|dc.description.abstract||Women of Black African descent are often depicted as powerless and unable to negotiate for what they want in intimate relationships. Their constraint has been attributed to deeply ingrained cultural beliefs that disadvantage African women. Recent scholarly studies on diaspora African women focus on their adjustments to western environments and suggest there is some shift in women’s adherence to African cultural norms. However, the norms that frame African women’s lived experiences of negotiations of gender and sexuality practices and their impact on gender inequality and HIV prevention have not been made explicit for interrogation of their agency in intimate relationships.
I used in-depth interviews with 22 Black African women in three cities in New Zealand to generate research data. I conducted a constructionist narrative analysis of the data using relevant literature and Bourdieu’s theoretical concepts of practice as interpretive tools, while I retained an Afrocentric worldview. The analysis focused on the participants’ dispositions towards gendered norms and their negotiations of intimate relationships.
The study revealed that there was a reliance on male-privileging gender ideologies, an acknowledgement that prevailing relationship norms were burdensome for women, and a desire for change, without becoming “unAfrican”. Gendered assumptions of roles and expectations of African women continued to retain pre-eminence as the frame of reference for participants’ relationship practices, although the lived expressions of an African identity constructed by them was not linear or simplistic. Despite what seemed like rigid role boundaries, shifting understandings of gender roles gave rise to stress emanating from the tension between the way the women negotiated norms of their places of origin and those of their Western host country.
The women employed pragmatism, marginal resistance, and dissidence as empowerment tools in complex negotiations of traditional norms in their response to the cultural power of men. While the use of pragmatism and marginal resistance involved a contesting accommodation of cultural norms without transgressing them, the use of dissidence entailed an outright refusal of aspects of African gendered norms, representing opposition to cultural competence required of women. The participants’ handicap from being ‘woman’ were reduced with their sophistry at using their internalized cultural socialization of relationships, and amassed capital, to achieve agency. What the women lacked in ascribed cultural power, they looked to social (relational) capital to gain. Participants’ cultural norms, practices and socialization were, therefore, sites of contestation. The negotiation of the conflicts fostered ambivalence towards African culture and the adoption of a third space of culture, along with its multiplicity of identities.
I argue that the past that the women in this study carry in their habitus mediates their behaviors in definitive ways, and that a quest to improve the women’s agency in health and related matters requires the recognition of their early cultural socialization to privilege male partners. Notwithstanding a habitus from original socialization, it is in the New Zealand Western space context that questions of cultural identities, belongingness, and perspectives on risk to identity, relationship and disease were mediated. The women’s perception of vulnerability to risk with respect to sexual health was mediated by their perception of New Zealand as “safe”, and as a “small pond” for relationship opportunities. The women’s approaches to negotiating the norms also impacted on their perspectives of men. The thesis brings into focus the complexities of negotiating safe and pleasurable sex, which discourses on the intersection of gender, race, age, and class tend to oversimplify for women of African descent.
The findings of this study suggest that perspectives and reception of African traditional gendered norms of intimate relationships are changing in the practices of Black African women in New Zealand, notwithstanding deeply held beliefs about the norms. Yet, the change is hindered by a focus on an “African woman identity ideal”, and its associated societal expectations as canonical principles in negotiating intimate relationships, which creates a dissonance between their beliefs and practices in the diaspora.
I argue that change is possible in the long term and should be facilitated through talks and workshops where women share their stories, because women as socialized agents, unwittingly anchor the system that maintains male hegemony. I recommend expanded choice for women in HIV prevention through developing effective flexible administration of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and investment in developing multipurpose technologies (MPTs) that combine contraception and HIV prevention strategies in one offering.
Overall, the thesis contributes theoretical and empirical boost to the body of literature on the agentic responses of African women in the diaspora to the constraints of gender inequality within the context of heteronormativity. The thesis challenges accounts of a stable African identity as an over-emphasis, arguing that significant boundary erosions enable fluid identities and agential responses to the cultural power of men. Arguing in a Bourdieusian approach, the thesis establishes that the pursuit of personal interest provides the impetus to transcend regulating norms for agentic behavior without necessarily transgressing the norms as would be expected in socialization theory.||