Sira Syndrome among the Ogonis

During my field research in Ogoniland I came across a cultural practice I haven’t encountered anywhere else in Africa. In some Ogoni communities of Rivers State the oldest or only daughter in a family is not permitted to marry or leave her father’s house, and she is socially (not physically) wedded to her father for life. She produces offspring with one or several male community members, offspring who take her own father’s name and become his heirs. The purpose of this is for her to have as many children as possible so they can work the family’s plot of land. Children are labor, labor generates income, and so fathers’ keeping their daughters at home is an income-generating practice. The tradition is called “Sira” and these daughters are described by some as having “Sira syndrome.”

I have spent some time thinking about the origins of Sira. I briefly hypothesized that perhaps in past generations male mortality rates were so much higher than that of women that there simply were not enough men to go around as legal husbands for single women, which is the historical explanation for the implementation of Islamic polygamy after many Muslim fighters died in religious battles in the 7th century. But if this was the case, why didn’t the practice spread to neighboring communities with a similar sex imbalance? Also, I think it is safe to say most men would like more family income, so why is it a uniquely Ogoni tradition? I haven’t found any answers to this question of how it originated.

Currently, the dynamics of the Sira households with which I am familiar vary. The woman may or may not have say over with which men she procreates, and the woman’s own father may be the one to make the decision. In some instances Siras freely take on one informal “husband” who fathers all or most of her offspring, while in other homes Siras have different fathers for each of her children. It is my understanding that in some communities, men may bring an offering or there can be a ceremony when a Sira “matches,” while in others it is strictly a numbers game in which the greater the sexual partners the greater the chance she will have many labor-producing progeny. Since such courtship is a delicate matter to discuss so I wasn’t able to learn much about how Siras match with their sexual partners.

It did seem fairly clear to me however that the practice is slowing dying out. Like most social changes I observed in Nigeria, rapid urbanization undermines such a tradition. Women moving into the city of Port Harcourt for work would be logistically unable to maintain the institution of Sira, and such a life experience would possibly alter their views of their filial obligations to stay as the social property of their fathers. I have noticed that rural-to-urban migrants also may distance themselves from traditional practices they consider too “bush-like” (their term, not mine). The gender differential in rural Rivers State, in which men have left farms in droves to seek city employment, may also affect how Sira is practiced, as women outnumber men in rural areas. Additionally, some I spoke to described the Sira practice as unchristian, as in, “This village stopped practicing Sira because we are Christians and the Bible says one man and one woman should marry.”

The practice of Sira presents a paradox in which culture is simultaneously a constricting but in a sense almost (but not quite) privileging force. It fundamentally violates the daughters’ right to choose their partners and have autonomy over their bodies. It is an oppressive practice because it infantilizes adult women. Being socially married to their fathers limits their choices, and for students of development theory, choices = development. Having their fathers’ determining their sexual partners violates their dignity, and for students of human rights theory, dignity = human rights. Yet at the same time, being a Sira did not appear, to me anyway, to be considered shameful. Ogonis did not speak of Siras in derogatory terms, nor did Siras complain to me about their status (although a life without many life choices often teaches us to accept our lot). I have met Siras with university degrees, some who work white-collar jobs, and others who have led protests and are politically conscious. Could these particular women have actually experienced more personal freedoms because they did not have a legal husband making demands on them? It also occurred to me that being a Sira could be a partially beneficial status because it is a purely Ogoni practice, so perhaps this status makes such women symbols of their ethnic group’s character, unique bearers of collective identity in their communities. As a self-identified feminist I maintain that the practice is detrimental to the status of women and I look forward to a time when the institution no longer exists; however, I have to admit that there are plenty of women in Africa and across the globe who have freely chosen their husbands and currently live under more subjugating conditions than some of the Siras I encountered.

The lesson for me: The tradition of Sira and similar practices of controlling women’s sexual behavior does not oppress such women on its own, but rather poverty, lack of education, misogyny and patriarchy combine to oppress women, and such practices are actually an effect of such oppression and not a cause.

No weddings for Siras…

Thoughts? I would love to learn more from my Nigerian readers who might be able to add any detail or illuminate any of the questions I asked above.

