African traditions:­ Helpful or harmful?

traditions igbo

In 2014, Nigeria’s Supreme Court annulled the Igbo custom that bans a daughter from inheriting her father’s estate. This marked a decisive victory in women’s rights in Igbo culture. It also serves as a reminder to the rest of the country and the Motherland that African women should be treated as equals. Harmful traditions need to be done away with.

President Barack Obama, on his state visit to Kenya which coincided with the ruling, also discussed the need to reconcile traditions with evolving societies. In one of his addresses to the country, Obama stated, “Treating women as second‐class citizens is a bad tradition. It holds you back…These traditions may date back centuries; they have no place in the 21st century.”

It’s a complex situation

Changes in a society don’t mean we need to abandon traditions all together. Each culture has its values, and some of those values should remain untouched. Forbidding daughters from inheriting their father’s’ estate was a custom that perpetuated inequality.

But, traditional Igbo culture as a whole is not one that seeks to subjugate women. We have to be able to distinguish between healthy practices and unhealthy ones.

Equality is actually part of Africa’s traditions

Historically, Igbos are democratic people. Laws were made and  disagreements were settled by popular vote. Before the colonial era, Igbo women played an active role in politics. They took part in village meetings with men. They had their own markets and business networks, their own community meetings to discuss issues affecting women. They also had the right to strike against and boycott anything that threatened women’s interests.

Women’s meetings were called mikiri and it was during these  meetings that women shared their experiences as businesswomen, mothers, and wives. Mikiri was not only a support system, but also a forum to maintain women’s markets and enforce market rules (which also applied to men). If a man was found guilty of breaking market rules or abusing his wife, the women would gather around his property. They would dance, sing, bang on his doors, and throw mud at his house to express their objection. They could even beat him up a little. This was Igbo women’s most effective form of protest and it was called “sitting on a man”.

British rule lead to the end of female institutions like mikiri in Nigeria. Back then British culture did not recognize women in its own political institutions. So, its colonial administration failed to recognize the culture of women’s participation in politics in Igboland. They wrote it off as another “savage African practice”.

Igbo traditions and values like democracy and mikiri that promote equality. These values should have stood the test of time, rather than the laws that prohibit a woman from claiming what is rightfully hers.

So what can we do?

There’s clearly a need to decide which customs hold us back and which ones benefit our  communities as a whole. Maybe we should follow the example of the recent Nigerian supreme court ruling. We should compare our traditions to our constitutions. If a cultural practice encourages inclusivity, it should stay. If it violates the rights of a particular group, it should go.

Women should be part of Africa’s growth story. Sustainable development is only possible when everyone gets a seat at the table. We should all be active participants in socio‐economic and political initiatives.

Yay or nay? To have and to hold his last name after marriage


It seems that the custom of taking one’s husband’s name after marriage is slowly fading. Women the world over are opting to keep their maiden names after tying the knot. African women are choosing to do the same to the dismay of some and intrigue of others.

There are people who do not understand why a woman would not want to change her surname. It is a PSA that a certain someone put a ring on it, after all.  In a culture that wrongfully values women based on their relationships with men, this decision is being met with resistance.

Who started it

It turns out this custom isn’t even African. It was started by the French and spread to Britain during the  Norman Conquest in the 11th century. A wife was considered a husband’s possession, and, hence had to adopt his name.

Over time, the custom changed to include the scriptural notion of unity that marriage brings to a couple. The tradition then spread to the Motherland through colonialism.

Not everyone finds it necessary

It is actually illegal in some places  to change one’s name for marriage or other reasons. Quebec does not allow women to change their names after they get married. This law exists to extend the Quebec Charter of Rights (1976) statement on gender equality to names, according to The same applies in Greece and Belgium.

Even in France,where the custom started, citizens are required to keep the names on their birth certificates for life, though women can take their husband’s names socially, but not legally. The situation is similar in the Netherlands where women can only take their husband’s name under special circumstances.

Italian women can’t legally change their names, but are permitted to hyphenate their surnames by adding their husband’s. Women in Malaysia and Korea customarily keep their maiden names. Burundian women also do not adopt their husband’s names, according to

Reason behind rebellion

So why don’t you use your husband’s name? For Nigerian journalist, Amma Ogan, the answer is in the question: “Because it is his name, not mine,” she says in an interview with us.

In her article “Of Marriage and Ownership,” (published on the discontinued 234Next website) she writes about her choice to keep her maiden name and the bewilderment that met her decision. Of the custom she writes:

“Ask a Nigerian man to change his name and he will consider it an insult of the highest order. This means that women are considered fair game, mothers, sisters, daughters, all. The first retort when a woman protests is: Why don’t you want people to know you are married? But that is really a side bar. The people for whom that knowledge is most important are the ones who are in it. Are you married? Yes. Move on.”

For Ogan, and others like Dr. Sophie Coulombeau, keeping their maiden names is a matter of maintaining  their identity, and upholding equality. For them, marriage does not equal validation, as the custom may suggest.

So what could this mean for us?

As a wife, changing your surname to your husband’s can be symbolic. The function of marriage is to unite two people and sharing a name can represent this unity.

Ugandan Anita Arinaitwe Mugisha chose to use her husband’s name, telling that it signified a new beginning and gave her a sense of belonging. In the same article, Joshua Nshuti, a Ugandan man, said that sharing his name with his wife made him proud and is a constant reminder of his responsibilities to her.

Women opt to keep their maiden names for various reasons whether it be maintaining their identity or asserting equality. Some of them have worked hard to create a name for themselves professionally and don’t want to give that up.

Others marry people from across the world and find keeping their maiden names less confusing. And a few are just trying to avoid all the legal paperwork that comes with changing your name on identity cards, passports, health insurance and bank accounts plus more.

As  businesswomen on the rise, ready to disrupt the old boys’ club, and take the world by storm, one could argue we should abandon a practice that is in its very origin dehumanizing. On the other hand, as I mentioned, taking one’s husband’s name symbolizes unity for some.

Ultimately what is important, I think, is to leave it up to the woman to decide what changing or keeping her name means to her. Perhaps in order to allow that to happen, women shouldn’t be judged for choosing to do either.
Change your last name after marriageWhat do you think Motherland Moguls? Do you plan on changing or keeping your name when you get married? If you are married, did you opt to adopt your husband’s name or keep your maiden name? Let us know in the comments below.