but their own. They sacrifice their dreams and ambitions to appease society. Outmoded African attitudes towards women condition the alpha female out of the African professional woman, steering her instead to a strictly nurturing role rather than world domination.
Surely the time has come however to accept that marriage, in and of itself, is not an achievement or the route every woman must be forced to take? A woman deserves respect in her own right – and this should never depend on whether or not lobola (itself a sexist practice) has been paid for her.
“If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s. And guess what they might have planned for you? Not much.” Jim Rohn