Rita Onwurah: I’ve always been fascinated with film and wanted to be a screenwriter.
9jafeminista: How did you chase this dream down? It couldn’t have been easy.
Rita Onwurah: I had heard about Emem Isong from 2002/03 and had been a part of one of her productions then. So I’d always wanted to meet her, but then, she was out of the country so I couldn’t meet her. Fast-forward to 2004 and I finally got to meet her through my friend Uduak who happens to be her sister. So when I met her and told her I was interested in writing for film. She said she’ll call me up when something comes up. But then I had to travel for NYSC and then came back to work for Farafina, I was there for 4yrs. Then I quit and decided to face screenwriting fully. The opportunity came when Emem needed to shoot a movie and needed a story. I had a story Id been working on, I presented it to her and the rest, like they say, is history
9jafeminista: Would you say your gender has in any way affected your rise in the industry?
Rita: I don’t think it has. I’m good at what I do and I get referrals because I’m good at my job.
9jafeminista: We know that Nollywood has taken a lot of flak for badly written, badly acted movies, and I know you’re one of the few who have worked at writing world class films. In which ways have you tried to change things from the way they are?
Rita: I guess everyone tries in their own little way. The genesis of every film is a story/ script, the story telling is important and it falls on the screenwriter to make a good story happen.
9jafeminista: From what you said earlier women helped you gain traction in the movie industry so what do you think of this narrative that women are usually jealous of one another?
Rita: Well I wouldn’t term it as exclusive though. If there are women jealous of each other, there are women supporting each other, in my journey in Nollywood, women have been most helpful and supportive
9jafeminista: In what ways have you been instrumental in helping other women?
Rita: Well I give advice to upcoming female screenwriters who are starting out in the industry. Sometimes, I refer them to producers who are looking for scripts and my hands are full. I do recommendations for them as well. The sky is big enough one can’t feel threatened by the presence of another writer. There’ll always be demand for content and truth be told, no one person can meet them all.
9jafeminista: You’re young intelligent, hip and pushing frontiers in nollywood with your skills. Would you say you’re also a feminist?
Rita: I don’t like being typecast. I’m not struggling for a man’s position with him.
9jafeminista: What’s a man’s position?
Rita: I just want to be respected for who I am & what I can do.
9jafeminista: We know that … But what’s a man’s position?
Rita: Maybe I didn’t phrase it correctly. Let the men do them. And let us women do us.
9jafeminista: What do men do? what do women do?
Rita: All that ‘weaker’ sex thing is annoying. Let me be respected for what I can do. Not necessarily my gender
9jafeminista: You do understand gender stereotypes though … Men change tyres, can’t cook, don’t cry kind of thing…
Rita: That gender matter can be very restrictive sometimes and annoying. If a woman can do it, by all means let her. Don’t say she’s a woman therefore she can’t
9jafeminista: Do you in any way challenge these stereotypes in your writing or you’re letting things be?
Rita: I challenge them. But I do it wisely. There are ways one can pass the message across without awakening the ire of people
9jafeminista: Can you give me an example of how you negotiate gender norms in your writing?
Rita: In most male written scripts in Nigeria, there’s a certain stereotype thats given to a woman. She’s either dumb, a gold digger, indecisive, weak…I like to write my female characters as human but strong. She’s the strong mother, the hustling wife, the corporate exec calling shots in the office. Even if she’s in a position of weakness, she’s still strong. Not easily bossed around, can hold her own
9jafeminista: So in a quiet way you’ve been changing things and perspectives. What are your sentiments about mass produced videos that seem to follow the same pattern … Of justifying the abuse of women, women as witches and bitches, stigmatization of women who don’t have children… These are recurrent themes in Nollywood and from all indications it seems that things won’t change anytime soon
Rita: I’m not a fan of those things at all. These guys have no idea about the power of the media, and how they’re feeding a stereotype. For them, the average Nigerian woman is a witch, a bitch or a prostitute and that’s so wrong. Those mass production guys don’t care about the message they’re passing. For them, it’s all about the money. But I’ll take Achebe’s advice when he said “If you do not like the story that is told, write your own.” So I’ll continue to write and eventually produce scripts and stories that edify women and not vilify them.
For going on to two weeks now, we have watched happily as discussions about feminism took over the Nigerian cyberspace.
There have always been periods on both Twitter and Facebook that people trolled feminists. A lot of memes are used in these attacks and most of them play up the same old narratives of feminists being angry, sexually frustrated women, bitter people who have most likely failed in their marriages and other relationships and are trying to ‘recruit’ other women to join them.
According to Naija cyberspace feminists are most likely pretending to be lesbians and forever single ladies who will probably never have children in their lives. As per the few Nigerian men who ‘claim’ to be feminists, it’s likely they are ‘biologicaly modified’ (frankly our understanding of English is not that deep so we won’t be able to translate what biologically modified means).
Now to the reasons why you should never be a feminist
You won’t find husband: We know you’ve heard this over and over and over and over again that any woman who is a feminist is not likely to find ‘husband’. Well, the Nigerian pundits of what feminism means are correct. There is no way a man who considers himself husband material will want to marry you, not because of any other reason but because they’ll be too intimidated to try… but you will definitely find a partner. Someone who loves you not because of your cooking skills, or because you tolerate abuse, or because you don’t mind being cheated on or because you fear them. You will find a helpmeet someone who will support your career choices, split household chores with you, cheer you on when you need it most. You will find your best friend, because every woman who has found herself will always find love.
A lot of people will not like you: Another truth! There’s no getting round this shit, a lot of people will not like you, and the only reason you will mind is because you are still seeking validation. As long as you want strangers who can in no way support you when you need help the most to ‘like’ and ‘validate’ you, you will make a miserable feminist, so don’t even bother. But if you are ready to embark on a journey of adventure and self-discovery, when you’re ready to live life on your own terms, by your own rules, long as you are determined to be your own person, then you won’t need anybody to ‘like’ you. In fact it’s likely you’ll lose a lot of friends, but at the end of the day you’ll find a supportive group of people who are accepting of who you are. People who know they are not perfect, real human beings who are ready to be there for you in real, tangible terms, the funniest part of it is that, see all those people who don’t like you? They respect you.
You will be seen as an angry woman not a lady: There is no getting round this, feminists are angry! They are angry with the way things are and they are angry enough to want things to change. Feminists rant on twitter, they rant on Facebook, they blog continuously, go on air and talk till they are blue in the face. They will keep talking until the world listens and understands why we need equality in all spheres of human endeavor. No matter how reserved you are people will troll you, they will push you, they will do everything in their power to drag you down because you are seen as an enemy. More importantly you will be angry at the kind of grammar that will be used to insult you. For fuck’s sake can’t they simply write in their local language or even pidgin English? All these languages are perfectly acceptable. We suspect at 9jafeminista that these people speak really bad English to befuddle you and make you question why Nigeria had to adopt English as an official language when Hausa, or Ibiobio will do as well. The good news is that you will be angrily happy as you see that things are changing, that more people are coming to realize how harmful the patriarchy is. Your grammar will also (hopefully) improve because you might have to use the dictionary often to figure out the fuck they’re on about.
You might be called a lesbian: Let’s be candid, all these narratives are overused and dried out, however, due to the fact that we are an intolerant lot in Nigeria, calling a woman a lesbian is a real scary shit and a big deal. But not all Nigerian lesbians are feminists and not all feminists are lesbians. Some are bisexual, heterosexual, transgender, some are even asexual. Some lesbians support the patriarchy, just as some heterosexual, bisexual, transgender women are supportive of the patriarchal system, either because they do not know any better, or because they benefit from the patriarchy. Beyond this, if you are scared of being labelled something you are not, or you’re afraid of some people, then you are not ready to be free from the prejudices of other people. Long as you allow some people to threaten you with hellfire and brimstone (We can assure you they will and they do not have the keys of the gates of heaven or hell) then you might as well not bother.
