Lately, the Nigerian first lady, Dame Patience Jonathan, while campaigning for the re-election of President Goodluck Jonathan, urged women to vote massively for her husband since he has done the most good for them. I would have had no problem with her solicitation of the women voting bloc but she did not stop there. To boost the president’s feminist inclined credentials, Dame Jonathan added that her husband’s continuity in office was important because, “Nigerian women should no longer go back to the kitchen. It is not our portion to go back to the kitchen.” Having been a personal witness to the labor and enterprise of women, I have to ask, “But where are those women who are in the kitchen”?
From rural areas where women work side by side with men on the farms, to urban centers where women are co-breadwinners with men, I wonder why anyone still talks about women going back to the kitchen when it is obvious we have never been stuck in that space.
The imagery of women and “kitchen” has roots in Victorian ideals and the manner it represses women. When we talk of women and kitchen, we conjure a mental image of a repressed woman whose fate is to cook for the men in her life. We picture a virtuous woman who is wedded to the kitchen space so much that she gets an orgasm merely by stirring the shiny cooking pots. The kitchen, as it is used to describe a female space, connotes marriage-enabled domesticity. Mind you, divorcees and single women hardly fit into this frame.
There is also a class factor undergirding the “kitchen” imagery. We think of middle-class women who are at home virtually all day, studying recipes and mixing ingredients like an alchemist. When they open their boiling pots, they sniff the aroma and glower with accomplishment. With the whole house sizzling with the wonderful aroma of their cooking, their dreams are realized. These “kitchen” women can afford not to work because their husbands do. Their cooking prowess notwithstanding, they are fragile and need the marriage to protect them from the indignities of the labor market. The kitchen, therefore, becomes a safe space for them, with their dignity and existence tied to their husbands. Their kitchen occupation is also a way they earn their keep.
Altogether, the kitchen evokes the image of women who have submitted to their fate, to patriarchy and to the natural order dictated by insecure men. People use the expression of women in the kitchen frequently but do they ever stop to consider if it is true or not?
Whilst working on my Master’s degree in the University of Ibadan, I used to have a 9am class on Tuesdays. I was living in Surulere, Lagos then and also working a full time job so I had to juggle both. I would leave home by 5am so that I could make it to school before the Lagos-Ibadan expressway truncated my plans for the day. It was still usually dark and for most part of walking from the house to the bus stop where I would take a bus to Ojuelegba, I would be praying against marauders who needed the blanket of the night to cover their misdeeds.
One persistent observation, in my regular ride from Masha-Kilo to Ojuelegba, was that most of my co-passengers were women. The women, mostly petty traders, usually had some wares on their knees, tightly wrapped in multiple layers of Ankara wrappers and kept close to their chest. Some of the women had babies strapped on their backs. They way they artfully balanced their enterprise with motherhood tempted me to romanticize the poverty that placed them in those conditions but I know better. While I believe in the virtues of hard work, I also see the women straining to make a livelihood.
When I see some of the women disembark at Ojuelegba motor-park and begin to set their wares in spaces considered as culturally “male”, spaces that can be hostile to women, I mentally salute their efforts. I sometimes wondered what their private lives might be like: should they not be beside their husbands at that time of the day when sex between couples, animated by the cold chill of a day yet unbroken, was supposedly the sweetest? Do they permit themselves some fanciful feminine fantasies or they are too busy earning a living to be bothered by such encumbrances? From the distance of my own life – a professional pursuing an academic degree- I try to look beyond seeing them as women whose feminity have been bleached by the roughness of their existence. I see hard work, I see dignity and I also see women who cannot afford to be in the kitchen.
While I am in agreement with Mrs. Jonathan that Nigerian women deserve better, I must say that the flippant association of women with “kitchen” is patently false and capable of eroding the many ways women enterprise contribute to the task of nation building. Nigerian women do not have to worry about returning to the kitchen because they are not stuck there in the first place. Women transcend kitchen and its patronizing connotations. If we don’t see enough women in key leadership positions and in high political offices like their male counterparts, it is not because they are hiding in the kitchen.