The bride, a PhD holder, knelt and smiled demurely before her businessman husband. It did not matter that she was soiling her lovely gown. He sat eagerly on the chair and awaited his first meal. After, he fed her too. He did not kneel or make any gesture.
He simply scooped some cake and gave it to her. And they both looked at each other contentedly like all is as it should be. Jessica squirmed in her seat, looked her fiancé in the eye, and assured him this particular ritual would be skipped at their wedding.
Instead of a celebration of love and a lifelong partnership, it seemed to her a quest to belittle the woman in front of everyone. Jessica spoke for many women who would rather not kneel, but do it any way for fear of societal backlash.
Her boyfriend, on the other hands, defended the action, saying it was only a sign of respect not meant to belittle her. Besides, it only lasted a few minutes, and would appease those at the wedding who expected it.
“There are ways to show respect other than humiliating someone,” was Jessica’s response.
Her fiancé insisted: “What about me? I will feel belittled when you refuse to kneel before me in front of all my relatives.”
For him, kneeling was in some way a reassurance of his manhood. And by refusing to do so, Jessica would shame him.
Most cultures in Uganda enjoin the woman to kneel not only before her husband but for every male and people older than her. Men, on the other hand, almost never kneel except say for royalty.
A woman kneeling is a cherished practice that has lived on for centuries, and even the most modern and liberated has to do it at some point.
At the core of this custom is the patriarchal idea of women’s inferiority to their male counterparts.
This view represents that of most people in Uganda who see marriage not as a partnership, but as a relationship where the man is the head of the family and the woman his subservient.
So, right from the wedding day, the woman is introduced to the fact that she must submit to her husband. This is not only symbolised by the kneeling, but also by the advice that accompanies the entire marriage ceremony.
While some may argue that kneeling is no more than an innocent act, it is plain to see that it is laden with messages of subservience for the woman.
Some wives continue to kneel past the wedding day while others do not. Cissy, 25, a Kampala auditor, says it would be okay to kneel at the wedding just to fulfil tradition. She, however, thinks that it would be taking it too far to be expected to kneel all through the marriage.
“Is he also going to kneel before me?” she asks.
For many though, it is not worthwhile to let a matter seemingly trivial become an issue in the relationship. Salama, 30, a cashier, says if he wants her to kneel, she will kneel for the sake of harmony.
“My entire dignity is not in my knees,” she says.
Michael, 29, a banker, wishes his wife would kneel for him regularly but admits it is not an issue that would give him sleepless nights.
Kneeling, unlike say domestic violence and female genital cutting, is yet to be seriously tackled by women activists. That it goes directly against the constitutional tenet of equality of the sexes is not debatable. It is, however, seen as less harmful compared to other ‘evils’ that assail women. Most prefer to treat it as a personal decision.
However, it is also a fact that most of the injustices against women take place in the private arena, in that place called a home. The root cause is the socially constructed roles that place the man above the woman, making her an easy victim.
So, does it all start with kneeling? Every time a woman kneels before a man, it reinforces her position as the inferior sex since she kneels for no other reason than that she is a woman. Sharon, a lawyer, opines that tradition is pretence for many things, including terrible violations against women.
Plus a woman having to crawl on her knees at the man’s every inkling sounds more like slavery than a happy marriage.