You will not be able to join the illuminati: Sorry we have to break this to you, but joining the feminist movement will not automatically confer on you the grand opportunity of joining the illuminati. Let’s be candid, who wouldn’t want to join a group that is all powerful and gives you everything you want (according to Nigerians). The Illuminati (according to Pentecostal Christians and Nigerian cyber bullies) are a powerful group of people who are beautiful and wonderful and rich (money is important to us as Nigerians). In spite of their protestations a lot of Nigerians want to join the Illuminati, I’m sure they are thinking, in their usual oxyMORONIC fashion that they can join the illuminati, become rich and then go and confess their sins to Jesus and he will forgive all their ‘sins’ and therefore they won’t go to hell(since all illuminatis have pledged their souls to the devil). Unfortunately my feminist wanna-be, things don’t work out like that o. You are not going to join any group, you’re mostly on your own, a one-man-army, a loose cannon. You might, of course get to build a system of men and women who will give you tips, send you links, teach you, mentor you… but … it’s mostly a journey to self-discovery, self-affirmation and fulfillment.
Kola is a feminist married to a feminist (don’t have a heart attack neither of them is transsexual) a teacher, father and a firm believer in diversity. He’s a culture advocate who is gradually working his way into becoming one of the foremost authorities on the propagation of Yoruba Language. 9jafeminista caught up with him on Facebook post election and we decided to have a chat with him.
9jafeminista: You’re a writer, a teacher, a husband, a father, editor of a couple of online magazines, you recently ran a successful fundraiser online and launched Yoruba names dictionary… Where do you find the energy to combine all these and quite successfully too?
Kola Tubosun: Hmm, When you list them like that, it sounds like a huge deal. In actual fact, most of what I do are regimented. I work in the school from 8am to 4pm. I try but am often unable to do much else during that period. But miracles happen. Then I have some time usually between 4pm and 7pm to follow up on other personal commitments. It got overwhelming at some point, so I had to re-strategize at the beginning of the year. I recently hung up my pen as the editor of the NTLitMag but I know that it hasn’t fully excused me from other responsibilities on that publication, and to writing in general. Good planning, sleeping, and exercising, help.
9jafeminista: When Nlitmag was launched I felt it was an ambitious project in a Nigeria that was really on a large scale, indifferent to the arts generally. Would you say a lot of things have changed since those days?
Kola Tubosun: Well, the magazine was carved out of NigeriansTalk itself as a way to showcase literature from the usually unheard voices and perspectives in Nigeria and around the continent. It wasn’t meant to be “large scale” as such, or anything, but merely a platform to let deserving voices be heard on a monthly basis. We have achieved that aim over the two plus years that we ran it, reaching thousands of readers and writers. Now it needs a new leadership and a new direction and I look forward to seeing where else it can go.
9jafeminista: Although you’ve tried to downplay how hard you work and the way you manage to deploy your different talents effectively. I’m curious about your latest baby… The Yoruba names dictionary. How did you birth the idea, why do you think it is important that we have that kind of website now, how relevant is it in today’s village we still erroneously consider a world?
Kola Tubosun: When I think about it – and I have done that quite often these days – the idea has always been there. My father always said that there are no stupid questions, so my memory of growing up around him throws up several instances of my restless curiosity about words, names, events etc. He patiently explained them to me, and I’ve retained a lot of those imparted knowledge. However, at adulthood, I realize how much of the information held by adults will disappear with their demise, and how much we’d have lost by buying into a “globalized” culture that celebrates monolingualism (and monoculturalism) at the expense of our own language and cultural experience. This I find totally unacceptable, And when I realized that I have in my power to change things, I also realized how late it seems and how much earlier I (and many more people with similar skills and motivations) should have been on this. To be fair, many have (See Tunde Adegbola, Francis Egbokhare, Ron Schaefer, Tunde Kelani, Akinwumi Ishola, etc), but note that they’re all adults. Where is the new breed? Where are the leaders to take the mantle into the new generation?
So, to answer your question specifically, this Yoruba Dictionary of Names started as an undergraduate project while I was in the final year at the University of Ibadan in 2005. But it is an extension of a number of years of looking for something like this. They say if you look for something and you can’t find it. Create it. In 2015, ten years later, I finally found enough people to make it happen as I’d want it.
And to your final question: how relevant will it be? Let me answer this in a minimalist way, and say that even if all the dictionary does is provide a way for ME to be able to find the meaning of any Yoruba name that I want whenever I want it, and for my son’s benefit as well, I will have succeeded. However, I assume that it will have the same (or more) benefit for a lot more people in the world, and that is an added benefit.
9jafeminista: Well you’ve made your point about how globalisation appears to be snuffing out diversity. Could you talk a bit more about that?
Kola Tubosun: As per globalisation, this is – just as the name implies – a global problem. The problem is in a false belief in the acceptance of ONE culture and language as the panacea to the problem of global distrust and misunderstanding. That if we all speak English (or that we all do anyway), we won’t have as much problems in the world. People who make that argument however don’t say yes when you substitute “English” in this case for, let’s say, “Hausa” or “German”. I think it’s fueled by a kind of laziness (or to be charitable, “conservatism” – a belief that things are already how they are. Why change?). The end result is the extinction of thousands of languages and, along with them, cultures and worldviews that could only have added to us.
On the one hand, the predominance of English is there to help communication and global interaction. Nothing is wrong with that. But the attendant consequence of discounting our own languages (or feeling ashamed about them) is the drawback. Go around Nigeria today and find out how many parents still speak their language to their children. Then find out why. You’ll be ashamed.
9jafeminista: Let’s talk about Nigeria’ and her multifaceted problems mostly fueled by the patriarchy. I know you followed the recent elections that ushered Muhamad Buhari in as the president. The absence of women in our political space was emphasized by the only woman running for the presidency Remi Sonaiya … And we know how that went… How do you think we can address this problem?
Kola Tubosun: Nigeria’s experiment with civil rule is new, and so can be excused for dragging its feet on some of the crucial indices of progress. I’m buoyed by the fact that women have, even in our recent past, proven themselves capable of doing great things in the public space. I speak of Dora Akunyili, Oby Ezekwesili, Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, among many others. Ours is a patriarchal continent, for the most part, and it will take a while for our politics to reflect anything different from our centuries of socialization and conditioning.
9jafeminista: Half of the voters are women as at the last census… So why this tokenism? A kind of ‘just take and shut up’ thing successive governments have done. The way lip service is paid to “the female-gender” (whatever that is) and the past president’s boast of being a feminist… But we need more women in governance! Were can’t keep using our ‘young’ civil rule as an excuse
Kola Tubosun: You’re right, and I think more women should vie for positions of power. But I don’t think that we want women to be voted in JUST because they’re women either. I preferred Obama in 2008 to Clinton, but only because I believed him to be more capable. If the US election today is between Elizabeth Warren and anyone else, I’ll choose Warren. Also, because she’s put herself out there, and because she’s capable. We have many capable women in Nigeria, but where are they in the public space?
9jafeminista: Doesn’t this take us back to the question of patriarchy? Especially when you think about godfatherism in our political space and glass ceilings preventing women from achieving their true potential
Kola Tubosun: True. And we’re not alone. I find it interesting, for instance, that it has taken America this long to even consider a woman for that top position, in the number of centuries they’ve had presidents. Talk about institutional patriarchy! We at least had a woman presidential candidate just 16 years into our new democratic experience. It’s not perfect, what we have. Actually, it’s terrible, considering the number of strong women we’ve had in our history, from Madam Tinubu to Mrs. Funmilayo Kuti. But I believe that the problem is a societal one. Our government is a representative of who we are. It’s like a chicken and egg situation. Writers are already doing their part. Artists should follow. And we as a people should stop encouraging Nollywood movies that cast women as helpless, hapless, creatures when they are not being cast as witches or husband thieves. We should begin to tell their stories as strong agents of positive change in the world. Things won’t change if we merely expect it to.
You know, it was just last week that I was reading this piece that lampoons writers for usually failing to fully acknowledge in public the help that a stable spouse provides. I thought about how true it is. We’d rather tell the world how hardworking we are, and how much we suffered before we made it big, forgetting how much harder (if not impossible) it would have been without someone there in a capacity of a trusted companion. Why is this? Because we consider ourselves failures if we had to depend on others? Because a man can’t admit that his wife earns as much (or more) than he does, and still retain his manhood? Because admitting such as a woman amounts to betraying feminism? None of it is true, of course, but contemporary society tells us otherwise.
