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Do Cultural Norms and Customs Derail Women’s Empowerment?

“It’s against our culture for a woman to speak like that”. Time and again we hear women in our communities utter words along these lines, challenging fellow women for being too opinionated and “tainted by western morals” because they speak their mind.

Much of this has to do with the fact that since time immemorial, women are disproportionately given a bigger load to carry when it comes to the preservation of customs and norms.

From an early age, girls are programmed to walk and talk in a certain way. They are expected to be humble and to exhibit quiet submission. As they grow up to become women, they are expected to be less threatening because being too opinionated will frighten potential suitors. This way of thinking has been passed on from one generation to the next, often orally and has helped reinforce stereotypical ideas about the position of women.

The idea that women are not supposed to be too vocal has contributed to the entrenched belief in our society that women are not supposed to be at the forefront of decision making. What many fail to realise is that being passive can prevent an individual from taking charge of their life. Furthermore, this attitude does not inspire the development of leadership qualities in successive generations.

Being passive diminishes the confidence and effectiveness of a woman in changing the world around them. While passive individuals console themselves with the belief that not speaking up helps create a peaceful environment, they make huge personal sacrifices that may later on prove costly. Passivity can lead to aggressive behaviour because of a build up of unresolved issues.

women waiting in Sudan

UN Photo

Speaking up and speaking out in an assertive way does not have to be aggressive. With a bit of practice anyone can learn the art of being assertive without violating the rights of others. An individual can go for what they want and have the confidence to make known what they want, by making their boundaries clear without being impolite or malicious.  Assertive people often use positive language when dealing with difficult situations. They tend to be sensitive to those around them while being mindful of the fact that they do not have to make a noble sacrifice.

The idea that one must maintain peace at any price is not embraced by assertive individuals who go on to become recognised as leaders. They realise that they have the same responsibilities and personal self-worth as others. They also realise that a passive attitude to life will prevent them from taking a leap forward to the next level.

Acknowledging our inner strength is the first step towards being assertive. Having self-belief helps us have a certain level of presence, which shows up in our body language and the way we speak. While being assertive comes naturally to some people, it can be difficult for others particularly women who have been socialised to believe that they “must be seen but not heard”.

The good news is that with practice and commitment, one can be transformed from being passive to being assertive. When we quit being “perennial, people pleasers”, our relationships thrives as we become less resentful. We can choose to be assertive and engage in the process of developing as well as enhancing our leadership skills.

By Kabukabu Ikwueme 



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