An article on BBC about a man hired by a community in Malawi to have sex with children went viral this week. Eric Aniva, the man featured in the story, is locally known as a ‘hyena’ and is paid approximately $6.00 to have sex with girls once they reach puberty. The members of this community, and others across Malawi, believe the ritual cleanses the girls and has the added benefit of protecting their families from the wrath of the gods. If the girls refuse, their families could be stricken with pestilence, crop failure and/or death.
As these published pieces often do, this article elicited much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth by anxious Africans terrified of earning the reputation that we are ‘primitive’ as a continent, willfully bucking against the glories and benefits of human evolution. They swooped into the comments section on social media to condemn the practice (rightfully) and cry out to God, wondering when-oh-when we would see the light and be saved from our backwardness ( to my surprise). You can read the entire BBC article HERE
Beyond provoking an ick response in me, this article served as a reminder of trivia I’d picked up some time ago. Eric Aniva was not the first ‘hyena’ I’d read about. The first time I’d heard about a man using his erection to ‘cleanse and protect’ the community was in the church. Yes, you heard that right. In Jewish, Roman and Greek customs, women’s bodies were considered ritualistically unclean. Her menstrual cycle – or any issue of blood – was considered an abomination.
We women bleed for all kinds of reasons: when we’re on our periods, when we’re stressed, when we’re giving birth, when we lose our virginity. That last order of business was what powerful, despotic men were most interested in…and somehow successfully convinced entire communities that their personally handling of that particular women’s issue was in everyone’s best interest. Church leaders persuaded (and eventually mandated) that every new bride be brought to the priest – God’s representative in the earth – in order that he dutifully deflower her. You must understand; his phallus was consecrated and therefore protected from her demonic first blood. Now, voila! No more Bloody New Brides in the realm for newlywed hubbies to have to concern themselves with.
It was kind of like a magic trick, except in every instance the trick ended in rape.
The practice of powerful men using their influence and authority to coerce women and girls into having sex with them is one longer than memory. It cuts across race, cultures and continents. The privilege of droit du seigneur – the right of the lord – is well documented and was practiced across medieval Europe. It gave feudal lords, land and title owners, men of noble birth and other rich scoundrels the legal right to have sexual relations with newly wedded brides on the first night of their union. You might recall the scene in Braveheart when King Longshanks gathered all his noblemen to discuss Scottish malcontent and the uprisings mushrooming in the north. He said,
“Perhaps it’s time to re-institute an old custom – prima nocta. First night. If we cannot route them out, we’ll brrrrreed them out.”
Or something like that.
Point is, prima nocta was a real thing and poor red headed girls all over Scotland were made to spend their wedding night with some unctuous, obese English lord. *Shiver*
The English adopted prima nocta from the Romans, who had invaded and conquered Britain under Caesar. It was all fun and games until these jokers took the practice to a whole new level, when lords began charging men a fee for the ‘privilege’ of sleeping with their new brides. Men who could not afford to pay could not marry.
In the end, all this pretense about using old man cock to ‘cleanse’ a woman’s body, ward off potential evil events and the imposed idea that this is all very honorable comes down to one thing: Agency.
Who owns women’s bodies?
If we were to track the timeline of the human experience as a whole, there are only faint whispers of time when women have ever truly belonged to themselves. Cultures where women were given the same rights and privileges as men – including sexual agency – have been destroyed by crusaders of Abrahamic religions and replaced with the gender disparity we see now. If you’ve ever wondered why ancient Egypt was considered such a den of iniquity by the modern church, I would hazard that the culture’s permitting a woman the ability to rule as a Pharaoh would be a good place to start. And yet the land of Egypt served as a safe haven for prophets, kings and even young Jesus Christ Himself for a time.
Say what you will about feminism, but the movement has given young women and girls a powerful tool: the right to say “NO”. Where women are concerned and when I think about the church, Islam and the shadowy, ubiquitous myth known as African Culture, I think about obedience first and foremost. But rights? That’s somewhere down the line long after go and marry, if it even makes the list at all. Speaking as a former Muslim and a born again Christian, I confess that I have had to unlearn and reject almost everything I’ve been indoctrinated with as far as my gender is concerned.
When we teach young girls that they have the right to say no, we give them authority. They should be able to say no to female genital mutilation; no to dropping out of school in order to serve male whims and destiny; no to hyenas who are paid to ravish them just as they are entering womanhood’s doorstep.
That brings me back to my surprise at the responses of a good many people on Facebook who typed out their cries to God, pondering when things in Africa will change. The answer to that is simple: When WE decide to change them.
When we decide that women are full human beings.
When we decide that girls are not objects that we can physically mar for culture’s perverse pleasure.
When we decide to give women their place as influencers – not just through tokenism – in society.
When we decide to educate not just ourselves, but our communities about the benefits of a healthy, thriving female population and the positive generational ripple effects.
All of this requires a dynamic shift in power structure. What did it take to end this practice in churches, fiefdoms, kingdoms and remote outposts? Was it easy? Doubtful. The dominant classes do not relinquish their hold on power easily.
Even in different parts of the continent where we think we’re doing okay with gender politics, there is still room to grow and improve. I think about Africa and the type of girls self-proclaimed progressive men raise, but would never marry themselves. Girls who are assertive, intelligent and driven make impressive daughters but are not considered wife material. Now why is that? Perhaps this is a hyena tradition of a different sort.