I am a Nigerian, the father of a one year old. I live in Lagos, in an area conducive to a contemplative temperament, close enough to my workplace, and close enough to the venues of artistic contemplation that I’ve spent a number of years pursuing. I work as a schoolteacher of English (and coordinator of a number of literary-related activities), and in my other free time as a linguist, and founder of a translation company/community. But more than these, I am the husband of a working woman, a feminist, who also doubles as the mother of our child and a co-breadwinner in the house. None of these things work at cross-purposes with the other.
The word “feminist” has been, from the time I encountered it in the eighties, loaded with a kind of fault: “Oh those bra-burning women revolutionaries in the West trying to become like men”. That is a paraphrasing of something I may have heard from my father once. But he’s not peculiar. Men of his generation grew up with a different idea about what women should be and what their role should be in the society. But not just the men. Women too. My mother might swear to you that she’s not a feminist, but it would be a cold day in hell before you walk over her just because you’re a man. And almost singlehandedly, she brought up the six of us sometimes without help, and in spite of a sometimes conscious non-cooperation by her spouse.
What I was thinking about when gathering thoughts about this piece is how in today’s world the tag has become even more toxic. And a friend would consider himself showing concern by asking you “I hope your wife is not one of those who call themselves feminists…” I’ve heard educated women call themselves “womanists” as well, as a way of escaping the negative tag that “feminism” supposedly carries. “I believe in women’s rights”, they say, “but I’m not a feminist” The way it seems then is that the difference between a woman (who, as one might expect, doesn’t believe in being relegated in society to any secondary role) and a feminist (who actively fights to secure that commitment from society) is the difference between a writer and a novelist. A writer enjoys the vocation, occasionally makes money from writing, while a novelist is committed to a cause in a particular direction. S/he writes novels, accepts the specific tag of “novelist” and defends the role of the genre against all others when called to do so. Most people seem content to be called “writers” than be called “novelists”. One requires not just effort, but a concrete proof of belonging to the class.
In the book “Fela: This Bitch of a Life” by Carlos Moore, there was a chapter where the author interviewed Fela Kuti’s first wife – a half British, half-Nigerian woman who lived with him lovingly through all his infidelities and sexual flamboyance. Asked about Fela’s authoritarian behaviour, she responds that “that’s how a husband should be.” She continues “I don’t believe in women’s lib at all. I mean I don’t believe a man should tell me I’m lower than him, but I don’t believe in me going to drive a bus. That’s left to a man, you know. Just that type of thing. These women in Europe, I don’t agree with at all.” (Kindle Location 2300). She was making a point about gender roles, but inadvertently about feminism that has insisted that women should be able to do whatever they want to do. She however wrongly assumed that it says that they should be mandated to do it.
My feminist wife isn’t interested in driving a bus either, and her feminism hasn’t kicked me out of the house, or deflated my balls just as my work and vocation hasn’t reduced her feminity or levels of estrogen. However, it has created an environment to bring up a young man with a different attitude to life than our parents afforded us: a world in which men and women can achieve their best selves at home, at work, and in the society without hindrance, and without obeisance to rules that have their roots in prejudice and fear rather than in fact. My daughter will be able to pay for her own meal even on a date without feeling taken advantage of. And my son will be able to make meals in the house, for his family, if he wants to (and if he’s as good a cook as his father) without feeling any shame.
I’m a feminist too, because I believe that a strong and fulfilled woman is as much an asset to the family as a strong and fulfilled man. I won’t have it any other way.
From the Editor’s Desk: When this article appeared in our mailbox in January, we were, to say the least, surprised. Not because of the content (since 9jafeminista is an advocacy platform for equality, in all its ramifications) but because of the young lady who sent in the article. She is a very religious person, who does not believe in labels and believes that feminism is an ‘f’ word.
Her article below examines one of the many ways in which inequalities prevail in the Nigerian Society especially as it applies to women’s sexuality.
I feel the need to first point out that this is not a ‘feminist induced rant’. If we were in the 1920’s or 1930’s, this caption would have earned me a resounding slap from all and sundry. But nowadays parents have more to worry about than their daughters’ hymen or lack of.
I’m sure all the holy books preach against pre-marital sex and gone are the days when a groom’s family would return a full box of matches to the bride’s family the morning after the consummation of marriage as a sign of the bride’s virtue. Woe betides any girl that was found ‘incomplete’.
Back to the present day, sex has been totally demystified (which is a huge problem for me). Everyone is totally doing it. We can blame pop culture, MTV Base, Iggy Azalea and even Canada, but it’s what it is. Children who have been cloistered often tend to run wild when finally let loose.
I believe that it’s a precious gift women offer to the man they truly love and possibly want to spend the rest of their lives with but is that truly what we’re worth? Why should my entire worth be determined by a membrane? I could be top of my class, my net worth could be in the range of 6 figures or even find a cure for cancer and all this would not matter because of the absence of THE membrane.
It’s almost laughable how hypocritical our society is. Like the girls who lost their virginity, did they have sex with themselves? Why aren’t men subjected to the same standards as women? Because their own no dey read meter abi?
I would love to see a society where a woman is accepted for who she is, what her accomplishments are rather than something as base as a hymen.
From the Editor: In an article titled The Case for Legal Abortion in Nigeria, Temi Giwa presented facts, figures, and strong reasons for legalizing abortion in Nigeria. One of the reasons she presented is that in spite of the fact that abortions are illegal in Nigeria, over 500,000 abortions are carried out annually. This figure was presented by Dr Obasanjo-Bello, the chairman of the Nigerian Senate Committee on health, but The Guttmacher Institute claims that the figure is higher, conservatively putting it at 610,000 abortions per year.
In this same article, Temi Giwa said that 142,000 women are treated for complications arising from abortions every year.
In 2013, women advocates all over Nigeria, jubilated when the Imo State Governor, Rochas Okorocha, signed into law a bill titled “Imo State Law of Nigeria Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) law No. 12”. on the surface this law prohibited all forms of violence, but embedded within it was a proviso authorizing abortion on demand.
There was an outcry from ‘Christians’ within the state, who have always promoted ‘abstinence’ and ‘morals’ as a way of curbing pregnancies outside of wedlock and within a few days the governor asked the State’s House of Assembly to repeal the law.
Our contributor, who wishes to remain anonymous, talks about her experience, her abortion.
Read on :-
I was pregnant, I was in my early twenties. I was broke.
The father? He’s not important in this story because this is the story of a foetus and I.
A young Nigerian girl of my age was supposed to be a virgin, the soul of purity. While you were growing up your first introduction to your yearnings for someone’s touch, for sex, was shame, you were NOT supposed to have those feelings, wanting to have sex was a thing of shame. So you rightly learn to associate sex with shame.
You were raised to be asexual, to be a sex object, desired by men. Men decide whether you are desirable or not, they decide your worth as a woman. The prettier you are, the higher the pedestal you are placed on. The prettier you are, the more unavailable you are, the more men want you.
As an object you have no right to feelings, you are supposed to meet one man, preferably the type described in Mills and Boons stories – the tall, dark, handsome and of course, rich man. You are supposed to FALL in LOVE with this man, the man is supposed to rescue you from a potential life of loneliness, of permanent singlehood and marry you.
You are NOT supposed to have sex. Even in the dark of the night when loneliness grips you and you instinctively reach out to feel a body next to you.
Your vagina is to be kept clean AT ALL TIMES, even if it means cleaning it with lime. You are not supposed to get wet at the mere sight of the object of your desire. The only time you are expected to have any kind of feeling is when a MAN, preferably your husband, is there beside you, when He wants to put his penis inside of you. Getting that dampness between your thighs is a SIN a mortal sin which is equal to DEATH.
So I broke all these taboos and slept with a man, who was not my HUSBAND. Not only did I become a slut, I also became pregnant!
Pregnancy is another thing entirely. Not only is it illegal in Nigeria, it is also considered a form of punishment by the society.
You’ve been a bad girl, you deserve to be pregnant, you deserve to have babies you cannot care for. You deserve to have your life ruined.
