“My husband has to stop beating me and I shouldn’t go to the police”: Woman Abuse, Family Meetings and Relations of Authority

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Elena Moore
In this article, I examine how family meetings, which are traditional systems of arbitration, act as a site for challenging male authority and patrilineal power in South Africa. By drawing on dyadic interviews with wives, husbands and wider kin members, the article shows how women resist definitions and practices of abuse and resist domination, even when male authority of the domestic system continues and is secured through support from female kin members. I describe three ways in which wives threaten domination: reporting abuse to the state and using the state as the authority which legitimately determines the rules of social order; challenging the patriarchal norms of marital conduct and the definition of abuse put forward by the abuser; rejecting norms that husbands have authority over household income. These challenges to men’s right to authority are occurring at a time of legal change and a growing acknowledgement of social crises, including high levels of woman abuse. They are rooted in broader contestations of the patriarchal norms and conventions that assert male authority in a postcolonial context. By analysing the challenges to patrilineal power and men’s authority, I go beyond claims that women engage in individual acts of resistance, and I argue that women, through both private and public challenges are refusing to comply with patriarchal norms and breach the normative order of domination.
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