How to sit on a man:
Lessons from Igbo women fighting Domestic Violence

In Justice by Edna Uhuangho

When we look at domestic violence amongst women, we often look at blanketed statements that fail to encompass the intersectional experiences of women outside of their white counterparts. Even many studies lack data on the experiences of women of colour and the barriers or absence of resources for these women. Looking retrospectively at Black communities, domestic violence is reported at a higher rate than other racialized groups (Cite).

This is incredibly alarming, as black women already have a slew of biological and environment factors that threaten their lively hood. This, however, begs the question: why has this sense of community been diminished – especially considering communities in Africa like Nigerians, have historically held themselves accountable? Why do these communities now strive to protect abusers? How does this warp black women’s sense of justice and how they seek it? And most importantly, what can be done to help black women be more comfortable with seeking justice in the future? When black women face domestic violence, they are pressured to protect their abusers, which prevents them from seeking justice for themselves. Unfortunately, the surrender of self-determination at the hands of one’s own community is not a novel experience.

It was not surprised to see several black men rally behind Tory Lanez after his shooting of Megan Pete – better known as Megan Thee Stallion. Black women in the United states, including immigrant women, have a unique experience with domestic violence, where they are often gaslit and forced to protect their victims. Megan gave a detailed account to GQ Magazine, explaining how Lanez had begged her to stay quiet about the situation, recounting it during the height of police brutality protests in the summer of 2020 (Cite). Black women are often expected to protect black men in their communities because black men are disproportionately incarcerated for crimes above any other race in the United States. Black women, however, are also incarcerated at higher rates than other races in their gender pool. Despite this, it does not pressure men in their communities to protect black women in return. This is where the black women’s burden becomes evident. As black women seem to play a role in their communities and households – they are expected to internalize this pain to protect the sanctity of family and their martial partners, an ideology rooted in colonization through Christianity. This is especially important to note, as historically black women from the ‘motherland’ interacted with domestic disputes much differently than they do now.

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talk titled, “Igbo Bu Igbo” she speaks about the Marital Association; an organization amongst Igbo women aiming to punish men and women who actively wronged their partners. These women had institutions outside the justice system to penalize men who harmed their wives. These were effective systems put in place to protect them, which I assume were so effective because a woman could equally understand another woman’s suffering.

Indodu Nwoke, “Sitting on a man”, was an Igbo practice that involved gathering at a man’s compound, commonly at night, where women would dance and sing songs detailing the wrong doings of the man onto his wife. They would bang on his hut and vandalize it by plastering it with mud. These practices were soon admonished by the uprising of the ‘warren chief’, who was put in charge of Igbo jural practices, completely banning and criminalizing the traditional systems that protected women from their spouses.

Once colonization made its way into Igboland and much of Nigeria, these practices transitioned into biblical ordinances of marital sanctity, where couples were expected to live in nuclear style families and commit themselves to a permanent union. This is where the problem with domestic violence arises. When women are expected to protect their marriages at all costs, they must sacrifice their personal protection from their abusers, and continue ‘forgive’ long-term abuse from partners.

Now, why is any of this important? What do the ancestral practices of one nation have to do with a whole community of women: specifically black immigrant women and African American women? My point is that our ways of being were different before colonization. We had our own structures independent from the white man that allowed us to function just as well. The structures considered ‘primitive’ now are anything but. We have been forced to move away from what was effective. In the specific case of black immigrant women, their environment became Americanized, so it would not be too far off to say their home life would also follow. As a child of African immigrant parents, the way I interact with my heritage is much different from the way they do. The way my future children will interact with their heritage will also be different. As stated previously, men from all different ethnicities stood beside Tory Lanez. If men from different cultures can uphold such disturbing ideologies, it would be no surprise they would one day perpetuate these principles in their own homes.

These issues exceed conditioning. For centuries, black women’s minds have been shaped by the patriarchy, a structure that mostly benefits men, to sacrifice themselves in the name of the community. Getting around this problem now will be harder than simply educating women on their burdens, as a mindset can be hard to break. To end this cycle, we will have to go to the root of the problem – which is not necessarily men, but how they have been conditioned to behave. Within these communities, black men have always held the position of community leaders, which is not different from any other racial group. However, years of generational trauma and coddling has allowed these men to take their pent-up anger out on women within their private lives. Blaming their inadequacies on women, only for women to have no one to turn for help, because men are supposed to the so-called leaders that protect them.

Among this leadership, it is common for community leaders to persuade black women to forgive their abusive partners. In many situations, couples experiencing ‘martial problems’ go to community leaders (which are often other men), like church leaders. The usual outcome of these counseling sessions is the couple reconciling, as these leaders urge them to stay together. Rather than protecting black women from their domestic abusers, they brainwash them into staying in the abusive clutches of their controlling partners, all in the name of patriarchy.

This problem goes beyond marriage and family, as the judicial system tends to demonize black women before they can attain any sort of justice. Calling the police for black women can be a life-or-death experience for any of their family members. It can result in broken homes where either the father is absent, due to being incarcerated, or children taken away by social workers. Even in divorce courts, the process for a woman in an abusive relationship to obtain a divorce is very complicated. There are three main obstacles that women face when seeking a divorce because of domestic dispute: the costs of a private attorney, the difficulty of representing yourself in court, and having to serve the divorce papers to the abusive spouse. The last obstacle is especially disturbing given the fact that an abusive partner could lash out or harm the woman seeking a divorce. With the stakes being this high, and the pressure coming from both sides, it is no wonder black women are unlikely to report abuse.

Currently, 40% of black women experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, while black women are also killed at a higher rate than any other group of women in the United states. The Center of Disease and Control (CDC) reports that black women are more likely to experience domestic abuse than white women – and are more likely to be killed by their abuser (cite).

So, what can be done to curb these rates of abuse? While bringing attention to the domestic abuse black women experience is definitely the first step, people outside this experience are likely to downplay them. What we need is structural change – change not only from within the community but change in the justice system. If black women are likely to have their experiences swept under the rug, they should be able to rely on a judicial system that honors change and support them. This may be a large leap for some, but one way to pressure those in power to listen is to join that system and change it. This is why having black female lawyers is so important. The experience of a black women is unique to them, and having the power to enlarge your voice can help dismantle a system originally built to cause harm. With more diversity, we can hope to make law more intersectional, rather than expect black women to fit into the white cookie-cutter-mold we have been intentionally excluded from.