Women are bred to be carriers of babies. They are supposed to be receptacles of a man’s sperm. In biology classes, when you are being taught, along with about thirty other girls, about your body. You are taught about your REPRODUCTIVE organs. They are not called pleasure organs, these organs are supposed to be strictly for reproduction! Your breasts, nipples, vulva, your fallopian tubes… Nobody tells you about your nipples, the way they rise to attention when touched or kissed. Nobody ever mentions that the clitoris is the ultimate orgasm giver.
Even when the sexual act is being described, the biology teacher talks about how a man’s penis will rise, how he will ejaculate his spermatozoa into your tract so that those little devils can swim up to your eggs. The lecture is delivered in a voice that implies that this act is shameful, something to be done with a man in the dark recesses of the night, preferably under bedclothes, with your eyes averted in shame.
The man, ejaculates, the woman is laid out flat and bears it. You’re not supposed to enjoy sex, you’re not supposed to have orgasms.
And you daren’t ask your parents about sex! You’ll probably earn yourself a couple of slaps and lectures on how you should stay a virgin until marriage, because virgins are more valuable than non-virgins in the marriage market. You’re a thing, an object. You’ve been objectified from the moment the doctor looked between your thighs, spotted your vagina and announced to the world ‘it’s a girl!’
So there I was with this foetus inside me and the knowledge that I don’t want this foetus turning into a child, I cannot afford to have the foetus grow into a child because I can barely afford to feed myself. Do I actually want children?
I can hear some women saying stuff like, so why did you open your legs when you knew you weren’t ready? Like the Yoruba will say, “why did you r’edi (why did you do the grind) when you’re not ready.” The next question is ‘why didn’t you use a condom?’ but … nobody told you about condoms in those days, condoms are dirty. Good girls don’t carry condoms around, good girls don’t enter a pharmacy or a supermarket and looks into the eyes of the sales person and say ‘I want to buy a condom’ in those days. So you panic! Who would you tell? You daren’t tell your mother because you know she’d first strip you off with her tongue or any handy broom or stick – she might insist you have the baby, to ‘punish’ you.
So you start putting out feelers.
There’s always somebody who knows ‘somebody’ who’s had an abortion before. These people are without names or faces, because abortions are shameful things, abortions are like STDs … nobody ever admits to having one.
Then one of your friends comes to you with a slip of paper. On it is an address and the amount of money you need for the abortion. Not a single word is exchanged, not even a ‘thank you’ because you’re doing this to help out a friend in need, you are a good girl, good girls don’t get pregnant ‘outside of wedlock’.
The ‘doctor’ is a young man. He lives in a dingy building, there’s no light in this building. The doctor takes you into a semi-darkened room. He first asks for his money, after you give it to him and he counts it, he asks you the last time you’d ‘seen’ your period.
You tell him.
He asks if you’re absolutely sure because he needs to know the ‘exact’ date, so he can determine the ‘exact’ month of the baby.
He talks in a dead voice, a voice devoid of emotions. You’re a stupid girl who got pregnant.
You think about the last time you’d seen your period. You think about the fact that the ‘doctor’ was giving you some peculiar looks. You look straight back at him and say ‘yes I’m sure’ all the while wondering if you can trust him not to kill you.
You arrive at the conclusion that it will be a win-win situation, he kills you, you’re dead, who cares? You won’t be here to be shamed (yes, I was depressed, suicidal even).
Then you remember horror stories of girls who got infected and had their wombs removed, girls who can never have children again – another win-win … (I didn’t examine that feeling too closely).
He asks you again about your last period.
Yes, you’re sure that was your last period.
Then you remember HIV. You make a mental note to go for the test… but first things first…
The young man takes you to an even darker, dank room, the odour of something you can’t place your finger on, teasing your nose. He asks you to take off your jeans and panties, no don’t take off your t-shirt.
He asks you to lay on a long wooden table after laying a filthy, green wrapper on it. He asks you to lie on it, and spread your legs.
As you look into his immobile face and spread your legs, the self-hate nearly chokes you. Maybe it’s even better you die.
He spent some time mining for gold as he waited patiently for you to spread them wide enough. He palpates your stomach.
He’s not even fucking wearing gloves! You die inside, tears of humiliation, of shame roll down your face.
The tears stop as you feel something cold slide inside your vagina.
Please don’t make noise o! You don’t want the neighbours hearing you, he says as you feel something tearing your insides apart.
You open your mouth but nothing comes out. The pain is beyond anything you’ve ever felt before. It tears you apart. The pain goes on and on.
Don’t close your legs. His voice pierces your pain. Your head is bursting, you are sure you would die, you know this pain will kill you.
The pain goes on and on and on…
The pain is worse than closing a door on your index finger, worse than slicing your thumb with a sharp knife, worse than somebody punching you in the face…
At some point you must have fainted because the next time you open your eyes, he was standing in front of a basin you hadn’t noticed when you first entered the room, he was washing his hands. He was washing blood off his hands, your blood.
He asks if you brought a pad. You shake your head numbly, it threatened to blow apart, so you stop shaking it.
He pulls an old toilet roll out of a drawer. He asks you to get dressed, he gives you the toilet roll, take as much as you want, he added generously.
You touch yourself, the blood is still gushing.
The bleeding will stop, please get up, you have to leave now. He unceremoniously pulls you off the table.
The pain clutched at your stomach as you tried to straighten up. But you refuse to make a sound, you absorb the pain, the pain is your punishment.
You unfold the toilet paper and roll it up, inserted the makeshift pad between your thighs. You pull on your underpants your trousers.
He gives you some pills and asks you to take them … when you get home.
You can’t remember how you left that dark space, you walk in a haze of pain. You board a taxi to your house. You half crawled into your room, on to your bed.
You find some water, swallow the pills, was about to roll back into bed when you realise your clothes are soaked with blood. Your blue jeans were now dark red, the edge of your yellow t-shirt spotting a thin line of red.
You pull off your clothes, half-crawled to your bathroom, pour water on yourself while leaning against the bathroom wall. You are crying, but nobody hears you. Nobody cares. You brought this on yourself, this pain.
Editor’s Note: Recently the rumor that the erstwhile Governor of the CBN now Emir of Kano – Sanusi Lamido Sanusi – made headlines across Cybersphere, with much argument about whether it is right for a fifty something years old man had the right to marry a 17year old girl … as his fourth wife.
Our opinion? Should this be up for discussion in 2014, should it be even conceivable? What about the girl? Her dreams, hopes and aspirations, isn’t she supposed to have any? Shouldn’t she be the one deciding who she wants to marry and not forced to marry for economic reasons? But … we held our peace because Nigerian cybersphere cannot be totally relied on.
The truth is that just last year, a sitting senator, Ahmed Yerima, who caused a furore when he married a 13year old girl a few years ago and got away with it! Divorced his 17 year old Egyptian bride in order to marry … a fifteen years old girl.
Maryanne Kooda is a friend of the house, one of the online warriors pushing feminism and equality as the one thing that would save our country, Nigeria from the brink of the abyss it seems determined to plunge itself into.
We got in touch with her and asked that she be one of our contributors, she graciously acceded to our request only for us to discover that she had barely escaped being a child bride and ended up becoming a ‘baby carrying baby’.
In the mail accompanying her article she said something that was touching and revealing, “I wrote this yesterday in two hours, it practically wrote its self. As I read it today I burst into tears in the part where I wrote about giving up my dreams to be a lawyer … My sister told me not to share it one FB, but it’s my story and I am not ashamed of it…i am at peace with sharing the story on your blog, I feel compelled to tell this story, child marriages need to be talked about! Somebody has got to do the talking.”
Read MaryAnne’s story of how she triumphed against all odds to become an independent, thinking woman, with two children she’s so proud of.
So recently, my fifteen year old son and my nine year son where talking about my possible marriage to the man I had been dating for three years now.
“There are many fishes in the sea mama, you don’t have to marry him” the fifteen year old said.
Then his brother replied, “Why will a fish want to marry her?”
Gosh! That sent me reeling with laughter because it made so much more sense that it made me wonder who came up with that idiom.
You see, I grew up in the middle belt of Nigeria, where girls where raised to be wives and mothers. This is of course a generalization. There must be many women from the Middle-Belt who have successful careers and financial independence. But the reality I grew up with was that I was only as good as the man who offered to marry me. The richer he was the better.
