Feminism: Is it African or un-African?

Margaret Ekpo and Onyeka Onwuenu (image via villagesquare.ng)

Feminism has always been a bone of contention among Africans in general and Nigerians in particular. Why is this and and how can this assumption be corrected?

When a woman admits that she’s a feminist, it’s as though she threatens the very existence of some and she is shamed for her belief.

It is in part due to ignorance and misunderstanding. Many who don’t bother to do their research about the matter still argue blindly based on hearsay and experiences with those who portray themselves as feminists but are just men-hating women who want to lord themselves over those of the opposite sex (a.k.a misandrists).

In recent times, the word feminism has gotten a negative connotation. Some believe that the feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. They believe that it is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to “leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, hate men and become lesbians.”

Although most misinterpretations of feminism are not so radical, many have degraded feminists or might have discouraged women from joining the feminist movement. In 2004, American conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh popularized the term “feminazi”, arguing that feminists’ views towards abortion are comparable to atrocities committed by the Nazis.

For the longest time, I didn’t see feminism as a necessary cause because I believed and still do that everyone regardless of gender should be treated equally. But saying everyone should be treated equally irrespective of gender is just like an argument I saw on social media between two persons. Let’s called them A and B:

A: Black Lives Matter.

B: No, All Lives Matter

A: So you do believe Black Lives Matter.

Of course, there shouldn’t be disparities in how persons of different genders are treated, but the fact is, as much as we’d like to ignore or try to refute it, we live in a patriarchal society, more so in Africa. Men have so much more advantage and control how things go in a society than women do. No matter how successful a woman is, in the end, if she isn’t married or doesn’t have kids she is seen as a failure. A woman is expected to stay in a marriage no matter how much she’s being abused. A girl is taught to keep her virginity like a prized possession, a girl who expresses her sexuality is slut-shamed while the men are encouraged to sow their oats. A woman who lives on her own must be promiscuous and that she has a car must mean she’s a sugar baby or runs girl. In these current times, some men, like the president of Nigeria, believe that women’s place are in their kitchen, the living room and the other room.

In Nigeria for example, it’s difficult for a single lady to get an apartment. A friend of mine had this experience. I did as well during my NYSC year. I had to go with a male friend who pretended to be my brother and secured it on my behalf. Most Nigerian women live in their parent’s house, even while being able to afford places of their own, not because they’re trying to save money, but because it’s believed that they should only move out when they’re moving into their “husband’s house”. I emphasize “husband’s house” because that is what most Nigerians say making the woman seem like a visitor in her own home. If their job requires them to relocate, they must stay with relatives or family friends. In the workplace, a woman, most times, has to work twice as hard to make her voice heard or to prove that she really can do her job. The list goes on and on.

What they wear, what they do with their bodies, how far the progress in their careers, the sacrifices that they have to make (which is often times far more than men do) are other problems women face everyday. Women more often than not get the short end of the stick.

The simple fact is women should be able to make choices instead of having someone tell or dictate to them what to do with their life and bodies. Women should be able to decide that they do or don’t want to work. They should decide they want to have kids and a cushy job. They should be able to split duties with their husbands and not shoulder everything themselves. Or they can choose not to lean in. But the important fact here is, it should be their choice. And they should have fair and equal opportunities as their male counterparts.

On a somewhat related note, it’s strange that up till date, men are not allowed in the delivery room in some hospitals. I believe that it should be a decision between the couple. I’m yet to see a man that has done so and looks at his wife the same way.

It’s sad that sometimes it isn’t men who attack women who choose to have a say and control how things work for them. Fellow women are also opponents and even among feminists, there are those who see themselves as gatekeepers of feminism and attack others who they don’t see as being feminist enough.

The meaning of feminism has changed since it began some 100 odd years ago. So what it means to be one has changed over time with respect to the issues of the day women face and it can mean different things to different people, and just as well, there are some things that are pretty much standard for feminists. Its similar to Christianity where all Christians have the same fundamental believe which is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But at the same time, each Christian has to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12) and what one might consider as sin, another might not consider it as such (Romans 14:5; Titus 1:15).

Chimamanda Adichie in an interview with Dutch paper de Volkskrant made a statement which many found controversial. She said that her feminism isn’t Beyoncé’s feminism and the opponents took up arms and came for her and other feminists. Statements such as: “This married mother-of-one is busy deceiving single ladies”,I said it, these feminists are divided amongst themselves”,Feminism is a western thing, not an African thing”.

The feminist movement has always been in Nigeria much longer than we think, There is the Aba Women Riot of 1929 or Women’s War where, according to Black Past, “Thousands of Igbo women organized a massive revolt against the policies imposed by British colonial administrators in southeastern Nigeria, touching off the most serious challenge to British rule in the history of the colony. The Women’s War took months for the government to suppress and became a historic example of feminist and anti-colonial protest.

There’s Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti who was a teacher, political campaigner, women’s rights activist and traditional aristocrat. She served with distinction as one of the most prominent leaders of her generation. She was also the first woman in Nigeria to drive a car.

There’s Margaret Ekpo a social mobilizer who was a pioneering female politician in the country’s First Republic of Nigeria and a leading member of a class of traditional Nigerian women activists, many of whom rallied women beyond notions of ethnic solidarity. She played major roles as a grass root and nationalist politician in the Eastern Nigerian city of Aba, in the era of an hierarchical and male-dominated movement towards independence, with her rise not the least helped by the socialization of women’s role into that of helpmates or appendages to the careers of males.

How about Hajiya Gambo Sawaba who campaigned against the marriage of underage girls and the use of forced labour. She was also a great advocate of Western education in the North?

The list goes on and on.

Feminism doesn’t have to be for women only. As Tuba Sajjad says, “Feminism isn’t only about women. Feminists know that patriarchy affects men too.

The society has too many expectations from men about rigid gender roles — they expect men not to show any emotions and act aggressive and macho all the time. Young boys are taught to be afraid of fear, weakness and vulnerability, and to instead show strength, power and wealth. Feminism recognizes this.

Feminism is not about making men weak or women strong. It’s about giving everyone the power to be strong, ambitious, vulnerable, caring, aggressive, opinionated — based on their personalities and experiences, and regardless of their gender.”

This article initially appeared on That Igbo Girl.