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2 responses to “Sira Syndrome among the Ogonis

  1. Hello Laine,
    I just saw your research on Ogoni and as a writer and sociopolitical critic, thought it wise to respond for clarity, and in attempting also to assist and placing things in perspective for you going forward with this work. First, thanks much for your interest and the time devoted to this research. Indeed I’m Ogoni and based in the U.S. I was doing a book on the so-called Sira culture or custom of Ogoni and Siradom. I however stopped when my computer crashed and file wasn’t backed up. Meanwhile, to put the record straight, the Siras of Ogoni aren’t socially married to their fathers, rather they’re disallowed to be married away from home as you pointed out. Most Siras also choose their mates and some have one mate or man who father all their children as you also enunciated.
    Some are taken advantage of by different men (like in America, Europe and other parts of the world where men just have sex and make babies every stop they make) who have children by them and move on to marrying their wives. Most of these men have or eventually have children by their wives and train them in school, while those by the Siras are left to suffer. Some men are involved in their out of wedlock or before wedlock-children’s lives (no strict child support laws exist in Ogoni like in America), train them up to the university as they do the children by their formerly (legally) married wives. These men, for the most, I call them irresponsible men like I see men in the West/USA who just have children and call the women baby mamas or girlfriends, not wives (though some baby mamas are as a result of dissolved marriages). The most irresponsible are those who refuse to care for their children-divorced men can be understood and they’re mostly held to child support and alimony depending on status. I also understand the allegation that some women use children as baits and indirect source of moneymaking in U.S. and other parts of the West.

    Also in the Siradom, Siras are considered equals to their male brothers who inherit family lands. The irony in some if not most cases is that some of these shared lands are taken away from these women by their brothers due to the weakness of the women. This happen mostly when their parents dies. In other cases these women have massive land and are sufficient by local standard. They send their children to school up to university. Some become money lenders. Others invest their funds into trade-petty trade for the most that helped their subsistence. In addition, Siras are considered the responsibility of their male brothers, whether their parents lives or are demise. Their brothers help take care of them and their children. This is where these brothers have means of survival…land and farming, fishing play big role. If a brother builds a house, he believes he owes it to her parents/Sira sister to ensure she’s a secured place to call home in such project or building. Most African (Ogoni) homes in the villages are of course family-stead or kinds as your journey and research may have shown.

    Now, contrary to your assumption, children of the Siras aren’t considered labor or a moneymaking source. It’s frivolous the insinuation that the number of children by Siras means or determines how much money a family or Sira gets. These children aren’t exploited, yet exposed to lots of suffering, poverty, even if a great number of them are educated. Some prospers and holds important places/offices in the land.
    Children all over the world including America are exposed to poverty as well, though the gravity might differ. Children of color/ blacks in particular like adults suffer the most under the hammer of poverty and unemployment which is partly created by a white-controlled and discriminatory/racist system. See how the first black president, Obama of America is disrespected and mistreated by whites (though have white support as well), especially GOPians who have vowed to making things difficult for him, even at the expense of the poor. Obama was hated from day-one for his race or origin.

    It’s common practice in Africa that children are great asset as seen in the West and other regions of the world. Therefore, children help both married and unmarried parents in their daily endeavors. African children carry stuff/load on their heads to the market and farm due mostly to lack of access to cars and other means of transportation. I did it as an African child, and this isn’t exploitation, rather our unique way of life-cultural experience. Carrying stuff to help my parents didn’t alter my humanity. It’s also be noted that African circumstances, economic especially, led to some of the ways we take as means of survival. These circumstances can be traced to Western/American exploitation-from slavery to colonization and current struggle/war for Africa by Western governments and corporations. Western government and America especially have engaged in regime changes in Africa; have supported and still supporting rogue governments in Africa, Nigerian government, for instance. They’ve lobbied these governments to enact and apply laws that are detrimental to the people, and couldn’t be accepted in their countries. They’ve lobbied and continued to lobby for anacondic corporations such as $hell, Chevron or Exxon Mobil, Total, Eni, Agip and more. Western governments, corporations and societies also encourage and benefit from corruption, mismanagement of public funds and loots in Africa-Nigeria in particular. Stolen wealth are hidden and invested in America and other Western countries. Such entreaties and efforts are counterproductive and not in the best interest of ordinary African people. Therefore the people’s circumstances have become what they’re and may be worse if nothing tangibly transformational is done, and if Africans, leaders in particular refuses to see the love for people, country and continent first before Western and otherwise interests. Although Western/American factors suffices against African freedom and development. Africans are enlightened enough and the continent old enough to learn, make their mistakes, plan and invest for the overall development and good of the people who are so rich in resources and human wisdom, but have remained poor and mostly become consumers of Western products amidst staggering raw materials and natural resources (waiting to be transformed into finished products) due to exploitation and the factors mentioned aforesaid.

    It’s pertinent to note also that all groups have their unique or distinct way of life. None could be said to be too superior, even though conscious people, organizations and governments around the world have continued to advocate across the board lifestyles that respects human dignity, freedoms and equality and other human and peoples’ rights. In short, cultures interwove; they interrelate positively and negatively. Even in human rights, so-called civilized cultures clamoring against human rights abuses are violating same one way or another. See Bush?America’s war crimes and crimes against humanity and genocide in Iraq and other places for instance. I’ve written about the Bush crimes to the ICC prosecutor and Online, and ask that Bush and Co. be prosecuted. Such prosecution should also start from home if America understands its human rights stands and takes it seriously. Selective justice isn’t proper justice. Hope you aren’t surprised that American government and Supreme Court just let $hell, which in collaboration with Nigerian government committed some of the most egregious human rights violations off the hook despite obvious ATS jurisprudence.

