I must have been at least eight or nine years old. My aunt had sent out one of the neighbor’s daughters to the store, I asked if I could go with her. On getting to the store, the storekeeper wrapped something in a black nylon bag, and then went ahead to say “I’ll add one more nylon bag for you”. I could not understand what we needed to hide or why but I did not ask. We walked home with the nylon bag tucked inside the other girl’s hijab.

At the young age of eight (or nine), I learned how to feel shame for the natural occurrence of my body. Subsequently, I learned other things too. I learned that menstruation made men/boys uncomfortable; I learned that I had to hide in order to eat my food during Ramadan whenever I get my period (Muslim women are exempted from fasting during their menstrual cycle), I learned that I had to hide my sanitary pads at the bottom of my grocery bag and also not smile at the male cashier when purchasing the pads.

Girls grow up to become women who have this preconceived idea that we have to hide aspects of ourselves that make men uncomfortable, that we had to feel ashamed over things we had absolutely no control over. Said women become mothers who pass down this hereditary shame to their daughters who become mothers also, and the chain goes on.

When I became an adult, the first thing I unlearned was shame. I grew up around people whom believed that men are only attracted to women who feel shame, they do not use those words exactly. In Hausa, they use the word “kunya” which directly translates to “shy” but this is not about being shy. It is about feeling absolutely shameful for our body and for our presence, that we are expected to keep our heads down and be smaller. I was unfortunate enough to hear a sermon by an old lady at a relative’s wedding, the lady said things like “Do not make eye contact with him on your first night”, “Do not complain a lot, men don’t like that”, “Don’t be too emotional, it annoys the men”, “Do your best to please him in bed”…My head was spinning by the time I left that venue. Every single piece of supposed knowledge passed down by the elderly woman centered around the husband’s satisfaction, forgetting it takes two to copulate. There was so much shame attributed to a woman enjoying sex that it made me wonder if the copulation is worth all this.

In most African societies, women do not have the sex conversation, the menstrual conversation, the “womanly” conversation. I personally know of at least 10 females whose mothers could not have a conversation over something as natural as menstruation with them. They had to learn how to use pads and perform the “ghusul” bath (purification bath) from friends. I do not know of one single African family where the “sex conversation” is had… Women don’t need to talk about these things, they say, it will only lead to curiosity, God forbid we learn about safe sex and become fornicators.

The 21st century came with the rise of judgments and differences. People modify thoughts to either put others down or raise themselves up. Slut shaming has become the norm, a woman is forced to feel shameful for being a sexual being (which all of us are by the way), body image is consistently used to shame women whose bodies deviate from what mainstream media is selling. This catastrophic act of shaming women is not and exclusively woman to man relationship, it even goes on to woman to woman. Anything out of the normal function of society calls to shaming and labeling. This new century did not only bring with it judgment, it came along with differences, we accepted the judgment and fight everyday to reject the differences. If a woman does not feel shame for her body, she is a slut, if a woman does not think the way others think, “shame-rs” begin to wonder how she does not feel ashamed of thinking the way she does.

We live in a society where a man would pull down his pants and pee in a public location but a woman breastfeeding in public would raise alarm. The issue of shame is deeply ingrained into us that we do not see it as shame anymore. “Look at the way everyone is seeing your breast, shouldn’t you be ashamed?” Ashamed of what? Do men feel ashamed of their genitals while peeing in public? Should my other body parts like neck and arm also be shameful? People would call women out and say “I am advising you”, no, you are shaming me, you are asking me to be ashamed of myself, to be ashamed of the natural occurrences of my body, to be ashamed of who I am (this is where self hate begins but that is another topic for another article). My cousin’s wife once told me that she never lets anyone see her pads whenever she is on her period, she said it with so much condescension that I felt sorry she had to feel such shame for her body.

We have to rethink this word Shame, we have to begin to analyze what is doing and has done in our society. 

I propose a solution, one solution. I am giving the word Shame, a sister, an opposite as we would say in English, Confidence. How about that? How about instead of shame, we teach confidence through out our communities. What a utopia.

Shame: a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.

a loss of respect or esteem; dishonor.

Confidence: a feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.

Asma'u Shaheedah
Sometimes an Engineer, other times a writer, most times a professional friend :)
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7 Comments on "On Shame"

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Buerkie Klokpah
its unfortunate that this is still a relevant topic for cultural or religious purposes. when i started my menstrual cycle, my mother celebrated this has a turning point in my young life. nothing to hide and very natural. so the shame of it i didnt encounter in my home…but at school. where you needed to whisper about it your need for a pad and not tell anyone why you needed to go to the nurse, etc. or seeing young girls being sent home because of it. i didnt understand it. however, i do believe when it comes to our reproductive… Read more »
Lena Acolatse

I enjoyed reading this article so much….the interesting thing is that even in our more enlightened African households where there is actually a kind of sex talk, it can get extremely uncomfortable for the participants when questions are asked….often, even we the younger ones being talked to feel a bit “embarrassed” (for lack of a better word to use) having this talk with our rather old school parents..after all, no one wants to imagine their parents in interesting sexual escapades

Anon A
Agreed, but it’s not only inside of Africa, it’s also somewhat present in the expat community abroad, in the sense that women should not naturally be talking about sex and it is not seen as ok to talk about it. I talked to two other friends on the topic and they seemed alarmed that it could even be brought up. But then are these women OK with men talking about their desire and not the woman? Would they date a man with this in mind? When faced with logical paradoxes, they fall silent because they do not want to question… Read more »

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