Purity culture is instilled in women from the moment we come into this world until we leave it. This is usually achieved through teachings of chastity — “save yourself for your husband, or you are impure”, and threats of diminished value should they lose said chastity. Women who do not fit the religious or cultural definitions of “purity” are shamed and punished for it by men and other women who help uphold patriarchy.
Girls are taught that they must do this and be that because of probable husbands in their distant future. Women are over-scrutinised and required to fit into limiting boxes to please men, and that’s certainly no way to live. A large part of being a feminist is examining the predefined role of a woman in society and letting go of practices and beliefs that limit, subjugate and harm women.
We spoke to four women who shared their experiences with purity culture and patriarchal expectations and how they have unlearned them in a society that actively enforces and reinforces patriarchy.
As a child, I was always told to learn how to cook a variety of meals, including the ones I did not like, just because “my husband and his mother” might like them. This was at age 10. Till now, I don’t know how to turn any swallow; I swore never to learn it. I can’t iron too or mop. I want to see the mother-in-law and the husband eyeball to eyeball and wait for the “wrath”.
I was told to sit up straight, not because good posture is necessary, but because I need to be ready to “carry my husband’s baby” the right way. These people didn’t even ask if I wanted kids. I was body-shamed in school for not hitting puberty early. The boys called me names. I swore to always be at the top of my class in order to shame them, yet teachers would still come to class to say they are ashamed of these same boys for letting a girl top them. I was told not to dream too big in order to make time for my children, that it’s a sacrifice my mum made for me too. When does the sacrificing end?
I realised they were all problematic when I thought about what could benefit me and found nothing. Everything I did and every move I made was done with putting an unknown man into consideration. It was like my life was some princess protection program, and I was not my own self. My hard work was watered down, my achievements were a mere activity because I wouldn’t even be bearing the name on all my awards and certificates.
When I asked my mum why I should keep my virginity, she said so my husband would be the one to defile me on my wedding night and love me more for “keeping myself for him” and then come and shower her with gifts for raising me right. What are gifts that I cannot buy for her myself?? It’s already problematic that I’d be exchanged for yams. Also, is the man keeping himself for me?? I can go to his mum to buy her gifts for raising him right too. WHEN DO I WIN?
It was actually hard to unlearn. I’m the first daughter. The pressure has been there since I knew my right from left. Everything I did, and every praise I got had a “your husband will enjoy” after it. Every wedding I attended came with a “your time will soon come” after it. I was just a child, but my childhood was taken away from me. I wasn’t allowed to make mistakes. My life had to be perfect, while boys got to be boys. Imagine asking for weight gain drugs at 13 because I’ve always heard about African men “liking it fleshy”, and I was told I wouldn’t have the body to carry a baby if I didn’t add weight. Why was that my concern at such an age? My first teenage infatuations were very much male-centred. I’d always tell men, “I’m not like other girls”. Growing up to see how men act and how unfair the world is, I didn’t see any tangible reason why they were ever the prize in the first place.
Getting into any relationship has been so hard because my standards have been so high. I can’t settle because I know I’m the prize. I love it when I hear that men find me intimidating because they know they can’t stand a chance with me. My life has been free, to be honest. I’ve stopped burning clothes because I want to practice how I’ll iron my husband’s clothes. I’ve stopped doing things for the sake of a random human that I do not know and have started doing things for myself.
I need women and girls who still believe that they must fit into the roles assigned to them by society, even where it is harmful, to open their eyes. The femicide rate is alarming. Women are being killed for not cooking, for cooking but not cooking right, for having a say, for saying no, for not covering their hair, for having female children, for existing. Living a male-centred life keeps you in chains. They lied to you; THIS IS NOT A MAN’S WORLD.
I was taught that as a woman, I shouldn’t do anything a man doesn’t approve of because apparently, they are the head, and also that when I have sex with a man, I lose my value as a woman, but nothing happens to him.
One time, my dad saw me hugging a boy and said I had disgraced him. I felt they were problematic when my brother who was in secondary school had a girlfriend that he always bought things for, and my parents didn’t see anything wrong with it, but they didn’t want me to have a boyfriend at the same level.
I unlearned purity culture after my first time having sex. It felt so good, and I realised that women were just hated and they didn’t want us to enjoy sex. It wasn’t really hard because my boyfriend then was a good person and made me feel safe. It impacted my relationships with other men positively and I was able to have sex without feeling guilt and other extra feelings.
All women should become feminists and support us in stopping patriarchy from taking over our society.
I was always forced to learn how to cook because “what will your husband eat when you marry”? I was always cooking until I started to think, “What about me? What will I eat”? Even now, if it’s not noodles, I’m not cooking. I remember my mummy forcing me to make amala at the age of 12/13. It’s one of the reasons I’ll always slander Amala.
