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Women with University Degrees and Paid Employment: Emancipated Women?1

Alberto Cumbi


Published in: Outras Vozes n° 28, supplement, November 2009


In the current context of women’s emancipation and gender equality, there is an official discourse that tries to encourage the presence of more women in the public space (higher education, paid labour market, in parliament, the executive and the judiciary), as a form or even an indicator of their emancipation. This tendency started immediately after independence (from 75 to the mid 80s), when there was a major effort to enable more women to access education, literacy and employment.

There are more and more women in decision making positions in the executive power, parliament and political parties in addition to many others with higher education and paid employment. In this context, in our case, we would like to discuss the possibilities available to women with higher education and paid employment to negotiate greater equality in the marital relationship. In other words, can women who work and have a higher education be considered emancipated, or living in a situation of gender equality? In order to discuss the problem, we talked to six couples, a total of 12 informants. Of these 12 (twelve), 6 (six) have a university degree and the other six (6) are still at university, and all have paid employment. Our observation instruments were semi-structured interviews because they enabled us to talk openly with informants and gather as much information as possible. In this paper we consider our sample couples one (1) to six (6). This is a code we have adopted in order to facilitate discussion of the information gathered. When referring to one of the spouses, the person is referred to as female or male spouse one (1) to six (6). The terms interviewees and informants were given equivalent meaning and also the terms information and statement.

From theoretical perspective to concepts

The theoretical perspective behind this work is on the one hand, the feminist one, with a constructivist approach to gender relations that considers male and female identities to be natural or biologically determined, but built socially during an individual’s biographical journey. On the other hand, we worked with the habitus theory of Pierre Bourdieu (1989). This theory emphasizes that individuals incorporate or interiorise a system of predispositions2 in their socialization process that guides their practices, their choices and their actions. This means that, because of their socialization, men tend to be dominant and aggressive while women try to be obedient and passive, not by nature, but because they were taught to behave in this way.

Society often thinks that men who are able to keep their wives obedient are real men, and that obedient wives are the ideal spouses. The fight for gender equality is, above all else, the process that inverts this normalizing and naturalised tendency i.e. that challenges all the traditional values that structure gender inequalities, make them natural.

We articulate three main concepts: gender, the patriarchal system and power. The definition and discussion of these three concepts led us to conclude that gender differences have no biological or natural determinant, and that this is contrary to social representations. The natural aspect acquired by these asymmetries results from the process of constructing the male and female identity during the biographical journey of men and women, and all the types of perceptions they acquire along the way in their contact with other groups. It is during this historical and social journey that individuals assimilate patriarchal values and practices that will permit the automatic reproduction of inequalities, but always within an atmosphere of “correlation of forces and confrontation” (Foucault, 1984:34) where, depending on their circumstances or situations, and based on the use of economic and intellectual power that epitomise honour and prestige, men and women can assume positions of dominance.

Sexual division of labour and the representation of marital roles

The results of the research, the collection and discussion of the data, show that because it is taught that women naturally do domestic work, socialization is based on social roles transmitted during the education of men and women; wives are obliged or feel they are obliged to be responsible for these domestic functions. For example, they are seen as being talented by nature, while men are considered naturally disastrous in the kitchen. This means that the entire burden of domestic work falls on the woman’s shoulders, preventing her from resting or having some free time.

Work by men involving the maintenance of domestic appliances (sound systems, stove, iron, light bulbs), also in the domestic sphere, are not considered domestic jobs. These functions receive more social admiration, giving honour and prestige to men, contrary to women who are considered worthless by society because they do work that is considered light and easy. This means that it is not domestic work in its self that has no social value, but rather the set of demeaning representations of these jobs and the people who often do them, women. For this reason, Camacho (2001) argues that everything that is represented as masculine has more value and social prestige.

As regards family representations, there is the shared idea that a woman can study and work, but above all she must know how to cook, take care of children and the home. In other words, she must be more of an excellent mother and wife than someone who studies and works. Otherwise, she can be considered not a woman, far from the female model that is valued by society.

