Despite attending a number a funerals over the years, there is one that still haunts me. That day, people readily took to the podium to deliver their final messages. They described the deceased as an honest, humble man who devoted himself to his family. A man’s life stolen by an illness, leaving a loving wife and cherished children. However, his wife sat as an emotionless figure, refusing to speak. It wasn’t until we stood at the graveyard, watching the dirt swallow his casket that she screamed,
“Amen! I am finally free of that cruel man!”
The family rushed to silence her, apologising for her erratic behaviour and blaming it on grief. She was hurriedly escorted away from the gravesite, leaving us in shock. They finally allowed her to speak in a brief family meeting, long after the commotion of the funeral had fizzled away. The family asked her to apologise for her outburst but she blatantly refused. Instead, she recounted her struggle.
She mentioned that she had turned into an abused slave in the hands of her husband. That throughout their marriage, he had forced her to deliver multiple children only for him to torment and starve them. She turned an accusing finger at the family, blaming them for continuously dragging her back, every time she tried to escape him. Recalling that they asked her to stay for the sake of her children. Lastly, that as soon as he had fallen sick from his relations with other women, she was called upon to nurse him until his dying breath.
“Umfazi ubamba umukhwa lawubukhali khona.” Women hold the sharp edge of the knife.
One of the elderly women muttered as the newly widowed woman fell apart before us. The men left the room, deeming her cry for help to be a ‘women’s issue’. Yet, nobody could deny that we were all uncomfortable with the matter.
Whilst comforting the new widow, the women praised and labelled her as ‘one of the strong ones’. They congratulated her for showing strength and resilience. Indicating that she had been granted justice and that the reward of her strength would be her freedom. Adding, that others could only long for it. Slowly, the women opened up about their own experiences of mistreatment, abuse and horrors they had endured. Before long, they were openly crying with her. We (younger girls) could only watch on in paralysed silence, fearful and anxious about the future.
The ancient quote of a woman holding the sharpest edge of the knife, has been recited to me my entire life. It is constant and unwavering, accompanied by an expectation to show strength in all aspects of life. I heard it right before I was asked to mature a little too quickly. I came again, when I was expected to digest the smallest traumas as preparation to face greater challenges in life. Nobody ever said what they would be, only that I had to be strong enough to endure. I believe that the quote is a cursed prophecy. I believe it’s passed down to prepare girls to expect and eventually accept a life sentence of pain. Something older women whisper to us because they are too afraid to tell us about their struggles.
I am still haunted and slightly disturbed by that funeral. Not only by the different narratives that surrounded the family but by how it allowed for the destruction of a woman’s spirit. In a room full of women, where I had expected to find healing, I found them reminding themselves to endure pain. I heard them praising their survival and upholding the idea of strength. Rather than challenging their oppression or calling the men back into the discussion, they quietly reinforced the expectation to live through the unimaginable. Teaching us that justice was a small patch of freedom at the end of a struggle.
It is a quote I can never hear my mother say, without flinching. I carry an anxiety about all I am yet to experience as I grow into a woman. Whether all I have endured is nothing compared to what is coming my way. I wonder if I will ever experience justice. Whether I have been groomed enough to face a war against women and if my strength will ever become my weakness. At times, I am almost afraid of being one of the strong ones. Then I remember, I am stronger than I could ever imagine and I can fight to have a better story to tell.
Do you think women should support and encourage each other? Read one writer’s opinion here
Tell us: Do you agree that society expects women to be strong? Why or why not?