The media in Uganda has in the past few days been awash with conversations (or bitter arguments, to put it more precisely), about the practice of women and girls kneeling. Kneeling is a long-cherished custom among some tribes where females kneel before men and elders as a sign of respect, especially when greeting. The debate was sparked by Oxfam ED, Winnie Byanyima. Byanyima, also wife to Ugandan opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, stirred the wrath of Ugandan social media ‘cultural vigilantes’ when she posted a photograph of a young lady that insisted on kneeling to greet her even after she asked her not to.
“Neighbor Leonarda kneels down to greet me. I tell her not to kneel, but she insists that a young woman must show respect by kneeling to greet older women and men. I don’t agree, boys don’t kneel. How do we stop this humiliating ritual?” Ms Byanyima posted on her Twitter account.
The rather passionate, if not bitter debate, around this topic which had both women and men bashing Ms Byanyima for ‘denigrating’ the custom of kneeling many have cherished for years as a sign of respect got me thinking: Is kneeling really a sign of respect? Or are we confusing subordination with respect? Coming from one of the Ugandan ethnic groups that do not hold this custom dear, as a Mukiga, my view about kneeling might be construed as totally biased.
However, kneeling, like many other cherished African cultures/customs greatly perpetuates specific gender roles and norms (ideas about how women and men should be and act) which influence society’s general outlook towards life and affects the way women go about the rest of their lives. From childhood, young girls are coached into certain norms – neatly fold your legs and look away when speaking to a man or an elder; this is how to state your greetings to an elder and so on.
While in my culture kneeling for men or elders is not emphasized, it is impressed upon us from childhood not to speak while elders or men are speaking, not to question anything an elder or a man says, not to greet elders and men before they greet you, not to eat before elders eat, do not make eye-contact with elders or men and so many other ‘do nots’. All these drills, in my opinion, serve to stifle girls’ confidence, creativity, and curiosity at a very young age. Indeed such customs and practices more often than not promote inferiority and weakness, which later become disadvantageous in situations where women are expected to show strength in leadership, and actively compete for positions in politics, in the boardrooms and in business against men.
Boys are on the other hand are taught from childhood that they have to get it together – be in charge, and generally be a MAN. While this may seem like a good thing, behind their macho masks, men live in fear of not getting it right, fear of failure and rejection. And to hide their insecurities, they feel that showing supremacy over women makes them ‘more manly.’ This may explain why many men bask in the glory of women kneeling for them, or their female peers serving them coffee in the boardroom. Same as elders who believe that it is their God-given right to be superior to the younger ones because somehow they were born before them.
Whether it is actual kneeling or submission to elders and men, I believe this syndrome of ‘humility’ and ‘good manners’ has been more detrimental than beneficial. It is out of ‘respect for elders’ that we let presidents rule for life; it is out of ‘respect for elders’ that we do not speak up when we are treated unfairly at the workplace; it is out of ‘respect for elders’ that we do not ask for a pay raise when we know we deserve it. It is out of ‘respect for elders’ that we don’t challenge philosophies that we think are wrong.
We should teach our children – boys and girls alike – about the virtues of humility and mutual respect. Mutual respect does not elevate one person while pulling the other down. Isn’t it about time that we let go of customs that do not promote any mutual respect?