I was also told to keep myself for my husband, and that no one would marry someone who already had sex. Every time, my parents would always tell this beautiful story of how they got married as virgins and whatnot. They would finalise their story by instilling fear in me. They would tell me to keep myself for marriage or no one would want me and that it’s a sin to have sex before marriage. I’m sha having sex with women now because I really could care less about men.
I got tired. Everything I always did was for men, and it was becoming exhausting. I think I was 17 when my eyes started opening. I just stopped caring. I would also question everything including my religion, because that was another problem.
My unlearning journey started with one babe’s account on Twitter. She was/is very vocal about her views on patriarchy. She would also always post articles about how patriarchy affects all of us. It was just a wake-up call for me to start unlearning patriarchy and my pick-me behaviour. I’m very vocal about feminism now. People hate making jokes about things that affect women around me because I’m too reactive, and maybe I am, but I’m not going to laugh when someone makes a “joke” about women. For example, someone could be listening to an R-Kelly song, and I’ll always remind them of his crimes and give them a judgy look for listening. People always call me strong-headed, but I don’t think I care. It’s peaceful, and I’ve learnt to mind my business concerning other people. As long as it’s not harmful or dangerous to other people or living things, do your thing.
You need to start questioning everything and be open to learning and growth.
Growing up, my mother was pretty religious (she still is). I was always told to dress the way I would like to be addressed, to keep myself for my husband, and all that good stuff. I attended both primary and secondary schools that were affiliated with the Living Faith church, and I was made to sign my first purity contract in primary 5 when I barely even had a proper concept of what sex even meant. My mom carried that thing on her head, she actually kept it till I was in university a few years ago and reminded me of it. The second purity contract was in high school, which I never mentioned to my mother for obvious reasons. I knew it was all bullshit when she never held my brothers to the same standard.
When I hit puberty in primary 5, my body went under serious scrutiny by my teachers because obviously, my uniform got tighter at the hips. I was just a child; I didn’t understand why I was being shamed and told to wear different things so as not to be a distraction like my body was some kind of dirty thing I needed to hide just because it was changing. Growing up, my mom never allowed me to wear shorts or paint my nails because it would attract the wrong kind of attention, and I hated it. There was even a time when my mom wanted to ban me from wearing trousers so I wouldn’t look too mature. Other times, I was asked by my parents to change my outfits because they were suggestive.
When it came to cooking, I was always the one in the kitchen while my brothers could do what they wanted. In my parents’ defence, I didn’t wash the cars. I was always locked up at home and never allowed to go out during the holidays, but when my brothers grew up after I went to university, it wasn’t an issue, surprise there.
My mom still tried to control how I dressed and lived my life even after I went to university. I moved in with my boyfriend over there, and she told me to pack my bags and leave. When I said no, we didn’t speak for over three months. We’ve been able to work through our differences, and now she likes my bikini pictures on Instagram, who would’ve thought? She still tells me she wishes I dressed more modestly, and I tell her I never will, and that’s usually the end of the conversation until next time. I know she did what she did because she was trying to protect me, and this is the only way she knew how, so I don’t resent her for it.
I knew these things were problematic while I was in high school, but I didn’t fully take the time to unlearn these things in my personal life until I got into uni. I became irreligious and started reading a lot of feminist literature and following feminists on Twitter and it was all so eye-opening and freeing. Once I started to identify as agnostic and feminist, it was pretty easy for me to leave that life behind. Maybe it was so easy because deep down from a young age, I knew it was all rubbish and I didn’t like the way things were at home and in society, and I just wanted to live life on my own terms.
Since then, life has been great! I’ve never felt guilty about being sexual and owning my sexuality. I dress however I like, which would be described as indecent to many, but I love how comfortable I am in my own skin now. Sometimes, the doubts still creep in, but I am still as confident as I’ve ever been. My little self would be amazed at the woman I am now.
I don’t know if I’m qualified to give advice, but I’d say the first thing you have to do is fight to free yourself from shame, there is nothing shameful about your body or your desires and also decentre men and the need to be marriageable according to society’s standards.
The stories shared by these four women shed light on the profound effects of purity culture and patriarchal expectations. Their journeys to unlearn these harmful beliefs and reclaim their autonomy serve as powerful reminders that it’s essential to challenge and dismantle oppressive norms. By questioning societal standards, embracing feminism, and prioritizing self-worth, these women have found empowerment and freedom in defining their lives on their terms. Their experiences inspire us all to continue the fight for gender equality and to reject the confines of a male-centred world.