A TAFES Associate who is also a psychologist posted on her Facebook profile about why a man might beat (but not kill) his wife. She wasn’t trying to give justification for it, but to unpack what his assumptions or mental situation might be. The reasons listed were:
- he might do it without conscious thought, overwhelmed by anger or stress
- he might do it because he feels disrespected
- he might do it to punish a wife for bad behaviour
- he might do it because he has lost his mind.
We brought this list and its explanations to language class to ask our tutor about its nuances and cultural background.
It was a little confusing at first because her Christian convictions and African culture are sometimes at odds on this issue. For example, she said that if a man does not have full obedience from his wife, he would feel disrespected, because he is the head of the household. However, when I suggested that the Bible’s notion of being ‘head’ has more to do with servanthood and putting yourself last than with receiving honour or getting your way, she also agreed with that. She said this latter is the attitude of those who take their Christian faith seriously, but in many Tanzanian cultures, being the head mean unquestioned power.
She gave me a scenario: what would I do if Arthur was never home, refused to answer my phone or messages, would not talk or negotiate with me, controlled the finances, and I suspected him of having an affair? I said that as this started to happen I would work at compromise, bringing in others who could speak into his life, attempt counselling, etc. If he showed no interest in changing,* I would consider him to have abandoned our family and to have broken our marriage covenant, and would see this as reasonable grounds for divorce.
Then I turned the question back on her. What would she do? She saw Christian conversion as a really important thing that I had left out. She said a woman who is being beaten or abused by her husband needs to know God, and that in fearing Him, He will give her the power so she will not fear her husband. Her body may be abused, but in her soul she will have peace.
I asked her, isn’t this just separation of body and soul, as if the soul’s all that matters and not the body? Jesus cares about the body too, not only the soul! She agreed, yes indeed Jesus does care for the body, but soul sickness will always manifest in bodily sickness. We learned a new proverb: La kuvunda halina ubani – a rotten thing doesn’t produce a beautiful fragrance. A piece of fruit may look good on the surface but be rotten inside. You will know by how it smells.
So a woman who is in this situation must pray for her husband, because there is something wrong with him at a spiritual level. This is part of what the TAFES Associate is getting at in the list. Remember that Tanzanians’ distinctions between mental health, held assumptions, and spiritual beliefs are much more porous than our own. Sin manifests itself not only in actions, like beating your wife, but also in your faulty ways of thinking. You cannot fix the actions only; you must also heal the spiritual.
The admirable thing here is the holism of her worldview, how the spiritual and the physical are not bifurcated. Yet I was still struggling with the physical danger in which this places the wife. She is so vulnerable! But at this point, Arthur asked, “And can a wife also beat her husband?” And the answer was, “Of course!” I suppose it shows my own assumption, that I had thought the beatings to be one-sided.
Perhaps that assumption follows from the wife’s role. She is not to get above herself. She is to manage the home well, and to be obedient to her husband. I had assumed this would mean she could not challenge him, let alone punish or beat him. However, our tutor explains that there are expectations on him too – to provide, be hardworking, faithful, etc. In this reciprocal system, if either of them transgress, the other is entitled to punish them. They have different roles in the marriage, but both are beholden to the other to play their part. There’s a mutuality here even though there’s an asymmetry, and the idea of beating anyone seems immoral to me.
I realised that when our tutor had asked me what I would do in the abusive situation, part of what she was expecting was that I would see beating Arthur as at least an option that was open to me! This had not occurred to me at all, and I could not work out why she had given me this scenario when I had asked about wife beating. But I began to see that corporal punishment is part of the repertoire of relationship problem solving in Tanzania, at least in some cases.
The glaring issue with this to me was the physical imbalance. It’s all well and fine to say that women are allowed to beat their husbands, but at least in my marriage, I’m at a significant strength disadvantage, and many women would testify to the same thing. If you beat your husband, won’t he just overpower you and beat you? The answer was that this is why you attack him with a stick while he is sleeping! You can get in a few good whacks before he recovers himself, and then run away. After Arthur and I had recovered from the shock of this answer, we remembered that we have actually seen this, on Tanzanian soaps. I don’t know how common it is in practice, but there was a news story recently about wives beating their husbands unreasonably.
I’m still not sure what to make of all this, but here it is: another fascinating day in cross-cultural life!
*Promises to change are often part of the cycle of abuse. I am not suggesting that these are a reason to stay in an abusive marriage. I was attempting to answer the question briefly without getting too technical!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.