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How Promiscuous Girls Become Good Wives.
It is often quite easy in southeastern Nigeria to know whether a young woman is married simply by observing her manner of dressing. Sartorially, single women, particularly in urban settings, tend to dress in more liberal and sexually provocative outfits, which fit tightly to reveal the shape of breasts and buttocks and often show significant amounts of bare skin. Indeed, young women’s dress is a topic of great passion in Nigeria, with elders, newspaper opinion pieces, school principals, university administrators, and politicians frequently decrying what is known in Nigeria as “ indecent dressing.” Indecent dressing is blamed for all sorts of social ills, including (presumably male) students’ poor performance in school, high rates of premarital pregnancy, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and married men’s philandering. Obscured in a discourse that blames young women’s attire, and by implication young women’s morality, for these social problems is the fact that women dress in these styles in part because they know that men like it.
The reasons young women dress the way they do are multiple. Certainly attracting men is one reason, but so too is the desire to be fashionable. The audience in this regard is more likely to be fellow women. Young Igbo women judge each other’s dress with a ruthlessness that is perhaps familiar to females in many societies. While young women’s dress is clearly highly attuned to and motivated by a concern with social appearances, it is also important to acknowledge that women experience considerable agency and pleasure in their sartorial performance. To emphasize too exclusively the imperative of appearances would miss the degree of personal expression that is part of young Igbo women’s performance of style. These sartorial performances stand for the larger scope of agency that single Igbo women experience in the arenas of mobility and sexuality.
Married women are also greatly concerned with being fashionable, but married women’s dress is, by and large, completely different, and the difference is best described as a minimization of sexuality. Married women’s outfits are expected to cover completely areas like the thighs and the stomach and their clothes generally fit much more loosely or are layered in ways that hide the most feminine and sexual aspects of a woman’s shape. Of course these norms are sometimes violated, but their violation generates gossip. A married woman who dresses too sexually is suspected of being interested in and available for extramarital sex. Married women’s constrained dress code is directly related to the more circumscribed mobility and sexuality they are expected to observe as wives and mothers.
In addition to being curious as to how women manage and experience this transition to the expectations of marriage—a transition that looked to me like a diminution of agency in areas where single women seemed to experience significant liberty—I was also perplexed by how men understood and reconciled what they observe in the general behavior of single women with what they expect from their own wives. In particular, I wondered what men thought about their own fiancées’ sexual pasts when they decided to marry them. Did they assume that their brides were exceptions to the larger social phenomenon of premarital sexual freedom, about which nearly all men are blatantly hypocritical—eagerly seeking the sexual favors of unmarried women while condemning the sexual moral decay of Nigerian society? Or did they know about their wives’ sexual pasts, but believed they would change with marriage? Or was it a continuing source of anxiety? The answer, I found, was some combination of all of these and more.
In the middle of the “Love, Marriage, and HIV” study, I raised this issue with one of my best friends in Nigeria, a person I consider a remarkably astute observer of Nigerian society. My friend Benjamin was then in his mid-thirties and with a serious girlfriend that he seemed likely to marry in the near future. I remember trying to be careful in how I broached the subject, because while I very much wanted his perspective, I did not want him to think I was alluding to his particular situation. I wormed my way around the awkwardness of the question by making it clear that I was thinking of young women who had many sexual partners in their unmarried years. How did they manage to leave behind their past reputations? Did their husbands know? And, of course, could such women actually be trusted to be faithful wives?
I was relieved that Benjamin did not seem in the least to assume I was asking about his own situation (I was not), and he immediately told me a story. Benjamin runs a small NGO that works in HIV prevention. Recently, his NGO had been coordinating a program with local churches to utilize religious leaders and institutions in AIDS prevention efforts. One evening, he went to meet with a pastor in his residence. Benjamin was hospitably received by the reverend and his wife, a woman who seemed to be about fifteen years her husband’s junior. She dressed conservatively in a traditional West African outfit with a double wrapper that in Igbo society signifies being married. Her behavior was humble and deferential. In every way, Benjamin said, she acted like the good wife of a pastor. But Benjamin noticed a hint of recognition, both in how she looked at him and in her features. Suddenly it dawned on him that he knew this woman from his university days, and, what is more, she had been one of the wildest girls on campus, known for her multiple sexual partners and escapades. Benjamin said, “ I smiled inside but did not say anything. But at a point, I said that I thought I recognized her and asked whether she had not been a student at the University of Port Harcourt during my years. I could tell she knew exactly who I was and how we knew each other, but she played it cool and only acknowledged that she had indeed been a student. I remarked at the coincidence and said no more. The Reverend Father was also pleased at the coincidence and seemed proud that his wife was a university graduate.”
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