As soon as I reached adolescence, it became a prerequisite that I am prepared to be married to the most affluent of suitors. Though now as an educated woman I cringe at the very idea of trying to marry off a child. Yet that is the reality of many children in the North and Middle-Belt of Nigeria.
This preparation for child marriage, particularly the way it is carried out in the Middle-Belt, involves some revolting and barbaric practices that I would rather not go through at the moment! I can’t bear to relive those experiences. Needless to say, by the time I was eighteen, I eventually met and married a man who has able to look after me, support my education and of course, my immediate and extended family.
The ironic thing about the marriage was that, it had nothing to do with parental or extended family pressure. By seventeen as soon as I was done with secondary school, I was sick to my stomach with the way I was pressurized to marry and support my family so I ran away from home. I found a job at a video club where I worked for a few months till another job offer came to work as a sales girl in a major super market in Abuja. I had these grand delusions of going to the University of Abuja, so I took my surprisingly good WEAC and JAMB results to the university to gain admittance but was just tossed around. I will never forget bursting into tears at the Gwagwalada bus stop as I got on the bus and headed back to my spot behind the large glass showcase of designer products that I was supposed to market.
It was there, behind that glass showcase that I met my husband. It was early in 1999, when I was disillusioned with life but still had some kind of vague hope that I would go to the university and study law. My dream was to be the “voice of the voiceless”, to stand up for the disadvantaged. There was no way of achieving my goals as my polygamous family was mired in petty jealousies and plain old wickedness. The saddest part of all is that my father was not even remotely poor, though he had other wives and children and my mother was not only fairly literate but a government worker. I had uncles and aunties living in the US. Yet not a single person cared to give me any sort of support or guidance.
Back then I was squatting in a boys-quarters in Asokoro and working at Legend of Abuja in Area 11. I was not there for very long when this man came up to me and asked me, “Can you tell me what pair of glasses would suit my face?” I looked up into his face, and his eyes caught me by surprise. There was an innocence that came through those eyes which I had not seen in most of the men that lecherously hounded me. His eyes told me, “My intentions are noble!”
Though I am usually a very poor judge of character, this one time I was right. I made the bold decision to marry at 18 for the simple fact that for the first time I felt safe with someone. For once I wasn’t a commodity to be traded to the highest bidder or a nubile belle to be seduced with lustful intentions. I was a person that was loved and respected. I must admit, it felt pretty darn good! The fact that he was rich actually did not occur to me at that time.
Well we should have lived happily ever after right! The damsel has finally been rescued by the knight in shining armor. I should be so lucky!
Two years into the marriage I became frustrated and unhappy. I felt trapped! I loved him because he provided for and protected me, and I hated him because he provided for and protected me. Don’t bother trying to understand it, I don’t myself. All I know is I felt like I was in a gilded cage. I pursued a degree part time in Public Administration in the Open University of Abuja. My dreams of becoming a Lawyer went out the window with the arrival of my first son when I was nineteen.
“Baby having baby,” that’s what other pregnant women called me when I went to antenatal care. I felt so ashamed, like I had done something wrong to be pregnant at that age, but it didn’t make any sense, I was raised for this, to marry and make babies there was nothing else that I knew. After the baby was born, just a year after we had been married I got restless. I wanted more out of life, the degree I was pursuing kept me busy and I had every conceivable comfort. I should have been happy, but I was miserable.
The crux of my problems lay in the fact that I did not feel any physical attraction to this wonderful man who had taken me into his arms and made me his wife. I was grateful! My God I was so grateful, but that is all there was. A deep sense of gratitude and even affection but there was absolutely no spark. For the first time in my short life I had the luxury to kick back and relax, to just enjoy being a wife and a mother but I was hounded by discontent.
So soon after I had my second child five years later, I started working for a newspaper, the pay was crap, but then it wasn’t about money but just giving myself a sense of achievement. The job was the beginning of the end of my marriage. As I researched, wrote articles and interviewed people, my discontent increased and I wanted more than anything to be with someone I had chemistry with. Someone with whom we could hold hands and look lovingly into each other eyes, someone with whom I would be with and never wish I was anywhere or with anyone else.
So I left the marriage. In 2008, I simply backed my bags and walked out on my marriage. With two small boys and a little savings I moved to Sri Lanka, my soon to be ex’s home country. Once again, I had even grander delusions of making it on my own. In a foreign country, with no friends or family ties, with no lucrative marketable skills or qualifications. All I knew is I wanted to be happy, I deserved to be happy. I had some vague ideas of teaching English, the research I did showed there was a demand for English teachers.
I should be delighted now right? I had walked out of an unhappy marriage and followed my heart to a beautiful remote Island country. I should be so lucky!
I was flooded with loneliness and the nightmarish reality that teachers simply don’t make enough money to have a decent quality of life. Unless they are supported by family or husbands, most female teachers in Sri Lanka can’t afford proper meals after covering rent and utilities.
So I am back to square one!
I will not bore you with all my efforts and sacrifices to make ends meet. Ok maybe I will, but in another article. For now all I can tell you is that I met another wonderful man, who held my hands in a very dark moment of my life, when I was battered by the stigma of divorce and the emotional and financial hardships of single parenting, or co-parenting as it is called these days,
He told me, “don’t ever let anyone look down on you and treat you badly”, I looked into his eyes and saw the same look, the innocence that spoke volumes, the light that shined through the window of his eyes that said, “my intentions are honorable”.
My loneliness was soothed; we had the incredible chemistry that I always desired. We had stimulating conversations, we travelled, we had dreams of a life time together. At last I should be happy, I have found my “one true love”, sparks are flying and the stars never seemed so bright! Everything should be wonderful now right? Wrong!
You see, after eight years of marriage to a man who met my every material need, and looked out for me almost like a father would after a child. I had to make some serious adjustments to my mindset in order to survive. Not every man suffers from rescue hero-complex.
Now, I had to be the independent woman I always dreamed to be, only I didn’t realize how darn hard it was to begin at 28yrs and with two children to build a life beyond poverty. Career options are limited here in Sri Lanka, if you are not a doctor, lawyer, engineer or accountant you had better have some family support or its curtains for you.
My present love interest is a complete opposite of my ex in every way conceivable, he is the man that my teenage son is rather reluctant I marry because he feels he is not as supportive as his own father is to his present wife, (and how supportive he once was to me).
Friends and family don’t help matters; I get reprimanded for being in love with a man who cannot support me financially. What’s worse is that now, it’s not just me, but I have two children too. Their father has never stopped being a superb provider, even after we divorced and he remarried, he never faltered even once in meeting the needs of our children. He hated me for leaving him, and still doesn’t speak to me, but he never alienated his children.
For that I am forever grateful, as I don’t have to be cornered into choosing a partner based on his willingness and ability to support me and my kids financially and emotionally. Though that is debatable!
Which is the whole point of this piece of writing; this feminism thing, e no easy oh! Not if you are living on minimum wage and have no family support. The poor woman’s version of feminism looks very different from women in more affluent positions. For us, love sometimes feels like a luxury we cannot afford. I can’t count the number of times when I am unable to meet my children’s need and then I find myself self-loathing because I walked out on a really good marriage on some whimsical pursuit of “true love” and financial independence.
Feminism for me has always being about independence and standing up for the rights of vulnerable women. Yet how to be independent on minimum wage and two children? How to speak for the vulnerable when I am part of the statistics?
Then to make things worse, I discovered that my nature is such that I crave a healthy relationship with a man who will make me his wife, not just date, or co-habitate, but take the tradition route of making me his life partner. Not because he wants to rescue me from hardship but because he needs me in his life as much as I need him.
My most naïve ideals was the belief that I could easily earn more than than minimum wage considering my qualifications and skill set, and that I would meet and marry a man who would meet my every emotional and even some financial needs.
The former is still achievable, I haven’t given up, and that’s why I launched my own company www.writestartinternational.com. The latter however, is quite clear will never happen. Reality has set in, and my hope is that by the time I am 38. 20 years from the time I ran into the arms of a knight in shining armor, I would become my own rescue hero. I would have reached a level of self love and self reliance that is just healthy enough to keep me open to the possibilities of a “happily ever after”, regardless of my status; married or single.
