Traditional African Practices and Islam

Leo Igwe

Traditional African Value System

Africa is a deeply patriarchal society. Men dominate the socio-economic and political machinery and organizations. Men are regarded as natural leaders, who are superior and born to rule over women. Women are considered weaker vessels-extensions of men and secondary human beings. The pride and dignity of women are derived from and dependent on men.

Hence, African societies attach more value and importance to a male child than to a female child. Ten daughters are not worth a son. No woman is regarded as complete or real until she gives birth to a male. Delivering a son gives a woman pride and a place at her husband's home. It is said that every married woman stands with one leg in her husband's house until she gives birth to a male child.

Traditional African Practices

Like the traditional African value system, most traditional African practices are fundamentally biased against women and gender-insensitive. Little wonder, then, it is upheld as a traditional practice in many parts of Africa for girls as young as seven to be married to men old enough to be their fathers, and in some cases, grandfathers. Parents determine who marries their daughters before they are old enough to decide for themselves. Moreover, with the payment of the dowry, a girl is bought and automatically becomes the property of the man, who uses, mistreats, and dumps her when he deems fit.

Polygamy is another traditional custom that prevails in Africa. Men are licensed to marry as many wives as possible. In fact, in many communities, men measure their wealth and influence by the numbers of women they have and control. It is regarded as a taboo, however, for a woman to have more than one husband. In the event of the husband's death, the woman is subjected to several gory and excruciating traditional funeral rites popularly known as widowhood.

This is a period of mourning, which lasts one, two, or more years commencing with the death of a woman's spouse. During this period, a woman is made to walk and move barefoot, haggard, unkempt, and wearing rags or black clothes. She is not allowed to wear earrings, cover her hair, or even smile.

In some communities, the widow pours ashes on her body and is made to sleep with the husband's corpse for a night, or drink the water used in washing the corpse if she is suspected�as is often the case�of causing her husband's death. As part of the tradition, the eldest man in the family inherits the woman. Otherwise, she is evicted from the husband's house with her children, and her property is confiscated.

The practice of female genital mutilation (fgm)-otherwise known as female circumcision-prevails as a tradition in Africa. This process entails the partial or total cutting away of the external female genitalia. Traditional healers, birth attendants, or elderly women usually carry out the practice. The procedure is often carried out in a septic environment with crude instruments such as knives, razor blades, and broken glasses, without anesthetics, or, at best, herbal medication to check bleeding and lessen pain. This crude and hazardous procedure is grounded in and surrounded by various myths, misconceptions, and superstitious nonsense. For instance, the ritual is performed as a rite of passage, for preparing young girls for womanhood and marriage. Many also believe that it prevents a woman from giving birth to a stillborn child. In some parts of western Nigeria, it is regarded as a taboo for the head of the child to touch the mother's clitoris during delivery. Some of the proverbs that support and underscore these mythical postulations include: 

"The clitoris is a cap of prostitution which the vagina wears from heaven."

"If we don't clip the clitoris, it is going to be asking great sacrifices from the penis when it grows."

"The fortune gathered by the penis is taken up by the vagina."

Even though they predate the coming and spread of Islam, traditional African practices are closely related and allied with Islamic teachings, traditions, and customs.

Relationship with Islam

Islam is a male-made religion, founded on masculinity, patriarchy, and male domination. It is notorious for its repression, subjugation, and discrimination against women. Islamic religion portrays women as inferior to men in every respect-spiritually, physically, mentally, and even intellectually. Islam's holy book, the Koran, divinely sanctions and decrees this negative impression. The Koran has been corroborated by the Hadiths (traditions of Muhammad's sayings and deeds) and perpetuated by the interpretation of the mullahs, the sheiks, and the imams. 

As in the traditional African context, men are regarded as superior to women. "Men are in charge of women because Allah hath made one to excel the other" (Sura 4:34). Male children are preferred to females that bring gloom and despair. As Sura 43:15 relates: "yet when a new-born girl is announced to one of them his countenance darkens and he is filled with gloom."

