In the past few days I have found myself wading through torrents of feminism – the murky, the combative, the conciliatory, the prescriptive, the anxious, the embarrassed, the conservative, the misinformed, THE BADLY MISINFORMED, the ABJECT IGNORANT, the level-headed and the very level-headed.
I confess I was more enervated from resisting the temptation to respond to the arguments flying all over my head like drones than from actually responding. Some time ago, I made a personal vow to never argue either the basics of gender or sexuality with Nigerians. Those who already know do not need the rudiments. Those who do not know are sincerely ignorant and cannot be persuaded. It is a waste of time to convince anybody.
Like Barrister Tade Ipadeola said on a thread, feminism is one of the theories that have been badly taught in Nigerian institutions and one that has equally been badly received. I concur to that.
Last month in Ibadan, someone gave me a book –a festschrift actually- written in celebration of a Nigerian feminist professor. It was a 600 plus paged book. I started reading the Introduction written by some women. They were talking about male gaze and in the same paragraph blamed sexual violence on the way women dress. I closed the book and left it somewhere. Whatever else the book has to say has been destroyed by the poorly thought out and judgmental introduction chapter.
In the past few days however, I have come across so much talk about feminism that I am ready to make an exception just once to talk about feminism; just this once to inform those who have badly received feminism. We need them to understand that feminism is not about mundane exchanges about whether a man or his wife is supposed to cook; that feminism does not begin and end with Facebook posts; that feminism does not threaten the perfect “African culture” or “African marriage” they endlessly rhapsodize about. Instead, what it does is open their eyes to the imbalances they are wilfully blind to.
No knowledge, no philosophy, no thinking, is worth its name if it does not make one uncomfortable or threaten what is believed to be ‘normal’.
One of the arguments I hear over and over again is that there is no patriarchy in African societies; that our mothers were in no way oppressed; that black women are merely copying white women who, in private, are subservient to their own men. This argument has no clear gender divide. Women, especially those cocooned in the privileges their education affords them, rant endlessly about why we should speak of equality and not feminism. These women, ever afraid to be seen as having achieved anything based on gender kick against the appreciation of gender differences and the peculiarities of challenges that arise they spur. This makes me wonder how many generations it will take to undo the insidious effects of male domination in our society.
If you want to speak about equality in African society, draw near and I shall tell you the stories of my grandmother, mother and myself. We –three of us- represent different generations of women; we faced different challenges and I can share a narrative of how the changes in the material culture define what each of us thinks of “patriarchy.”
As an older female child in a Yoruba household, I can tell you that my age gives me certain privileges over my younger brothers. Yoruba institutions are primarily age –not gender- based. Yet, when I step out of my house in Ibadan and walk in the larger Nigerian culture, I am subject to a different dynamic.
One way or the other, we embody the contradictions of the gender relationship in our various ethnic traditions and the larger ones precipitated by forces of colonialism, globalization and other factors that order our contemporary world. These things are more complicated than the simple binary of man/woman; black/white; African/non-African to which some folks reduce every conversation. “Patriarchy” in Africa has never so been simple and shallow. If only people would take time to learn about feminism and its routes through African scholarship, we would have far more meaningful and sensible dialogues.
I understand the frustration of feminists when those who do not know jack, proudly confess they have not read shit, hand out verdicts on feminism.
To illustrate the complications of gender relationships, I turn to Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. In the book are three women who symbolize different (and contradictory) conditions (and positions) of women in our society at every point.
There is Ani, the earth; Chielo, the priestess; Ojiugo and Ekwefi, Okonkwo’s wives. If you want to argue that the Igbo society Achebe presents is patriarchal without any redeeming value, then you are confronted with the question of why the men would revere a female god. Why should a society like that give any woman regard enough to worship her? If you want to argue that Ani is just a metaphor, an idea, an immaterial being whose principles can structure the culture only because she is disembodied, what do you do with Chielo, a woman so powerful men feared her? If you want to take both Ani and Chielo as the quintessence of African women – powerful and unaffected by the lopsidedness of patriarchy, what do you do with Ojiugo and Ekwefi? In the book, both of the women suffered measures of physical abuse but their conditions were never resolved. Okonkwo was reprimanded for beating a woman in the Week of Peace but not for the act of violence in itself.
Think about it, there is no time that these women are not archetypes of sort and represented in our society.
While you are busy praising the Nigerian society that has “made” women like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and busy comparing her to every other woman as example of female power in contemporary society, remember, for every Ani, there are women like Ojiugo and Ekwefi whose abuses are not even a subject of conversation. Why did Achebe even create the character of Ezinma (Ekwefi’s daughter)? Why did her father look at her and wished she were male? What underlying critique do you think he was passing across about gender and social prospects?
So for the Nigerian anti-feminist who says feminism is unnecessary because women have never had it so good because they see the Ani and the Chielos of this world, I say leave us who profess feminism to speak for the Ekwefi/Ojiugos. If your life suits you as it is, like Barack Obama’s insurance, we say “keep it!” Nobody is asking you not to cook for your husband or to marry a woman who gets an orgasm from watching the pots boil in her kitchen-office. That is your life but your life is not everybody’s life. If you know how much the world that you thrive in has benefited from feminist ideology, you would think twice before running it down to embrace that illusion of your perfect African life.