Changing Faces of Feminism (Part Two)

Feminist in Nigeria

As I said earlier, it has taken a few years to get a clearer picture of feminism in in Nigeria. Nigeria is a simultaneously heterogeneous and homogenous society. Nigeria is made up of hundreds of ethnic groups, yet have relatively small numbers of immigrants from other countries.  Interestingly this has the effect of embracing indigenous cultural norms rather than western ones, despite the wholesale admiration of foreign imports. The community spirit goes beyond rural villages and permeates nearly all daily interactions. A colleague can tell you that you have gained weight, the same way an auntie would and not consider it an intrusion.

And more pertinently, a bystander or new acquaintance can push their views on you as if it were a matter of fact. I inadvertently conducted a social study at work. I work in a pretty, Lagos high-rise populated by men in suits and women in high heels sporting Instagram levels of makeup. I am yet to evolve with the weather and stop sweating so the idea of wearing makeup on for it to roll in brown, finishing powder-dusted rivers down my face and neck while I am powerless to more than dab ineffectually is abhorrent to me. That and I’m lazy. Sometimes I want the polished look, sometimes I can’t be arsed. Most times I want to sleep as much as possible. Essentially, my stubbornness stemmed from me being obliged to do anything I don’t want to do, providing it was not required by my job.

So between my anti-makeup stance and natural hair, I caught a lot of flak at work. (Natural hair in Naij is the subject best kept for another day.) The most common complaint, of course, was, “But you’re a woman!” I remember one day I wore black trousers, a loose-fitting silk blouse, no earrings, no makeup and no heels. A busybody colleague nearly expired upon seeing me. Flustered and outraged, clutching at figurative pearls, she felt compelled to inform me that I am a woman and therefore must wear these things. I smiled tightly and politely and refused to engage with the comment. But funnily enough, the other young women at work started to take break days from the pancakery, realising that all the makeup and all the finery was a choice and not a gender-mandated imperative.

Gender roles have strong ties with culture, which gives rise to rejection. The idea of culture overruling sense is the greatest shame. Imagine highly educated people performing at the top of their professions still coming out to say, “Women who do not have sons should not speak too loudly” or “a woman cannot speak here”.  It’s almost as if complacency goes to the core of us. We know something is wrong but we continue on our paths undisturbed because we have accepted the cop-out idea that “This is Nigeria” or in this case, “It is our culture.”

Another issue of contention, particularly in Nigeria, is the idea that feminism is a threat to culture. I do not see that culture and feminism are incompatible, as respect and consideration are not incompatible with culture. Also, I would argue some cultural norms are phased out over time according to the needs and morals of the community and the time as culture is organic and ever changing. It would be natural for practices that are repugnant to natural justice to make an exit, such as the Igbo practice against female paternal inheritance. The Supreme Court case of Ukeje v Ukeje (2014) 11 NWLR (PT.1418) 384 invalidated that very custom on grounds of discrimination, marking a proud moment in Nigerian history.

And to those who consider feminism to be an attack on men perpetrated by bitter, lonely women, I would liken that to criticism faced by the #blacklivesmatter movement. It’s a matter of logic. (LNAT hats out, everyone!) Saying that black lives matter does not suggest that non-black lives do not matter, hence the ill-guided “all lives matter” rebuttal. It is merely an area of focus. Similarly, feminism does not prescribe that the rights of men must be eroded or are less important. Feminism does not concern bashing men or having an “all men are trash” mentality. In fact, a huge number of men call themselves feminists, too. Feminism only poses that women’s’ rights are currently an area in need of urgent attention.

Progress

This is not another critical article; I am praising the younger generation for the strides they have made in moving a step closer to gender equity. Even within the last few years, I have seen significant progress. In parts of Owerri, Imo State, a more conservative society, girls are now free to wear miniskirts in the street without fear of reprisal or censure. (From your mother, perhaps, but not a nosy or lecherous passer-by.) Some couples are also subscribing to domestic partnership styles that better suit their needs; redistributing what was traditionally female housework to accommodate the need for dual-income. Even within my family, I can see generational changes in regards to women’s rights.

The modern day position stands in sharp contrast to my grandparents’ relationship, where my late grandfather embodied harshness, strength and aloof power that spoke to archaic ideas of masculinity. His wife was the perfect counterfoil, sweet and submissive and lived in service to her husband. Adam’s rib. I am told by elders that this style of gender inequality was a western import and not indigenous to our people, but nonetheless, it found strong roots in our red soil by that time.

To my mother, feminism meant standing up to major ills such as primogeniture and gender-based violence but she still subscribed to traditional gender roles. In my generation, we are standing up to prejudice and preconceptions. In my daughters’ generation, it would be interesting to see how feminism manifests itself.

Yes, the absolutist African Man stereotype is fading and in its place lies promise for a more equitable future.  I know that someday soon the words, “But you’re a woman!” will fade and we will enjoy the easy breath of freedom in my own country and throughout the rest of the global community.

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