Gospel singer Osinachi Nwachukwu’s death, reported to be a consequence of domestic violence, brought the issue of divorce to the fore. Expectedly, defenders of the oppressive patriarchal order have been mouthing one of the few verses of the scripture they have managed to master: God hates divorce! It does not matter to them if marriage becomes a maximum-security prison; they want people to remain in it so that their misery can entertain these Bible-wielders.
Like the part of the Bible that speaks on wives submitting to their husbands, their use (and abuse) of Malachi 2:16 is mere proof-texting by cunning folks seeking to oppress fellow humans. Truly, God was recorded to have said he hates divorce but God was also speaking to the menfolk who exploited the lax marital laws to casually divorce their wife, thereby jeopardising her social status. Such admonitions are not timeless. It spoke to the reality of biblical times when marriage laws barely protected women. That same verse in the Bible enjoined men not to be unfaithful to their wives. Those who bellow “God hates divorce!” do not read that other part loud because they want to eat their “Bible” and still have it. God does not hate divorce. What God hates and which that verse in the Bible states—if read entirely and sincerely—is bad faith.
When I have confronted men who like to beat everyone on the head about God’s hatred of divorce with the contextual interpretation of that verse, they reach for another line of defence: our “African culture” does not support divorce. They morph into truthless historians and start relating how their mothers were so satisfied with their marital lot that divorce was unheard of in their time. Then they go on to lament that today’s women are no longer like their mothers because the influences of feminism and Westernism have made them impatient and that is why they opt for divorce cheaply. It does not take much to see that their claims about the rising divorce cases are about their gut instinct, not because they are working with factual data. Their assumptions do not square with history.
As a society, our history is far more nuanced. Divorce did not start yesterday, and feminism is not to blame, at least not how these critics present it. While, universally, divorce must have been rare at some point, some historical records show that the late 19th century, well into the early 20th century, had high rates. For Yorubaland especially, the colonial era brought economic opportunities for women. Pursuing those potentials entailed their self-extrication from the burdens of marriage. In 1903, Captain Cyril Hammond Elgee, a colonial administrator resident in Ibadan, noted that wives, no longer afraid of the old penalties, ran away from their husbands with impunity.
Laray Denzer, a historian who has written on the lives of African women, also recorded, By 1920, divorce cases…had so swamped the Native Court that the (British) administration had to set up a second court solely to deal with the overflow. Between 1939 and 1947, the number of divorce cases in the native courts of Ibadan Division rose from 7, 035 to 12,176. Unless any of those who blame “feminism” for corrupting contemporary marriages can show similar examples of a 73 per cent rise in incidences of divorce in the present era, we can preemptively conclude that all the hoopla about the rising incidences of divorce is mere moral panic. None of these things are new. When people do not read their own history, they confuse signs for wonders.
Rather than bellyache about contemporary attitudes towards marriage, we should wonder—given the similar conditions of loosened punitive social systems that Captain Elgee identified almost 120 years ago—why women like Nwachukwu still stay in abusive marriages? Many of the women, unfortunately, have—or they think they have—poor options. Our society shames women without a husband, not because of any collective virtue that we are sacrificing her to preserve but because a woman that can live without a man threatens the patriarchal order. People routinely shame women’s inability “to keep a man” as if men are a piece of land in Eko Atlantic.
For a gospel singer like Nwachukwu, who plies her trade in churches, maintaining a façade of “family values” was also vital to her career stability. Who knows, maybe her pain had become part of what makes her songs so melodious and she thought freeing herself from it would detract from the authenticity of her music. Any which way, she should have walked. Even if the churches rejected her because she no longer had a “crown on her head,” she would at least have lived. She would also have proven her faith beyond the standard prescriptions of morality. If someone walks out of an abusive marriage, they are not doing what God hates. What they would have ultimately demonstrated to the discerning is how much they value the sacrifice Jesus Christ made for them to have a more abundant life and that they refuse to waste such grace inside a marriage that denigrates their humanity. It would be up to religionists to catch up to the logic of their self-affirmation.
It has been heartening to note that some prominent female pastors have warned people, especially the womenfolk, not to die in an abusive marriage simply to prove their virtues. Many people are stuck in denigrating relationships because they worry too much about what the world will say of their actions. Unfortunately, they forget theirs is only one out of the many topics with which that world frequently rinses its mouth. Once you are dead, they move on. Nwachukwu had not been dead for 48 hours before people around her started exonerating themselves from the culpability. They said her pastor was unaware of her plight and it turned out that her neighbours knew more about her situation than even her family members. For Nwachukwu to be a prominent member of her church and still suffer the degree of abuse the media reported, it means she was not being pastored. Surrounded by a community of people who, despite her suffering, did not see anything or thought it was enough for them to intervene, it is no surprise how she died. The poor woman was surrounded by a multitude but was alone.
At this stage, Nigeria should be talking about laws to fight domestic abuse outside the traditional modes of resolving marital crises. When someone assaults their spouse, it should not be treated as “family matter” that village elders can resolve but as grounds for prosecution whether the victim agrees or not.
Please recall that in 2020, a Dr Ifeyinwa Angbo went viral when she made a video of herself. In the video, she alleged she had been battered by her husband, Pius Angbo, Benue State Correspondent for Channels Television. She said she had just had her baby just four weeks earlier. In a sane society, the husband would have been arrested and the case investigated. Instead, the State Governor, Samuel Ortom, decided to “resolve” the issue. By jumping into a matter meant for the police to take up, Governor Ortom handed a victim back to her abuser. His intervention more or less used the gravitas of his position to blackmail her into staying with an abuser. A whole governor openly aided and abetted a crime.
Many people out there are like that too. They are dying in instalments but they will not walk out of their abusive marriages. Some women especially, cannot afford to give up their titles of “Mrs Somebody” because their whole idea of their social respectability is planked on being married. Those are women who tell they are suffering because God hates divorce when, in fact, God is waiting for them to free themselves. If those kinds of women cannot muster the willpower to save themselves, the law should step in and save them from abuse. Thankfully, Nwachukwu’s husband is being investigated. Women Affairs Minister, Dame Pauline Tallen, has promised justice and that her children would be supported. I am happy that Nwachukwu did not, at least, die in vain. I hope her death counts towards creating structures to help those still alive and suffering. We should not have to wait until the victim is famous and dead before we save them from their own selves.
Abimbola Adelakun is a columnist for Nigerias PUNCH Newspaper and the opinion was culled from the platform and first published at PUNCH.
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