Because of this, on the one hand gender equality is seen to be affected, for example, by the possibility of more women having access to the public space. On the other hand any behaviour that tries to invert the roles of mother and wife, considered fundamental for marital stability, is represented as a deviant, an instigator of marital instability and divorce. The following interview is enlightening: “I think that my first relationship ended because I was too open, as well as assumptions about the concept of emancipation. I like things to be discussed in the real sense of the word” (husband 3). So it is accepted that women work and study but this must not prevent them from performing their so-called domestic duties with devotion and dedication. The following statements are illustrative: “I stopped working because I wanted to study. I needed to continue my studies and there was a phase when my studies and work when no longer compatible with household duties, so I had to leave my job in order to be able to continue my studies and take care of the home” (wife 1 and 2).

This is the restriction of women to the domestic space and to domestic work, despite acceptance of her visibility in the public space, the space that was historically built as exclusively male. This is due not only to the roles women have, but also to male imposition.

As the roles of mother and wife are considered fundamental for marital stability, female behaviour that challenges these deceptions is considered strange, and thus deviant.  This is because “social rules define social situations and their kinds of behaviour, specifying some actions as ‘right’ and forbidding others as ‘wrong'” (Becker, 1976: 53).

Simultaneously, women are blamed for the inequality in which they live because it is felt that they demand equality in situations where they win, and deny this same equality in situations where they end up losing, as one informant revealed: “(…) in fact you get the feeling that there are situations where women demand equality and others where they don’t” (husband 3). We can see here the instrumentalization nature of gender equality, to reproduce male domination and female incapacity.

This situation reveals the prevalence of male strategies to maintain the division of labour based on the sex of each individual, one of the justifications used by society to restrict women to the domestic sphere and domestic tasks. As these tasks are not socially valued, they guarantee discrimination and the domination of women.

Access to and control over resources

In the introduction we mentioned that we worked with couples where both spouses had concluded or were attending university and had paid employment. This means that at the end of each month the men and the women have a certain monetary income. This income is used to pay various expenses. How they are paid varies according to the management criterion adopted by each couple.

We found that the couples had essentially two kinds of criteria for managing their income. One is the following: at the end of each month the incomes of the wife and the husband are added together. After making a list of their monthly expenditure it is divided. Part is deposited in a joint account for short or long-term projects (buying land, furniture and building a house, for example), and another part is set aside for current expenditure (to pay water and electricity bills and to buy food). The remainder is shared by the couple for their personal use. This last part of the money is used differently by men and women. The women spend more on unforeseen expenditure, in the kitchen, buying decorative material for the house, buying presents for their husband and credit, while men invest more in credit and in “drinking”3 with friends. This shows clearly male strategies to control and manage their wives’ income, because they end up being unable to use their funds freely in their own interest.

Under the other management criterion, the couple shares expenditure, with each spouse responsible for a given payment. The division is not equal, as the women pay expenditure that does not give them any social prestige and relegates them to domesticity and domination, as shown by the following interviews: “I usually help out with small things in the house, food, I make some payments, some small things (wife 1). The other respondent added: “I like to arrange things here in the house, but small things, simple household expenditure: items for the kitchen, I buy saucepans, a carpet for the living room, whatever needs buying, whatever isn’t right in the house” (wife 3). It is clear that these products are not durable nor do they warrant social prestige.

In turn, the men buy durable goods such as land, houses, furniture and domestic appliances. In addition to being durable these goods bring them prestige and are often registered in their name, on the grounds that whatever is in the husband’s name also belongs to the wife.

For example, three (3) of the six (6) couples interviewed have land where they intend to build a house in neighbourhoods in Maputo city and Matola, and they are all registered in the husband’s name. Here we find instrumentalization of the notion of community property to ensure that men control the resources that give honour and prestige. It means that although, in the event of divorce, there is the possibility of sharing property, while this does not happen the woman has little power and is frequently unable to negotiate, irrespective of day-to- day equality in marital life.

