Undoubtedly, to some Nigerians “feminism” is a dirty word akin to any other four-word expletive. As a teenager, when I would proclaim myself a feminist, my mother would gasp in horror and glance around frantically in case anyone heard. She would say, “Don’t say that! You’ll never get married!” So based on my entirely two-dimensional understanding of Nigeria through the lens of a small group of hyper-conservative Igbo, middle-aged, science-orientated academics; the country was bound to be an extension of these same ideals.
This idea was not something I questioned until I moved here. Initially, a lot of my prejudices were confirmed by the snarky comments of uncles who sought my praise for simply setting foot in the kitchen. They were bolstered by learning about archaic customs from my village that women are forbidden to eat gizzard (try and stop me, biko!). They were crystallised by the expectant tones of people unwittingly enforcing restrictive gender roles and stereotypes.
But when I realised that the Nigeria my parents knew was so different to reality, it was only logical that these anti-feminist leanings might not be all that Nigerian. But we’ll discuss that in due time.
What is feminism?
But first, it behoves me to first consider what it is to be a feminist and what that means to me. Feminism is simply the support of women’s rights on the basis that we are all equal. Very simple. We should all be feminists according to this innocuous premise. But what isn’t so simple is the different schools of ideology that arise around it. The extent to which cultural practices are to be tolerated etc. In truth, the brand of feminism that people subscribe to will vary wildly from person to person as opinions are wont to be.
To me, feminism is equality of the sexes, though I emphasise the rejection of placing gender roles above personal interest. However, I do not think that men and women are identical; that is nonsensical. But nevertheless, they are alike in value, intellect and dignity. That’s the whole point. So it is madness to allow your gender to prescribe to such infinitesimal detail what you must do as a woman e.g. be a guardian of the home, be beautiful, sweet, unyielding and unthreatening. I think that there is nothing wrong with the substance of these gender roles such the enjoyment of hair, make-up, dressing nicely and flirting. I think everyone should do what makes them happy providing they do no harm to others.
My point has liberal roots; feminism stands on freedom. As a person, you should have the freedom to determine for yourself the values, goals and preferences you want to be motivated by. You should not just be a reflection of what someone else wants for you or a slave to tradition. I am not taking an anti-establishment position, rather arguing that your life should be a reflection of what works for you. For example, a married couple should adapt to what works for their lifestyles rather than doggedly adhering to old, obstructive ideas of men and women can and cannot do. Just for the record, I would have no problem being a housewife or paying for dinner on a date because that is works for us as a couple.
So I guess that is my brand. I am a liberal.
Labels and contextual feminism
I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine the other day where he questioned the need to label oneself a feminist. He argued that feminism means entirely different things in different contexts for example, how can a white woman understand the dual marginalisation of a black woman. That to walk under the same banner is confusing because their viewpoints would be so divergent. I see his point, certainly, feminism has a regional flavour. The daily challenges women face in different parts of the word are as different as the prohibition of work versus a wage gap between genders. Particularly when considering complex ideology, feminism is not a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all though philosophy. However, I would say that while the label itself is not a magic wand that bestows special status on the holder, it is useful as a quick and definitive term of reference like Christian, liberal or post-impressionist. Feminist simply throws up the idea that the bearer of the label values gender equality.
I’m a proponent of soft activism, be it against racial prejudice or injustice along gender lines. Certainly, the braver and bolder of us will stand up to become bastions of change like Martin Luther King, Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela. But I respect the transformative power of quieter individuals who through casual interactions with the people around them influence perception and challenge prejudice.
Check back on Friday 14th July 2017 for part two of this article!