Why Gender Roles Are Crucial In Conversations About African Feminism

I saw on Twitter a clip from a TV conversation between a sexist Nigerian man and a Nigerian woman who herself identifies as “feminist.” This man, in a paroxysm of quivering passion, said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that regardless of his wife’s corporate or financial success, he is the KING, the PRESIDENT and the LORD of their home. While there is so much to unpack there— from the idea that a home needs a president to the assigning of this “presidency” automatically to the man, what really struck me was the response from this feminist sister. This sister said, and again paraphrasing, that the man is valid in his stance, and that gender roles and gender equality are two completely different things. That fallacious statement often echoed by many African women is very easily the single most reductive theory in African feminist conversations.

Gender roles IS gender inequality. Literally. It is because of gender roles that many gender inequalities exist. Gender roles which include the expectation of submission from the woman, the delegation of the bulk of domestic work to the woman, and the emotional and devotional labor of caring for and spearheading the spirituality of the family literally is the entire bedrock of patriarchy’s attack against women. Women are groomed, from girlhood, to be these things — mothers to children they don’t have, religious for a man they have not met, to clean, and sweep, and cook for one day, they would have to do it for a man, so where do women learn to be equal to men when we have only been taught to serve them. It is dangerous to even entertain the idea that gender equality can be achieved without the deliberate dismantling of gender roles because gender roles do not wait for you to marry, oh no. It is drummed in the ears of girls from the moment those ears start to work. How do you intend to achieve gender equality without first tackling gender roles?

Now, if you’ve read any of my feminist writings or if you follow my social media, you would know that I am not a fan of independent woman feminism. I am not a fan of teaching women and girls that they can only be equal to or be respected by men if they are financial equals of men. However, I am very aware of the implications of gender roles and the massive role it plays in the subjugation of women.

Working in the home as opposed to outside it as a woman, accepting the “gender role” of domestic labor because it is a lot more convenient for where our society is now, is fine even if it is not revolutionary. It does not take from you or your right to equality. However, the idea that headship in marriage must be assigned, and assigned to the man is ABUSIVE and hundred percent takes from your right to input on decisions that affect your life and the immediate space you exist in i.e your home. That…that is taking from your humanity.

Many times, people who antagonize feminists try to reduce the struggle to domestic squabbling in an attempt to be dismissive, but these issues within the homes have far heavier effects than can be imagined by these naysayers. The problem is not in who cooks or who works or who splits which bills, the problem is in the idea that one sex is superior to the other within marriage.

Ideally, domestic work like cleaning, laundry, work that is typically assigned to the woman, should be outsourced, like plumbing is, like home security is, (how many men are their own security guards as the self-acclaimed “protectors of the home”) if both partners work outside the home. Putting one partner above the other means that that partner gets to decide the goings within the home, which of course would include picking and choosing which domestic work are outsourced and which ones are left to his working spouse. When this happens, the woman suffers.

We harp on about cooking and cleaning because most families either cannot afford to outsource these things or simply do not want to, and it automatically falls to the woman. Carrying all this domestic responsibility makes working outside the home much harder. Many women struggle to compete with men in professional fields because the division of responsibilities within the homes they leave from and return to, is tilted to favor the man. This is their lives, having a longer stretch of working hours which many men do not have to contend with.

We talk about cooking, cleaning, caring for children and all these other gender roles all the time because with women working both inside and outside the home at such disproportionate rates, it would be near impossible for equality to be achieved if that unfair situation is not rectified.

We cannot delude ourselves into thinking that many women can be full housewives or work half day because most men cannot afford it. Capitalism ensures that not many men have the luxury of a wife who does not work, amongst other things. Most families cannot survive only on the income of the man, and this would mean women have to work outside the home too.

Women bearing most of the domestic responsibility while struggling to ensure their offsprings are fed and well, is inequality in itself. Equality can not exist when one partner takes sole control of decision making; that is how unfair dynamics like this are formed. There is no room for feudalism (I am the king) or authoritarianism (I am the leader) in egalitarianism. It cannot exist in the home or outside it if we’re going to achieve any equality.

Finally, all of this, all these roles and all these responsibilities have nothing to do with headship or leadership. This is how I reconcile my anti-independent woman feminism with my distaste for submission. Whether or not the man or the woman or both work, as long as each party is doing their bit to live, reproduce and enjoy life as best as they can, there should be no place for hierarchies. Hierarchies only exist in the institution of marriage because it enables oppression. All of these tales of leadership and submission is only so that patriarchy is enacted. I would argue that it is the bedrock of patriarchy itself.

The male or anyone else for that matter, assuming the position of leader has absolutely nothing to do with how well a family functions and everything to do with perpetuating oppression.