Culture is not set in stone

Walking down the streets of Kampala with my then boyfriend, we met his aunt. I shook her hand with as much feigned respect that society demands we give to older people as I could muster.

Walking down the streets of Kampala with my then boyfriend, we met his aunt. I shook her hand with as much feigned respect that society demands we give to older people as I could muster.

I clutched my right forearm with my left hand, bowed my head a little and made my face humble by not smiling too much or looking her dead in the eyes. I was completely out of my element.

And yet I got silent treatment afterwards. When he finally spoke to me again, it was to tell me that he couldn’t believe that I had greeted his aunt while standing. He said that it was a most insolent act that his family was bound to hear about.

I offered no apology. I didn’t remind him that we were from different backgrounds and that our definitions of respect and insolence were thus different. I simply asked him: “why is it necessary to kneel to greet older people, or anyone for that matter?”

“It’s our culture!” he shouted the way people do to reprove anyone who has the nerve to question the status quo. But “It’s our culture!” is not a response. At least not one that provides a satisfactory answer to a question about a practice that makes no sense. It only demands blind belief and unquestioning obedience.

The irony of it all is that the people who are strong advocates for unquestioning obedience to “our culture” are the same ones who find thepractices of past generations ignorant to the point of being laughable.

They didn’t allow women to eat meat? They sacrificed twins? Some kings spat in their subjects’ mouths? Brides were required to resist sex on their wedding nights? They threw pregnant girls off cliffs? What ignorance, right? What barbarism, right?

Well, so what would have happened if no one had asked questions? Or what would have happened if those who asked questions had just nodded their heads satisfactorily at the response: “It’s our culture!”

Every single change, whether groundbreaking or meagre, has only happened because of the people who are not cut out for blind belief and unquestioning obedience. The first woman to eat chicken and find out that it doesn’t make her develop beards. The inventor of the telephone.The first couple who didn’t sacrifice their twin children.

No matter how opposed we are to change, it’s inevitable. The customs we hold dear and defend solemnly with our thumbs on social media will become extinct one day.

One day, a story will be told, of how in some cultures, women used to kneel down to greet men or other people in authority. And the hearers of the story will react with the same measure of shock and amusement that we now do when we listen to stories about arranged marriages.

You wouldn’t know this from the way people breathed fire on twitter when a famous woman said that kneeling is oppressive to women.

But the fact of the matter is that times change, people change and because of that, culture changes. It’s not set in stone.

 

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