    There are many human rights concerns including the drone strikes, which have placed and still placing blood on the hands of America so controlled by greedy and blood thirsty corporations. Yet the country claims it respects, stands up for human rights and supports those anywhere in the world seeking freedom, equality and justice. To be fair, America has done some awesome jobs in projecting, protecting and preserving human rights which includes freedom and justice. It’s also been a great abuser of same. In short, right now it’s no credibility speaking for or chastising other violators of human rights considering the Bush genocidal crimes, Guantanamo, letting $hell off the hook to embolden and protect corporate torture in exchange for economic exploitation. Notwithstanding it will continue to speak due to status, power and money.

    In connection with the Sira origin you attempted to decipher, the only reason I know that is or can be attributed to the origin of Siradom is, so-called parents’ greater love for a first, middle or last daughter who takes the Sira status because they will not let her go away, at the quest or command of her parents, especially fathers-the mothers mostly concur. By Sira we mean First Daughter or female child, though some families or communities have any female of their choice considered most love and trusted enough to guard and manage parents’ property while they grow older or die. Note also that all Ogoni families don’t embrace the Sira custom like all Americans don’t embrace homosexuality, though imposed by government/society. Most first daughters (actual meaning of Sira) and other daughters were married in the olden days and are married today, whether in a Christian or non-Christian Ogoni family contrary to the claim by the Christian family you said you encountered. And there were some in certain Christian families who didn’t marry.

    In nutshell, I dislike or hate this custom, as it infringes on females’ rights to choice or choose. It forces women into child-bearing and with different men and deprive them of education and other human development substantive to their liberation and everyday success. This custom is nevertheless fast dying out like you rightly pointed out due to exposure and enlightenment-cultural rethink and revolution. On my own I’ve taken time to campaign, talking to young girls and women to stand up for their rights, not by being disrespectful to parents but demanding their rights to self-development/investment from parents and community/leaders, and stand up for the choice of marrying against imposed custom that debar them from marrying while men aren’t subjected to such custom or tradition. Of course, men of all cultures have been mostly favored; have most advantage than women and happens to be those making most decisions and laws that forces certain lifestyles on women and dictating to them in some cases how to think. See women being paid lesser than men before Obama signed equal pay for equal work, which isn’t even effective yet; the deprivation of voting right until early or mid-sixties; the twist in healthcare concerning women in America and outlawing abortion by so-called conservative-led governments/states as example. Some cultures of the world still prefer investing more in men than women. And women are almost generally considered as sex tools globally, due to men’s desires, power and certain attitudes such as being flirtatious and in prostitution, nude dance at stripe clubs and accepting sex-based roles in movies and music videos among others displayed by women. Men are indeed the buffers and beneficiaries of these attitudes.

    Finally, education, I’ve said will liberate and empower Ogoni women like other oppressed women, prepare them to be independent, though independent must not imply disrespect. Education and other growth-based investments have made and will continue to making women self-reliant and attractive for marriage and beyond marriage, if and when it fails. The Sira custom is a formal and agreed upon or customary, yet externally imposed way of creating single mothers and assisted-suffering compared to voluntary and accidental single mothers of America and other Western countries and beyond. That is, while the Ogoni Siradom formalizes single-parenthood, which is also created when marriages fails, other cultures of Nigeria, the larger Africa, America and globally don’t embrace such formality, yet have single-parenthood, which allows for multiple babies and by different men and also creates exploitation and suffering. No gainsaying the fact that, no culture has ever existed where all men and women got married during a life circle or have children. Therefore, single-parents, especially mothers are created and shall be created whether in a Sira arrangement that is fading out of Ogoni or the contrary.

    In my book I was linking the experience of the Siras of Ogoni to those of single mothers in America and elsewhere, though opportunity in the American/Western world experience may help the latter in ways that the Siras couldn’t find help. These women, no matter where faces the same or similar challenges of caring for the children they didn’t make alone, untold hardship, exploitation and domestic violence up to homicide. The latter crime is uncommon or unheard of in the Sira situation.

    Thanks again.

    Sincerely,
    Ben Ikari
    3148272874.

    Ben Ikari is a writer, sociopolitical critic, poet; human and environmental rights crusader…

  2. Let me also stress here that this custom wasn’t for all, rather the rich in farmland, rivers or small creeks that flourished with resources of palm trees, palm-wine, fish pond and others embraced and indeed started it. Somehow, it spread to become common with those who didn’t have such luxuries, though every family didn’t embrace it as said previously.

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