“You are a fat, dying flower” – on being an unmarried foreigner in the Congo, and other musings on gender dynamics while abroad

If you don’t want to be consistently questioned about your marital status, don’t come to Congo.

In my experience, it is a common occurrence as a woman to be asked if you are married in Africa. I’m sure other female travellers would agree. So it didn’t take me by surprise that I started getting these questions, almost as soon as I arrived. While I am used to having to answer these inquiries every once in a while (Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you want to get married? Do you want to get married here?), Congo took has taken this to a completely different level. EVERYONE asks me if I am married. The bank teller, the grocer, my favorite server at the expat coffee shop, my colleagues, random people on the street, friends, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends…when I say everyone, I mean everyone. And of course, everyone looks at you with absolute horror, befuddlement, and confusion when you say no. How can you be 25, completely single, with no kids, and no prospects in the near future of having either a) a marriage or b) kids?! Obviously, that is just insane. And boy, don’t even TRY to mention that you don’t even know if you want to get married, or want to have kids. That is just completely unacceptable.

The real kicker of all of these conversations though, was about two weeks ago. Looking at pictures of my friend’s wedding, two colleagues of mine started discussing my own future wedding, again bringing up the age old question of why I wasn’t married. Looking at one picture, they both started exclaiming how ‘See?! You are fat here. You are much fatter than the bride, so you should be the one getting married.” (To them, being ‘fat’ is a good thing, and is seen as much more attractive than being skinny. I’m going to skip over commenting on the obvious awkwardness of having male colleagues comment on this, even if they meant well…and to point out how, you too would gain weight if your diet only consisted of rice, potatoes, bread, and fries!). My French teacher, also there at the time, chimed in a couple minutes later, trying to teach me the meaning of the word fanée. “You know,” he said quite casually, “it’s like when a woman is not married over 25. She is like a dying flower. It is just all bad from there.”

Yes. That is right. I am supposedly a fat, dying flower, single and alone in Africa with no prospects.

As much as these conversations are incredibly hilarious (you try explaining to Congolese men why being called fat or a dying flower is really not taken well in Canada, when they think they are being incredibly nice to you), they also say a lot about different constructions of femininity. A girl can only be compared to wilting flora so many times before she really starts to think about gender constructions of marriage and relationships, both in relation to my life here and back home. In my Canadian life, being unmarried and travelling around different parts of Africa alone, that signifies independence, strength, and the ability to take care of myself. I’ve never thought of this as something negative, or something that is open fodder for the world to comment on. In Congo, marriage and children are expected as a central role in your life. Being single, alone, unmarried, with no concrete family, is seen as not only bizarre, but incredibly lonely, boring, and not exactly the path to a happy and fulfilling future. And while it may be a foreign concept, it does almost make sense. Think about it for a second. In a place where family is one of the strongest bonds of human connection, I have none, or at least none with me at the moment. When people ask me if I am married, it isn’t so much to be obtrusive (at least I tell myself this), but to figure out my place in the world. If you’re not married, if you don’t have a family net…then what exactly are you? Wife, mother, caregiver – this is such an integral part of what it means to be a woman in Congo, yet these are all of the things that I find myself constantly in a struggle not to be. My strong Canadian, feminist beliefs (yes you are a strong independent women who doesn’t need a man to be happy!) are constantly in bewilderment with the constant barrage of questions about my marital status.

This isn’t to cast judgment on gender constructions, as it is fascinating to examine what it means to be female in a Congolese setting. Women in the Congo are strong, powerful, vibrant human beings, and they form the backbone of this country; in no way do I want to detract from the multiple and important roles they play in everyday life. Yet, they also face some challenging and difficult barriers. Give me any subject, and we can talk about forms of oppression. Employment? For a lot of women, that means having their husband sign an agreement that they can leave the house for formal work. Healthcare? Try delivering a baby, where costs associated with giving birth in a hospital often outweigh the risk to your life, especially if your husband does not think it is worth it. Violence? Try being a victim of GBV, who then gets cast out of her community and her home, because she is now thought of as impure and dishonorable. Women in Congo are incredibly strong, but this is often because they face incredible challenges.

The majority of these problems are completely foreign to me. While Canada has its fair share of gender inequality (and believe me, we definitely do), I am so thankful I am from a country where my body, my right to employment, my right to pursue opportunities outside of strict gender confines are respected and (for the most part) upheld. I love that I make my own decisions, that I am not responsible to anyone else when I want to pack up and move halfway across the world. I am so grateful that I have more freedoms granted to me, because of where I was born, than so many women do in other places around the world. Yet, this also makes me entitled. It is second nature to me to feel entitled to an opinion. It is second nature to me, to feel entitled to speak up in a meeting with Congolese colleagues. It is second nature to feel like I am entitled to do everything that my male friends do, with no questions asked.

Working as a woman in these spaces means I am often the in-between. I am the liminal being, this weird almost-genderless person floating between what it means to be a woman here, and what it means to be a woman in my personal definition. Congolese culture is overly welcoming to guests, and I only have experiences of being treated extremely well as a foreigner. Yet, I am a woman, which puts constraints on the role I can play in this society. This weird juxtaposition between the two – am I foreign guest? Or do I fit into the ‘gender’ box? – means that I get to occupy both spaces, to varying degrees. In my role as outsider/guest, I fit into masculine spaces, go to bars with male colleagues, can bring up discussions that might be taboo if a woman from this culture were to act in the same way. On the other hand, I can also fit into the ‘woman’ role and inhabit spaces that male coworkers may not be able to. Take for example the other day, when I was able to bond with women vendors in Goma’s markets, because they thought I was pregnant (to clarify, I am definitely not…but this is a whole other story). Or village women I met during field visits, who crowd around, laughing at my weird clothes and reaching out to fix my long-very-non-African hair. Throughout all of my travels, there are so many little moments like this that I doubt I would be able to witness if I was male.

While I wouldn’t trade the freedom and independence I have for anything, or my ability to transcend multiple settings and roles through this weird ‘foreigner but woman’ syndrome, it does make me wonder about some of trade-offs of all of this independence and freedom. I’ve written on this before, last year in Tanzania, while surrounded by smart, intelligent, career-driven women, who had exciting lives but often at the expense of personal relationships. It seems a bit clichéd to keep revisiting this same topic (Can women really have it all? How do you balance an international career with a personal life?) yet it is a subject that continues to fascinate me. The single, young, career driven woman, who leaves her family, friendships, and anything familiar to go live and work in a completely different setting, investing more in her passport than her relationship prospects, may feel normal to me, but is so foreign in many places in this world. When the normative conception of building relationships involves staying still, building up a community and family in one place, how do you figure out how to do that when you are constantly somewhere new?

As usual, I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, and this may just be my malaria-hallucinating brain delving in a little too deep into a topic that will only show answers in time. For now, I am content to be where I am. At the end of the day, I’d take being a fat, dying flower in the Congo, constantly getting questioned about her marital status, then be working or living anywhere else in the world.

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