Despite revealing female strategies to resist male power, as the women do not tell their husbands how much they earn each month, or their savings, this second criterion ends up not having the desired effect as the husbands are able to exercise indirect control over the couple’s income by denying them the possibility of buying goods that are valued by society.

Sex and reproduction

The regulation of sex and reproduction in marital relations is based on social values and norms. These norms and values define roles and sexual and reproductive behaviour, determining what a man and a woman can say, want or express about sex and reproduction.

One interesting aspect to be emphasized is that it is difficult for women to express their real level of sexual realization, or to decide the number of children she would like to have. They say that it is disappointing for a man to hear from his wife that she does not enjoy sexual satisfaction. This is because “the sexual act is conceived by men as a form of domination, ownership and possession. Male pleasure is, in part, pleasure in female pleasure, the power of giving pleasure” (Bourdieu, 2002: 17-18). According to the same author, for this reason women often pretend a false orgasm in order to satisfy men’s expectations and to avoid male disappointment.

This is because men and women regard sex differently. Women are socially prepared to experience sexual life as an intimate, extremely affectionate experience that does not necessarily include penetration, but can encompass a vast range of activities (such as talking, touching, caressing and embracing), while boys are taught to consider sex as an aggressive and violent act directed at penetration and orgasm (Bourdieu, 2002).

The compartmentalized construction of sex and its use as an instrument of domination can be one of the reasons why the men said they only had to insist on sexual relations a few times, as shown by the following: “force me to have sex!!! He would never force me. I am always willing. Unless I am ill” (wife 2). A male respondent added: “I always try to ensure that I and my wife are ready for sex” (husband 3).

Although the wives said that sometimes their husbands are not interested, this constant availability for sex is an expression of power, showing that they always have the strength to maintain a sexual relationship. This enables us to state that the sexual act is not only a moment for “exchanging pleasure”, for demonstrating intimacy and affection, it is also an opportunity to show strength, power and for affirming masculinity.

All the women, the men rarely, said that they had experience of being influenced to have unwanted sex: “My husband has never forced me to have sex, but there are always those days when I don’t feel like it. He comes and seduces me and I end up giving in (wives 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6). The term “seduce” can conceal an act of sexual and psychological violence that reveals different levels in sexual relations in a marriage.

The fact that husbands get angry, bad tempered and silent when their wives are not in the mood for sex, could appear to be a camouflaged power strategy to coerce women into satisfying their desires. In the interaction between the couples interviewed, the facial aspect was revealed as a psychological game by men to achieve their interests. In this instance we can consider it the sophistication of psychological violence.

As regards reproduction, “more than just establishing a marital relationship, marriage establishes precisely a relationship of legitimate filiation” (Sarraceno, 1992: 82). In other words, when two people marry the social expectation is to see children resulting from this union and these offspring are considered the couple’s legitimate descendants. According to the same author “a marriage is only effectively fulfilled when the wife becomes a mother. Before this, she can be returned to her family without any special formality and, when there are no children, she can be disowned.” (Sarraceno, 192:82).

According to Sarraceno, this makes women the guilty party when there are no children in the marital relationship. From the information gathered, although not often, we could see that the representation of the female figure as the one responsible for a couple having no children was the preferred one.

The following interviews support this finding: “If we cannot have children do you think I will divorce her” (husband 5). Another added: “(…) No!!! You think that if we cannot have children I would have them elsewhere4?  No, we would adopt” (husband 2). “If we can’t have children I wouldn’t let my husband have them somewhere else”5 (wife 3). These statements can show not only the culpability of women for the absence of children in a marital relationship, but also acceptance of this “truth” by women, even though they will not agree to their husbands having children with “another woman”6 or, even worse, being the first wife because there is a second one.

Most of the women want three children. Although some men agreed with their wives about the number of children, it must be emphasized that the opinions of others were different to those of their partners. When asked how they would react if their partners wanted fewer children, the men said they would talk with their wives until they were convinced.