Must not be too bookish: …by the time you’re done with schooling, you’re in your early twenties! Already some men consider you overage, the ideal age for marriage, in Nigeria, is between ten and twelve … but … these days some Nigerian men have become more patient, they’d still manage you in your early twenties. The trouble starts when you decide you want a postgraduate degree! Do you know what that certificate is called? It is called a Master’s Degree! You want to marry and you go and be getting something called a MASTERS do you want to be struggling that masculine title with your husband? Well, some sisters now push things further and go for a doctorate! Let’s reason this thing together, first you get a BACHELORS (mannish), then you get a MASTERS (more mannish) then you get a DOCTORATE (most mannish). My sister, your wife material has just disintegrated! The men out there with a list in their pockets, looking for wife would have no problem with all these titles if there was a way of distinguishing all these bookish things and making them more feminine, for example if the Bachelor Degree was called a SPINSTER Degree, the Masters a MISTRESS and the Doctorate a NURSERATE … our advice? Never ever disclose your age to anybody, even if you have to go to Oluwole to get a fake birth certificate and secondly, do not be ambitious, even if you have all these degrees you have to pretend you have never crossed the gates of a school before, do not think … do not breathe! Just be A WIFE MATERIAL… Dass all!
Must be great in bed: Being great in bed is an art that must be mastered by all women who are keen to be wife materials (don’t worry a masters in bedmatics is alright). You have to be great in bed without being slutty or sexy (we’ve already defined being slutty in the first installment as enjoying sex). So you have to master all those porn star moves without enjoying them. All your moves are to be learnt in order to please the lord and master. The gymnastics are not for you, you must somehow learn all these things without having to practice (remember the ‘body count’ wahala), you need to get it by divine inspiration, because wife materials neither watch, nor read porn. You have to be great in bed without being great in bed so that your husband will not suspect you of cheating on him.
Must be Forgiving: Have you ever seen a poem written in honour of a woman who did not forgive her man before? No,
seriously, how many songs have you listened to sung by a man in honour of a woman who kicked out his drunken, cheating, wife-beating ass? How many times have you seen a man, all dressed up in his best suit, taking his ex out for dinner to thank her for ending her relationship with him? When you’re out and about, exchanging gossips with your friends, how many times have you heard somebody praise a woman who said ‘rather than give myself heartache/regular black eyes/ drag home a perpetual drunk, I’d stick with being alone’. You’ll note that most poets write for their mothers who ‘suffered’ to raise them, the operative word here is suffer. You’ll be a gem only if you had to sell firewood by the roadside to send your children to school, no child has ever written a poem for a single parent who has enough money to pay school fees, or enough left over to give her children the good life, only the suffering wife and mother gets all the eulogies. Therefore, for your wife material to be complete, you must, of necessity be forgiving and ready to suffer. You must always have an ‘I’ve forgiven you’ placard hidden somewhere about your person in case you need to forgive your man, at any point. Your man lied to you about his income? Forgive him. He’s just a man with a fragile ego, and it’s your fault for not noticing that he borrowed those Louboutins, and that the car he used to take you out on all those dates belonged to his older sister. Your man cheats on you regularly? Forgive him. Those ones are the side-chicks, you’re the main chick, you’ve won the lottery of cooking and caring for him, and when you get uncontrollably jealous, fight the side chicks, whip them well-well, cuss them out on Facebook, sub them on Twitter, but always, always forgive your man. After all how else can he prove his manhood except by dashing preek to every pretty girl(or boy) that passes by?
Must be the neck: The neck, is the most important part of the body … well, except that the head is more important. But to be a wife material, you cannot, must not, even consider the possibility of becoming the head … of anything! Why? Because your husband must be the head and you the neck, silly! You know that prayer they say in church, the one about being the ‘head and not the tail’ , the next time you’re in church or in any public space where prayers are (necessarily or unnecessarily) being offered up, just say, ‘I’m the neck and not the head’ at top volume and watch proposals pour in by the bucketful. The neck is the most important part of the body because it tells the head where to turn, except that the head contains the brain which gives the neck the direction it should go. Clear ehn? Leave the thinking to the head, remember you’re there for the cooking, the bearing of children, the satisfaction of celebrating your golden/silver/ diamond wedding anniversary and most importantly for those children to call you blessed. You do want to be that crumpled looking old woman, in that sepia picture, with that slightly sad smile on your face.
Must make sacrifices: Now this is very important for anybody seeking husband. To be wife material, you have to understand that men are ‘inherently selfish’, they can’t help it, it’s their nature, just as it’s in their nature not to cry. Real men shouldn’t be called to make sacrifices so that you don’t turn them into ‘women’. Your man thinks you’re too educated? Drop out of school. Your man thinks you’re dangerously earning more than he is? Resign from your job. You are the one who was made to be nailed to the cross, the sacrificial lamb. You must be ready to give up everything you are to satisfy ‘your man’, even if he’s a lot of other ladies’ man, remember, you are the ‘main chick’.
Must be prayerful: According to non-existent statistics Nigeria is the holiest nation on the face of the earth, everybody is either a Christian or a Muslim, anybody who is not a member of a church or a mosque is a member of the illuminati. Truth. So as a wife material you must be prayerful, there are so many books out there for women (yes you may read religious books but not any other immoral literature) with titles such as Praying Wives, Praying Mothers, Preying Mantis, sorry … Praying Church. You must be ready to lead preyer … sorry … prayers at the drop of a hat, especially when travelling by public transportation, in an office meeting, at book launchings etcetera. The longer and louder you can pray, the longer your wife material becomes. Be the first to volunteer to bring tea for the men whenever there’s an office meeting, even if you’re a manager, always have your writing pad ready whenever you’re to attend important meetings in case the secretary is not around. Make sure you type ‘amen’ under all those weird pictures on Facebook showing mutilated bodies, ‘like’ all posts that have prayers on them and says that anybody that likes the post will get all their prayers answered. Retweet every post by every demented preacher on twitter, especially ones titled ‘Letter to Jeel’.
Must be Certain: You must be absolutely convinced that we are all not equals, that men and women are not first and most importantly human beings, beings who are flawed and perfect at the same time. You must be certain that everybody with a pair of breasts and a vagina is a woman and everybody with a penis is a man. You must not question beliefs, you must not dare entertain the thought that single people can be deliriously happy, or that there are men out there who don’t have this list. You must be absolutely convinced that every person who is not ‘wife material’ will be miserable and only those who do live happily ever after. You must be sure of your generalizations and stereotyping… you must receive your 12yards of wife material this Christmas, by faya by force, IJN (type ‘Amen’ in the comments section to receive this impartation).
I have been wondering, asking myself a couple of questions these past days. The crux of my wanderings: what makes me a woman? When does one become a woman?
Is it when she is when she is conceived? When the X cells of the woman merges with the X of the man; and voila the new being becomes a blood clot, or something like that, with the potentials of becoming a being? If at that point something happens and she is not grown into full existence; accidental or planned, is she a human being? Is she a female human? Or is it when her Mum or whoever carried to full term gives birth to her? When the doctor looks between her thighs and layers of flaps covering a small hole and not a tiny stick, sees a vagina and not a penis, then declares that it’s a girl?
Then, she begins to grow. At a younger age, unaware of whether she is male or female. She wants to do things that everyone does; to climb the trees, to play the football, and also to tend to her doll. Sometimes, she does not care about the doll. When that happens, does it make her less female? Does it mean she can be for instance more male, a tomboy? This stage of potential, of inertia, of everything just lying there with the possibility to be molded or shrunk like the cursed tree; does it count?
Truly when does a girl become a woman? Is it at puberty, when she notices hair under her arms and on her vagina? When she sees all these changes that make her look more like her mother? When she wakes up and begin to notice that her breasts ache even as they grow? When they become magnetic force that pulls the men’s hands to it, to be groped, even when she does not want? When her butts seems to have an extra layer that shakes left and right, rolls up and down as she walks? Or is it when her panties are now so small that they are strapped between the middle line of the butts, like a catapult? Or when they become the objects of slaps from moving bike men? Or when their eyes follow its movements, left and right? Is it when her own mother says; don’t wear that cloth, don’t you know you are becoming a woman? Unsaid in that statement is the talk that she is a woman and being a woman brings responsibilities, like how your dress, and how it has the power to trigger an erection in a man?