As a religious norm, Muslim women and girls are subjected to various forms of victimization and discrimination. They are not allowed to move about unveiled, nor are they allowed to vote, hold public office, or have social, political, or economic power. They are not given the freedom to choose their marriage partners. Their parents betroth them to the Mallams and the Alhajis in order to cultivate friendship, and to extend and cement bonds between families. For instance, in Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria, child marriages and arranged marriages are still commonplace. Consequently, the dreadful disease called vesico-vaginal fistula (VVF) is widespread and endemic.

Islam also endorses polygamy. Though Muslim men are allowed to marry more than one wife, their women are forbidden to keep more than one husband. If the woman loses her husband, she is subjected to all sorts of deprivations and humiliation akin to the widow's plight in the traditional African setting. She is entitled to only a quarter of the legacy, and if the deceased has more than one wife, the wives are obliged to share a quarter or one-eighth of the legacy.

Traditional African practices are closely related to Islam where fgm is concerned. This vicious ritual has been defended and justified by many Muslim scholars and jurists as an Islamic custom. They have argued that it is consistent with Islamic piety and purity. Muslim women and girls are therefore excised and infibulated in the name of Allah and Muhammad, his prophet.

Here is a short description by a Muslim, M.A.S. Mustafa, of the process of infibulation in a Muslim community in Djibouti:

"The little girl, entirely nude, is immobilized in the sitting position on a low stool, by at least three women. One of them has her arms tightly around the little girl's chest. Two others forcibly hold the child's thighs apart, in order to open wide the vulva. The child's arms are tied behind her back or immobilized by two other women. The traditional operator says a short prayer: 'Allah is the greatest and Muhammad is his prophet. May Allah keep away all evils.' She then spreads some offerings on the floor to Allah (split maize, or, in urban areas, eggs). Then the old woman takes her razor from top to bottom of the small lip, and scrapes the flesh from inside the large lip. This nymphectomy and scraping are repeated on the other side of the vulva."

Moreover, the Islamic faith is associated with the use of Juju, charms, and amulets-another practice very common in Africa. Muslims and Africans believe these fetishes and concoctions scare away evils and misfortune, to kill one's enemies, and to enhance one's progress and success in life. In Nigeria, Muslim spiritualists are reputed for their extraordinary feats in Juju and the production of talismans.

By sanctioning many traditional African practices, Islam, unlike other alien religions, has been very instrumental in the continuation of these customs. Islam is one of the greatest obstacles to the efforts to eradicate harmful and inhumane traditional practices in Africa.

Changes and Challenges

One of the most interesting and challenging experiences I have had as a humanist in the past couple of years has been trying to persuade my people to abandon these horrible and primitive customs. I have tried to persuade them to see the need for progress and improvement in our attitudes, value and society. We must openly examine the traditions we have held and accepted as sacrosanct. Many of these traditions are founded on traditional dogma, ignorance, and superstition.

I am glad to say that the momentum is building, and the changes are coming. Increasing numbers of individuals and groups are rising up against traditional practices that cannot withstand logical and/or scientific scrutiny. Those beliefs, customs, and rituals are founded on myths, pseudoscience, or fringe science.

Today Africa is witnessing enormous and appreciable changes in the perception and status of women. Many African women have been consistent and courageous in their demand for justice and equality with men. They want recognition and respect for their right to marry the mates of their choice, whenever and wherever they wish. They want their rights to reproductive health and integrity respected. They want the right to divorce and to own property.

In spite of the threats of Islamic fundamentalism, many Muslim institutions, individuals, and groups have been very supportive of and solidly behind the process of change and moral progress. In December, 1997 we witnessed a landmark and unprecedented judgment when an Egyptian court upheld the ban of female genital mutilation and rejected the claim of Islamic religious justification. This timely verdict sent a very clear message to the Islamic world. Islam cannot stop the process of eradicating female genital mutilation and harmful traditional practices. Islam cannot subvert or obstruct enlightenment, progress, socio-economic reforms, and moral improvement in Africa.

Nevertheless, I must say that it is not yet "uhuru." Africa is still under the hard and harsh grip of poverty, illiteracy, superstition, and religious fundamentalism. So long as these social and mental cankerworms are at work, the struggle continues.


About the author: Leo Igwe is director of the Centre for Inquiry in Nigeria. He can be reached at [email protected]