To Be or Not to Be…Feminist
I usually read anything my good friend Chris posts on his social media account. I either agree vehemently, or disagree vehemently — there is no middle ground! So when he posted the link to Yemisi Aribisala’s essay “Sister Outsider” and declared it “the best thing you will read today” I got myself ready for a wholly engrossing article. Ms. Aribisala’s article explored quite a lot of themes around feminism particularly around the prism of her experiences. As a proud feminist, I feel compelled to delve deeper into some of the points raised in the article.
The first time I truly encountered feminism in any structured format was my first year Feminism class in University. On the first day my female professor walked in and promptly declared to all of us the golden rule of the class: “In this class we respect and understand that true feminism is the right of the woman to choose whatever she wants to be from CEO to housewife and the full spectrum of the human experience”. We knew immediately not to waste any of our collective time bashing any woman for her choices. I'm really glad I had this opportunity because it colours how my thoughts and feelings around feminism have developed over the years since. Not only did this declaration help us develop our understanding, but the class itself was focused on the intersection of gender, class, and race — understanding society at the point of this intersection. So I’ve always considered what feminism means to me as a black person, as an African, and for lack of a better term, as a millenial woman.
In dissecting Ms. Aribisala’s article it is important to state first, that no, not everyone has to be feminist — of course. If there are people on social media who think otherwise, then I suppose we (or I) can apologize for their overzealousness. Feminism is certainly not about social media however, and the fight or the struggle exists outside of whether it exists or not in any form. It cannot be entirely defined by such a single source/single story as social media. Indeed it cannot be defined by one experience by any one person. Just like racism experienced in the heart of Southern America is not of the same variety as those experienced in the farms of post-apartheid South Africa. The presence of one experience does not diminish the existence of another. That western feminism is preoccupied by gender pay gaps does not mean African feminism is diminished or irrelevant, and vice versa.
When I think of Ms. Nigeria’s declaration in the 80s that her contemporary was Princess Di, I think of the many ways perhaps our society has hindered or helped her since? What did happen to her, her dreams and obviously the ambitious goals she had for herself? And Agbani Darego? Several tabloid stories have linked her to various “big men”, cheekily implying that all she is is due to her relationship with such men. This is not about gossip or true or not, it’s that our society does not care (not you the individual of course, but society as a collective).
To the heart of it, the martyr woman — who cooks, cleans, carries firewood on her back for miles, feeds the whole village before dawn, washed tubs of nappies, worked 40 hour days out of the home, who doesn’t sleep EVER — is NOT a powerful woman if she is doing all those things because she has no other choice but to do so; if she’s not doing it all willingly. The fact that throughout a young woman’s life, her entire scope of influence (of which Ms. Aribisala’s father’s can be measured by a ruler), people who told her what to be and who to be, were mostly women speaks volumes. Where were the men then? If it is other women telling a young woman she has nothing else to be but wife or mother, what were the men telling her? Do men not also have responsibility of raising their offspring, of raising women? There is no power in women having to be the “ALL” because men do not or are not allowed to step up to the plate. This is no power at all. It has left women exhausted for generations, speaking within those keyholes to each other words they would never share outside in polite or mixed company. There is no power at all if such power is still defined within the limitations of a penis — prosthetic or not! There is no power at all if it is still connected, unquestionably, to male consent — as the power of the mother-in-law is, as the power of the wife in a polygamous home is. There is no power inherent in motherhood or wifehood. “There’s nothing as terrifying as a woman drunk on power?” I beg to differ. History (and various violent dictatorships) shows that there is nothing as terrifying as a human being drunk on power. Absolute powers aside, any human being (man or woman) who cannot ever expect to directly acquire relevance or “power” by virtue of her work, her life, or her achievements, will certainly seek it with much gusto within their limitations. This “power drunkness” is what we find across all cadres of civil service in Nigeria, it’s what we find from security men at visa offices. This is why it is important that feminism is not about power because that would have to imply that there is some sort of power inherent in femaleness. There is none. Feminism is about removing these sorts of labels, these sorts of false “powers”.
Rights on the other hand, are not power struggles. LGBT rights for example are not about “power” it’s about living how you want to live without societal punishment. If all rights struggles are not about power, then membership in any of its particular movements cannot be binary. I don’t have to be LGBT to empathize with the cause, I don’t have to be a chinchilla to fight for ethical treatment of animals, I don’t have to be black to fight for civil rights, and I don’t have to be a woman to stand for equality in choice and freedom. That there are women in government does not mean the onus is on them to promulgate some sort of feminist agenda. Just like Ms. Aribisala does not identify as feminist, they have the right to identify with any cause they choose. The appropriate question to ask is whether our society believes in equality and freedom of choice and why aren’t our lawmakers (male and female) trying to change our laws to reflect this belief? To be sure, to expect as Ms. Aribisala does, the “martyr woman” to also solely take on the responsibility of changing society is somewhat machiavellian.
As a proud feminist it would be great to see more people identify as supporting the cause of ensuring all people — regardless of gender — have the freedom of choice to be who they want to be without societal punishment, however only a few good and dedicated are all it truly takes to make a change. Even more, you don’t have to have all women friends, hate men, or any of the binary definitions that people employ when mulling over what freedom of choice for all gender really means. If there is no special power or privilege inherent in being female or being male, then there is no specialness of being a woman with all male friends, or vice versa, no specialness of being wife or mother, nor husband or son. I can understand how that would be a very scary premise indeed — worthy of its own epic backlash.