Does she become a woman when the cramps below her belly prepare the way for her monthly flow? Shy drops initially, then daring enough, as sure as the day, as sure as every cycle? That blood that her mother calls menses. That blood that when she noticed it her mother said that “she has now become a woman, and that if any man touches her, she will get pregnant?” That blood that says so many things without speaking a word. That they say is a sign of fertility. That blood that when you see it, you are not so happy but you are happy to see it anyway. It is the guest that you don’t quite feel like seeing yet, you pound yam for it and cook the sweetest of vegetable, then serve ‘it’ in your best plates. That visitor is one that women have for a great part of their lives. My eleven year old cousin anticipating her period asked me: “for how long will it go on?” “For thirty years or more,” I replied. She exclaimed: “thirty what?” In fact, it is a marker for the way her life runs many ways. Pre-menstruation termed as the “non-reproductive” days; the menstrual days are the reproductive days, days when if she perchance has sex with a man, she may get pregnant; and then there is menopause, when she is dry, when the blood stops flowing. You know, I’ve been wondering, is she more womanly in any of these phases?
Wait a moment, I am beginning to think; is it when she starts to wear makeup? When she trades all her tennis shoes and slippers for high heels? When she makes hair that announces her arrival, making heads turn and men feel a bulge down there? Is that when she becomes a woman? When she makes something tick in them? Does that ticking affirm her womanhood? What is the difference between a lady and a woman? Between a lady and an African woman? Fela Anikulapo Kuti, famous Nigerian singer sings in Pidgin English:
If you call am woman, African woman no go gree, she go say: I be lady. She go say market woman na woman. She go say I be lady. She go say him equal to man. She go say him get power like man. She go say everything she do, him sef fit do. She go wan take cigar before anybody? She go wan make you open door for am. She go want make man wash plate for am for kitchen. She wan salute man, she go sit down for chair. She wan sit down for table before anybody. She wan take piece of meat before anybody. Call am for dance, she go dance lady dance. African woman go dance, she go dance the fire dance. She no him man na master. She go cook for am. She go do everything she says. But lady nor be so. Lady na master?
Is there a difference between a lady and a woman? Fela thinks there is. And it is not a function of age but a question of how the woman behaves, a social definition. A lady according to Fela is the one who does her things her own style, refusing to fit into the stereotypical cage that the society hewn for her. For the lady, the cage does not exist. But the woman, lives according to the societal codes already written for her by the society.
When does a woman become a woman? When she is first pierced by a steel rod called a penis, pain and pleasure so well mixed she cannot tell which she feels? At a time in history, that was a big deal. The woman’s blood or lack of it could cause a small war between two families or a bloody war between two communities. Is that when she becomes a woman? These days, it does not quite matter whether the man who deflowered her ends up as her husband. Does she become a “better” woman when it is her husband who broke the hymen? Better here means, preserved, pure, and other such terms that have to do with purity. Is it when she gets married and becomes a Mrs. Somebody … perhaps. It is at that time that she is the “found” rib that has been missing from birth returned to position, in the man’s rib cage. She trades off her father’s name for a ring and a new name; it does not matter if she does not like the sound, spelling or meaning of the name. Now, she has an appendage attached to her name, a dangling limb hanging from a severed socket. If she does not bear her husband’s name, she is not a complete woman, she is a woman who still holds on to her girlhood, her eyes at the back of her head casting glances at a past that should be forgotten. It is also marriage that makes the society think of her as responsible because she is taking care of a family.
So, tell me when does a woman become a woman? When she gives birth to a child and become Iya Lagbaja*, Mummy Tamedo*; when she becomes the mother of a child and is addressed by the name of her first child? When she starts attending Parents-Teachers’ meetings, when she starts cleaning up after the children or when she starts packing lunch boxes? Does she become a woman when she can attend to the needs of her children and husband at once yet unruffled? Is that when? Responsibility is a key characteristic of women; they are the burden bearers, the ones that carry the troubles of the world on their heads and drag theirs with their hands, that’s for those who remember to take theirs with them. Some others, just get weary with the burden on the head, and drop theirs along the way, is that what makes a woman, her sacrifices? Is womanhood about a life of sacrifices, when she gives up her own existence for her family? When she dies gradually so that she can nurse their dreams to life; becoming a womb for their dreams yet with no space for hers?
In some places, she is not even a woman until she has a boy, a son for her husband, to carry on his name, his legacy. Only then does her leg get fixed enough in her husband’s house, only then does she have any rights to any property. Girls are not children, they believe in such communities, they may be “issues,” with serious issues; they don’t even keep the family line going. In these climes, it’s only the birth of boys that make a woman a woman, that roots her legs in her husband’s family unswayable by whatever winds. Till then, she has one leg in, one leg out and the coming of another woman with a son, can automatically push her away, of her position as wife, and as woman.
When does she become a woman? When she is silent, just seen, not saying a word. When she is bent by the troubles of the world? When she says “thank you” even when she is hurt in her? When turns her ear the other way when her husband moans away with another woman? When she stays in a marriage “till death do us part” even if she is battered to that death? Is it when she gives her body to her husband totally, yielding herself to him, as a log in the hands of a carpenter? Or as the pot in the hands of the potter, being shaped, molded to the taste of the potter?
When does she become a woman? When the muscles around her eyes weaken? When the muscles around her womb lose strength, when the eggs return to where they came from? When her waist loses its shape after many children have passed through? When her voice trembles losing its alluring sound? Is it when her grandchildren gather around her, she–the mother hen, they–the chicks, and listen to stories trapped in a past, stories of a glorious past, that she only passed through but never passed through her? Now, the weight of her gait leans on a stick, her back is bent, bowed as she no longer has the strength to bear any more troubles. Her hairs starts to grey and soon start to drop, strand after strand, leaving a pore empty, never to be refilled. Is that when she is a woman? When all that is left in her eyes are faint glitters that never were?
Does she become a woman when the earth covers her up? When the grave is tagged “Mrs. Lagbaja; 1945-2000”? When her children show their respect for her by throwing up the biggest party in the world? There are numerous adverts in the papers, that she lived a glorious life, her face splashed all over, a smile photo-shopped on the image; there are words that would be missed sorely by a committee of friends. Is it when they say “Sun re o”? When they bid her to sleep well or eat what they eat in heaven, wherever that is? Tell me; is that when?
Or am I just rambling? Is the word “woman” overrated? An antithesis of man? Of everything that he is not, of all that she is? Of all that she can become, or of all that she may never be? Maybe there is more to a woman than the trapping of the word “woman,” that word so affiliated with “man.”
*Lagbaja and Tamedo: are Yoruba words for Anonymous.
In my city, Abuja, an NGO called the Society against Prostitution and Child Labour has been collaborating with the city’s Environmental Protection Board to round up any woman found on a sidewalk after dark and charge them with prostitution. There is rarely any evidence of sexual solicitation in these cases. The only evidence used being the women’s locations (out of the house) and dressing (a vastly subjective “indecent”). These women, usually between the ages of 18 and 30, are often extorted for money with authorities threatening to take them to court if they don’t pay a “fine” of N5,000. There are no opportunities for appeal and no protection from arrest. And this has been happening without comment for nearly two years.
In 2011, a young woman at Abia State University was assaulted by five men who broke into her dorm room and raped her for hours. The assailants recorded themselves perpetrating the act and uploaded the video to the internet. To date, none of those young men have served jail time.
In July, on a 12-hour road trip to my hometown in Eastern Nigeria, I watched four popular Nollywood movies. Each one depicted a scene of domestic violence – from a boyfriend slapping his girlfriend for “disrespecting” him, to a husband shouting abuses at a wife who dared to contradict him and a father hitting his daughter. And in every film the abuse was treated as normal – unremarked upon by any of the characters.
The British Council’s 2012 Gender in Nigeria report shows that these are more than isolated incidents. According to the report “Nigeria’s 80.2 million women and girls have significantly worse life chances than men, and their sisters in comparable societies. Violence compounds and reinforces this disadvantage and exclusion.”
