Several generations of remarkable and “sheroic” struggles later, women continue to suffer gender discrimination worldwide. In May this year (2005), for instance, a pregnant African-American high school graduate was advised against attending graduation ceremonies by her parochial school authorities. The reason was indicated as one bordering on public morality. The administrators of St. Jude's Educational Institute determined that allowing Ms. Alysha Cosby to attend graduation ceremonies would set a bad precedent for other female high schoolers, who might be encouraged to follow her example. Needless to say, our experience with institutional naming here in the United States plausibly hints at the fact that St. Jude's Educational Institute is a parochial – or private and religious - Catholic institution. And the Catholic Church here in the United States, as also in many other parts of the world, tends to chart a fundamentalist and conservative ideological policy. The latter policy, almost invariably, counsels sexual abstinence among the youth, even as the Church over the years appears to have rather hypocritically condoned sexual impropriety at the highest levels of clerical circles.
Not very long ago, the arch-diocese of Boston, Massachusetts, was prevailed upon by the courts to settle a myriad of lawsuits brought against diocesan priests. In the main, the suits bitterly complained about how the leaders of the Church, literally, looked the other way as young men and women were sexually assaulted by priests who had taken oaths of celibacy. The diocesan prelate, Bernard Cardinal Law, was also forced to resign; and as has been the policy of the Church of Rome, Cardinal Law was summoned to the Vatican and as a disciplinary measure offered a post which was reported to be even higher than his old one in Boston. Many had naturally, but rather ahistorically and erroneously, anticipated that the Cardinal would be promptly defrocked. These critics, many of them Catholics, appear to have woefully forgotten that the Church had historically operated almost exactly like a Mafia organization. This means that the clergy routinely cordons off the laity in order to give erring priests a good talking-to. Interestingly, however, such sessions are widely known to be more about the protection of prodigal sons than discipline as the rest of us know it; which perfectly explains why Bernard Cardinal Law would be promoted rather than justifiably defrocked.
And so, those of us who know a little bit about the political culture within the Church were not in the least surprised to learn that even as the administrators at St. Jude's Educational Institute counseled Ms. Cosby against actively participating in her high school graduation ceremonies, the young man who had impregnated her was not issued any such restraining order, as it were. It was almost as if the school administrators were implying that, somehow, Ms. Cosby was squarely to blame for getting pregnant while still in active attendance at the school.
Needless to say, we chose the title of “The Kano-Syndrome” in unmistaken allusion to a similar incident which occurred in that famous northern Nigerian city some three or four years ago. For while Kano is widely recognized as a great center of Koranic scholarship in the Muslim world, it appears that gender justice, or equity, is the last thing on the minds of the city leaders, or fathers. And this may explain why a divorced woman who had been impregnated by a lover was seriously threatened with capital punishment. In the end, however, sanity prevailed, as a plethora of concerned individuals and civil rights organizations vehemently took up the matter and pressured the government of President Obasanjo to call the Kano judicial prelates to order, and then justice. And like the Alysha Cosby case, the man who had impregnated the woman had been virtually left off the hook. It was almost as if the Islamic court that handled the matter was proclaiming to the world that in situations involving extra-marital sexual intercourse, men were not to be held accountable. And what this lopsided approach to justice essentially did was to unwittingly define manhood as scandalously incapable of sustaining a salutary culture of self-control and civic discipline. In other words, the implication was that men were an inferior species of humanity whose amorous and coital excesses were primarily the responsibility of their female counterparts. Of course, the male-oriented judicial system did not literally appropriate those words. And yet, the glaring implication to the preceding effect could hardly be lost on even a clinical idiot.
Needless to say, while we do not condone reckless engagement in coitus on the part of our youth, our very humanity points to the need for humility. For, by and large, as fallible beings, we are more likely than not to breach societal laws and edicts. And when that happens, at least, we counsel the need to temper justice with mercy. And this is why we strongly disagree with the faculty and administrators of St. Jude's Educational Institute that even though widely publicized school policy enunciates the fact that risking pregnancy, on the part of a female student, is also tantamount to risking ostracism, nevertheless, a Church is in the civilized and morally refreshing business of tolerance and forgiveness, not vindictiveness. And what is more, the fact that the Church appears poised towards readily forgiving pedophile priests among its own sacred and celibate ranks, ought to guide it against the flagitious pursuit of a policy of double-standards.
In defying the proverbial powers that were in order to attend and actively participate in her graduate ceremonies, Ms. Cosby served notice on the administrators of her school that gender discrimination and ostracism were fast becoming obsolete and anachronistic. Ms. Cosby also admirably questioned the apparent lack of common sense on the part of the faculty and administrators of St. Jude's Educational Institute in taking the patently gratuitous decision of excluding her from the graduation ceremonies. “For those who may not have been happy with what I did [i.e. attending her school's graduation ceremonies against stipulated institutional policy], consider this: If you had someone close to you who was about to graduate and met all the requirements, wouldn't you want them to walk?…. Just because I am pregnant doesn't mean that I am any different.”
The Akan, over the centuries, appear to have fashioned a more gender-balanced approach to justice. My maternal grandfather, the Reverend T. H. Sintim, once recalled to me that in the olden days, a girl who got pregnant before undergoing pubertal rites was ostracized by society together with the boy, or young man, who made her pregnant – and the couple had to live in the virgin forest for three long years before being re-admitted into society. And when they were re-admitted, they were also enjoined never to seek any high office or prestigious position of responsibility within that society. For getting pregnant before one had undergone pubertal rituals was a veritable crime against the great goddess of fertility. And, needless to say, the case of Ms. Alysha Cosby falls somewhere in-between the preceding, for in our non-traditional American society, functionally, high school graduation closely parallels the traditional African pubertal, ritual age, as the establishment of one's manhood or womanhood and, by extension, adulthood, begins shortly upon high school graduation.
We do not agree with Ms. Cosby, largely in terms of principle, particularly when she also asserts that: “Just because I am pregnant doesn't mean that I am any different.” Of course, she is different from her classmates because Ms. Cosby is an expectant mother, and she had better understand that emotionally and intellectually grueling experience that comes with premature motherhood. And, indeed, that latter condition is what the faculty and administrators of St. Jude's Educational Institute had in mind when they ordered Ms. Cosby not to attend her high school graduation ceremonies.
Indeed, while this writer was growing up in Ghana, it was quite a public shame for any middle or high school pupil to get pregnant prior to graduation. And for many of the young men who got these young women pregnant, sometimes it was the end of their budding and promising academic and professional ambitions. Many of these young men had to leave school in order to secure minimum-wage jobs and take care of their newly- and prematurely-acquired families. This, of course, meant that for these young fathers a marginal socioeconomic existence was wont to captain them for life. Unfortunately, we live under a totally new and quite different dispensation where the lofty, cultural concept of “shame” is virtually unknown. Which is why Ms. Cosby is bold and brazen enough to consent to have her story and photograph published in newspapers (see New York Beacon 5/26-6/1/05) across the country. In my grandfather's day, Ms. Cosby would have had to move out of her district into another part of town or region in order to be able to heartily dream of a meaningful relationship with a responsible and loving husband. And she would have had to give up her baby for adoption by a relative and totally forgotten about it altogether; that is, until ten or twenty years into her marriage. Of course, we also recognize that times have dramatically changed. *Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., Ph.D., teaches English and Journalism at Nassau Community College of the State University of New York, Garden City. He is the author of ATUMPAN: DRUM-TALK, a volume of neo-traditional African poetry, which is available from Amazon.com, iUniverse.com and Barnes & Noble.com. Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.