The expression “would talk with their wives until they were convinced” gives the impression that the dialogue is promoted not in order to reach a consensus freely and consciously, but as a way of legitimizing decisions already taken. We can call this type of situation between a couple false equality.

Dialogue as a criterion for taking any decision, emphasized by most men, appears to show awareness that in marital relations women have the right to decide on the number of children they want. However, this acknowledgment is theoretical because in practice male will ends up prevailing, even though not imposed explicitly.

Management of free time and leisure

It is rare for the women interviewed to enjoy moments of leisure. On the one hand, because their daily routine is very tight and when they get home they must deal with domestic matters. On the other hand, at the weekend they must shoulder the entire burden of domestic duties as their maids have time off. For this reason, women are tired and often unable to collaborate with their husbands, as illustrated by the following; ” (…) at night all I want to do is sleep. Sometimes my husband wants to go out and/or to go to bed with me but I’m not up to it. If we divided the work I would have more energy and strength to do all this” (wives 3 and 6).

We also found that some husbands consider it inadvisable for their wives to be in the company of a certain kind of person. For example, being out at night with many men. They think that women are vulnerable in these situations; they always need male control. In cases where wives go out in the company of their husbands with male friends, they say the gathering is very restricted, mainly because of their jealousy. This is why the women said that when they go out with male friends, they avoid the company of their husbands as a way of escaping male control.

In addition, women’s contacts with their friends, their family and others fall sharply after a marriage or union. Representation of the marital space, as well-defined roles that must be adhered to, is essential for marital stability and male control makes a substantial contribution to this. In other words, the marital space is considered a break with how things were before the marriage or union. This is shown by the following: “(…) I usually visit my friends. I stay as long as I want as long as this does not jeopardize my responsibilities as a mother and wife” (wives 1, 2, 3 and 6).


Gender equality and women’s emancipation as propagated by the official and marital discourse on relations with women with financial and intellectual resources is a sham because in the daily lives of couples, women are in an unequal situation. It is they who do almost all the domestic work and this makes it difficult for them to enjoy their right to leisure. In addition, they are unable to decide how many children they will have and sexual and psychological violence is apparent in their daily marital lives. This situation denies women the right to control their own body and their own sexual and reproductive desires.

This means that the patriarchal socialization that defines and gives men superiority over women, is still prevalent and is manifested through discourse and through the daily interaction of the couple. In this context, we can question the plausibility of the official discourse defending the social structure that perpetuates patriarchal power, the basis of a woman’s treatment as an inferior. The fact that women are able to study and work is not sufficient for them to live a situation of gender equality. Men and women must be taught to think and act in a different way by demystifying myths, values and traditions that produce ideologies, discourse, representations and practices that perpetuate domination.
BOURDIEU, Pierre (1989). O poder simbólico. Lisboa: Difel.
BOURDIEU, Pierre (2002). A dominação masculina. Lisboa: Gradiva.
BECKER, Howard (1976). “Marginais e desviantes”. In: Howard Becker, Uma teoria da acção colectiva. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar (esp. Cap. 3, p. 52-85).
CAMACHO, Rosália (2001). A igualdade em tempos de género. In: Alda Facio (Coord). Declaración Universal de Derecho Humano: Texto y Comentarios universales. Costa Rica.
FOUCAULT, Michel (1996). Microfísica do poder. Rio de Janeiro: Graal. (12ª ed.)
SARRACENO, Chiara (1992). Sociologia da família. Rio de Janeiro: Atlas.



  1. This article is based on a monograph to obtain a Graduation in Sociology, from Eduardo Mondlane University, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, defended on 2 April 2009.
  2. The tendency of a person or group of people to speak and/or act in a certain way in accordance with the education they have received.
  3. The expression used by spouses to mean the consumption of alcohol.
  4. That is, it is believed that it is not the husband’s fault, but always the wife’s.
  5. This woman believes that if there were a fertility problem it would be her fault.
  6. Expression used by the wife for a lover or probable lover of her husband.

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