My country has some of the highest rates of gender disparity in the world. Women earn less than men, are less educated, more likely to die in childbirth and are barely represented in positions of power and authority. Many of you might not think this is a problem, but research has shown that excluding women from economic, health, educational and political opportunities costs societies. Our security, growth and long-term welfare are seriously compromised and we doom ourselves to being a less productive, less healthy and ultimately less progressive society than we could be.
Women earn less than men – regardless of their educational qualifications. In Nigeria a woman with a Bachelor’s Degree can expect to earn the same as a man with a secondary school certificate and a woman with a secondary school certificate will earn the same as a man with no education at all. A woman can expect to be paid 20 to 50 percent less for doing the same work as her male counterpart. She can also expect a slower rate of promotion.
Part of this is because gender roles which place the bulk of housework, childrearing duties on women often lead women to choose lower-paying jobs that allow for more flexibility or are part-time. Women spend a much larger share of their time doing unpaid work in the form of informal household chores than men do. But a bigger part of this is gender bias. We have a widespread view that the proper place of a woman is at home under the dominance and care of a man (a husband, father or male relative). So women are not expected to work outside of the home unless there is a familial “need” for it. This is reflected in the Nigerian tax code which taxes men at a lower rate because they can be classified as “breadwinners.” Women with dependents cannot – even if they are the sole earners in their household.
When it comes to owning property and assets which can be used as collateral, such as land, women often face discriminatory inheritance practices which bar them from inheriting land or property from their parents. In many traditions inheritance is patrilineal – from father to son. So you have a situation where, “although women represent between 60% and 79% of Nigeria’s rural labour force, men are five times more likely to own land than women.” This affects women’s ability to access credit. Few banks will grant a business a loan without some form of collateral from the owner. However, even with collateral women have a harder time getting finance as men are twice more likely to get a bank loan than women.
One of the areas with the widest disparity for women in Nigeria is the access to health. Nigeria has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world. Let me repeat that: One of the highest rates of maternal mortality. In the world. Our maternal mortality rate means that 144 women die each day and one woman dies every 10 minutes from conditions associated with childbirth. As a woman I am more likely to die giving birth than being shot by a gun or killed in car accident. Childbirth in Nigeria is more dangerous to a woman than smoking or drinking alcohol.
Access to contraceptives and gynaecological care is appallingly poor and often actively discouraged. Our country currently spends 6.5% of its total budget on healthcare, which means that health facilities are often difficult to get to, poorly staffed and barely equipped. And because the major burden of payment for healthcare in Nigeria falls on the individual, the poorest women are the least likely to get proper care. In fact, the poorest women are six times more likely to die when they get sick than the richest women in Nigerian society.
There are also social barriers to women’s health. Many unmarried women worry that going to a gynaecologist or purchasing contraceptives – even when they have access to them – will signal that they are sexually active and expose them to derision and harassment. It is not uncommon for a woman buying a condom to be treated as if she were a moral pariah. Thus, many women leave the decision to use contraception to their partners and even more women’s first visit to a gynaecologist is when they are pregnant. The attitude of healthcare professionals is also a problem. Many doctors still treat their female patients with condescension – often minimising and ignoring their complaints. Nurses in Nigeria are notorious for their insensitivity and outright cruelty – particularly to female patients – making a visit to a hospital a generally unpleasant experience.
This has terrible implications for a woman’s health throughout her lifetime. Infrequent and poor-quality gynaecological exams mean that a woman could be struggling with health issues that she may not know about until they become acute enough to require emergency medical treatment. And since for many women, the decision to visit a doctor is not their own to make, it is not surprising that many women die from easily preventable conditions.
While rates of enrolment for girls has risen worldwide – in some countries there are more women in colleges and universities than men – the gender gap in sub-Saharan Africa, and Nigeria in particular, has stubbornly persisted.
Nigeria has more children of primary school age who are not going to school than any other country in the world and more than half that population are girls. Fewer girls than boys make the transition from primary to secondary education and even fewer from secondary to university level. Overall, more girls drop out of school than boys. Lack of access to education is costly, but for women, it can be deadly. Women with less education are more likely to have more children, increasing their risk of dying in childbirth. And their children are more likely to be malnourished and undereducated themselves.
The poor educational statistics are a direct result of the poor status of women in our society. Despite our claims to free universal basic education, going to school is not free. Most parents still have to pay school fees, as well as the costs of uniforms and books. For most households, school fees are the largest expense in a family’s budget – next to rent and feeding. And for a lot of families that money is better spent on male child who will bring better returns in terms of higher income and carrying a greater burden of parental care. Many families still believe that it is more important for a woman to marry than to have an education and so will withdraw their daughters from school at various levels once they feel they have had “enough”.
There is also a perception that schools are dangerous places for women – and that is not entirely wrong. Nigeria’s educational system still uses corporal punishment which often leads to excess and abuse for both boys and girls. But research has shows that girls from the poorest backgrounds suffer a disproportionate amount of the beatings and public humiliations that come with this system. Girls are often required to do more school chores like sweeping classrooms, fetching water and cleaning school grounds which can cut into their study time. Finally, there are the dangers of bullying and sexual harassment from teachers and older students that can cause many girls to drop out.
Violence against Women
The low status of women in Nigerian society is reinforced through violence and threats of violence. And the violence isn’t just physical. There is the verbal violence of harassment, bullying and intimidation. There is the sexual violence of rape and molestation and there is the “soft violence” of rumour-mongering, innuendo and insults.
The fear of all these things keeps women in their “place”. Many women curtail their social lives for fear of being labelled prostitutes and subject to physical and verbal harassment. Others limit their education and employment opportunities for fear of “overshadowing” their partners and being victims of physical violence. And many more circumscribe their personalities and desires in order to stay within narrow definitions of what makes a “good” woman.
Violence against women is a problem all over the world – regardless of education, status and location. According the UN’s 2010 report on Women in the World, most but not all of the physical, sexual and psychological violence experienced by women comes at the hands of family members, especially husbands, partners and fathers – and much of it is normalised. In Nigeria, statistics show that unmarried women between 15 and 35 are the most vulnerable to violence but this masks the fact that married women who experience violence within their homes are less likely to report it.
A high number of women in Nigeria believe it is acceptable for a man to beat a woman if she “disrespects” him. Acts such as speaking out of turn, taking decisions without permission, failing to submit to sexual advances and failing to perform household chores are all grounds for physical violence. And the question of rape is still a hotly contested issue where many regard it as a punishment for the bad behaviour of the victim.
There is also institutionalised violence against women where certain bodies are structured in such a way as to actively discriminate against women. Institutions such as the police, the judiciary, political offices and higher education where there are “entrenched cultures of impunity” for the perpetrators of rape and other violence, all work to harm women. For example, women are not allowed to post bail in Nigerian jails, law courts tend to favour men over women in domestic disputes and sexual harassment and rape is endemic in many schools and universities. Many men in positions of authority – especially in these institutions – regard opportunities to receive sexual favours from female subordinates as one of the privileges of their positions.
Soft violence against women is used to keep women out of patronage networks which disproportionally favour men. Women who try to break into these networks can find themselves the victims of whisper campaigns designed to destroy their reputations – and because the social consequences of a “bad” reputation are higher for women than men, many women simply opt out of the process.
The future of Nigeria
There are many reasons why despite our vast natural resources we continue to lag behind comparable countries but I think it ultimately comes down to one thing. Our society is deeply unequal. In fact, Nigeria is among the 30 most unequal countries in the world, particularly when it comes to income distribution. Yet, studies show that societies with greater gender equity have lower crime rates, fairer distribution of resources, and are healthier and more stable, in general. This is not an accident. Right now, Nigeria is like a runner trying to compete in a race while tying one leg to his back. We simply cannot progress as a country without the full and equal participation of women.
Our political system must be more accountable to women – they must take women’s issues of health, education, economics and violence more seriously. We have to begin by electing and appointing more women into positions of power. The lack of representation by women in political office (just 9%) is one of the reasons why our country has not allocated as much resources to sectors such as health and education that are key to our development.
And our social dynamics need to change. We cannot continue to accept violence against women in any form. We cannot continue to limit the opportunities of women and girls for our own comfort. For when we exclude women from participating fully in society, when we insist on narrowly defined roles for both genders, we are limiting ourselves to using only half of our resources, half of our creative spirit. Ultimately, when we work to hold women back, we are only holding back ourselves.