There seems to be this image of a typical Nigerian woman as being a money-grubbing, marriage mad, religious freak. As most stereotypes go… it’s basically untrue, and today we present to you Nigerian Women who are slaying in the Arts, Humanities, Sciences, women who do not fit into that mold of a typical Nigerian woman. We present our WCWs…
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.
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.
A four year old boy once said ‘I’m nakeding about the house’ when asked why he did not wear some clothes after he got back from school. He used the word ‘nakeding’ as one would say ‘jumping’ or ‘singing’, something along the lines of ‘I’m nakeding because I’m happy’.
One of the pleasures I had while growing up, was that of going about naked in my house. During the usually, hellishly hot, dry season, I could be found playing around the neighbourhood in either a pair of shorts or an underpant, rainy season found me and my friends running around buck naked anytime the rain started. The most cloth I ever wore, while growing up, if I remember correctly, was an undergarment we fondly called a ‘shimmy’ and a pair of shorts. Except it was terribly cold, wearing of clothes was not a prerogative.
I remember being told by my grandmother that she never got to wear clothes until she was about sixteen years old, it was one of her neighbours that actually drew my great-grandmother’s attention to the fact that her daughter now had a pair of breasts and needed to cover them up.
I was at the swimming pool the other day with my children, and was pleased to see a young, flat chested girl, of about eight frolicking in the shallow end with her brothers, in only a pair of shorts, the same type her brothers were wearing.
Shame was not a word I associated with the happy little girl, but in the name of protecting our children, it appears we are teaching them how to be ashamed of their bodies.
A couple of weeks ago, in Kenya, a young lady was stripped naked by a mob of men, because her skirt was deemed too short. This led to a protest hashtagged #mydressmychoice, a simple call for the society to stop what Abimbola Adelakun, in her article titled “How to treat a Naked Woman”, called “legislating the sartorial choices of women.”
Although the stripping and protests took place in ‘faraway’ Kenya, stripping women naked for their choice of dressing, is nothing new to Nigeria.
In the old Yaba, before Raji Fashola brought some modicum of sanity to the place, the traders were known for booing and stripping girls they consider ‘skimpily’ or ‘outrageously’ dressed ,naked, in a lot of cases sexual harassment also takes place while these ‘judges of our morals’ are ‘punishing’ these women.
In a book titled “Nigerian Dress: The Body Honoured”, Dani Lyndersay traced the costume arts of traditional Nigerian dress from Early History to Independence… and I’m sad to say this to the puritans, our ancestors (from the North to the South), except for the very rich, went about stark naked! And I mean men, women and children. They adorned their bodies, beautifully, with tattoos and other things like feathers, cowry shells and even leaves, but the adornment was simply that, not a means of ‘covering up’.
I dare say wearing clothes and shoes, became popular in Nigeria, more of a statement of fashion, of how rich you are, than to cover up in shame.
A few days ago, a young lady took to Facebook and complained bitterly about how an eight year old child, was ‘all over’ some ‘uncles’ thighs all the while wearing ‘only a pant’. She expressed disappointment at how ‘parents’ are no longer ‘raising their children right’ how this child is courting abuse, because a flat chested eight year old should be an object of desire.
When called out on why she would choose to shame an innocent little girl, who was obviously enjoying the relief of not having to wear clothes in the hot afternoon sun, she claimed that the girl was making herself ‘vulnerable’ to abuse.
How in the world does a child go around making his/herself vulnerable to abuse?
Isn’t this the same line of argument proffered by rapists and would-be-rapists, ‘why was she wearing that gown?’, ‘what was she doing in his house?’
News flash – paedophiles(men or women who have sex with children), just like rapists and abusers, do not need provocation, they just are – in most cases – very sick individuals that need to be locked up or psychoanalysed or both.
Your child is at risk in your home, more than in the streets, and their state of dress or undress has absolutely nothing to do with this. Paedophiles are known to rape babies of 6months – can we say it’s because they are sagging their diapers?
Most people who abuse your children are often relatives or close family friends and even people who help out in the house. People in authority such as Imams, pastors and teachers, who have access to your child can also be sexual predators – (a sexual predator hunts down his/her potential victims the same way a frog hunts a fly). Abuse is about power and control.
A lion does not care how a gazelle is dressed, all it cares about is hunting it down and killing it! The same way a sexual predator does not care how his or her victim is dressed and is more concerned about assaulting the child or adult, sexually, expressing his/her power over the victim.
We need to stop body shaming, we need to teach our children the correct terms for their body parts and not using euphemisms to describe the penis, the vulva, the breasts, we need to show and teach our children about respecting other people, their space, their choices, their lives!
We need to free ourselves from the mental shackles that have held us down for over a century.
Somebody said sex crimes are on the increase and surmised that it’s because more women are dressing more outrageously now, but I put it to you that sexual crimes are not on the increase, the reportage of sexual crimes has.
A few years ago, women would be afraid to point at rapists and call them out, because of the taboos our society has placed on it, because we shame the victim instead of the abuser, but now, more and more women … and children, are coming out and making their voices heard, they have found out that the people who need to be shamed are the men and women telling them to keep quiet about their abuse, the ones that need locking away are the rapists.