The phrase “We should all be Feminists” by Chimamanda Adichie, roused a great deal of controversy as some took offence to a statement advocating that everyone adopt the moniker. The reasons behind the backlash varied from perspectives that saw feminism as a western introduction bastardising cultural norms to those that saw the feminist movement as exclusionary of black women. Adichie, in her TED talk and subsequent book, pointed out that choosing to specifically identify as a feminist was advocating markedly for the inequalities women and girls face everyday outside of the many issues of inequality across the world. However, that these inequalities exist is not a fact that everyone agrees on and for others these inequalities are natural, rather than artificial, societal and cultural constructs and therefore need not be fixed. As a Nigerian woman who identifies as a feminist, womanist and most importantly wants to see improvement in the standard of living for girls and women across the country, it is often intriguing to come across fellow women who are vocally against the word and movement. I am intrigued as to the rationale behind their stance and for this reason, decided to converse with as many non-feminist-identifying women willing to speak with me as possible.
– NIKI IGBAROOLA
My subjects ranged from 18 year old Nigerian women to 45 year old women. We discussed their initial introductions to feminism, how or if this relationship has changed, their views on the impact of social media on conversations about the movement and whether or not they think it has a place in Nigerian culture. These conversations were informative for me, inspiring me to rethink certain preconceptions held about women reluctant to identify with the movement. It also highlighted to me, how far we still have to go when it comes to designing proper education programmes for a Nigerian specific feminist movement.
A statement that grabbed me, was from a woman in her late 20’s asking me “the endpoint” of modern feminist movements. For her, the lack of congruence she sees in feminist movements, especially online, prevents her from identifying as a feminist. Specifically, she pointed to the suffragette movement: “they had an aim, which was to get women the vote and they succeeded. At what point can we say modern feminism has been successful?” That there are factions within the movement is clear to see as race, sexual identity, geographic location, religious belief and class define how people engage with the movement. In truth, it is not hard, online, to find different feminist factions critiquing one another for practicing feminism that lacks “intersectionality”. At times then for the observer, there seems more dissention than harmony, making it a hard movement to want to identify with.
For her, as with other women I conversed with, equality of the sexes when we look at education, pay and freedom of expression is something they champion, but they would rather champion it from outside the banner of “feminist”. A woman, in her early 20’s now living in the United States of America where she first discovered feminism, makes the point of clarifying that rather than be called feminist, she wants to be called a “womanist” . For her, womanism, better defines the activism black women undertake for gender equality in any space they inhabit. Feminism on the other hand solely connects to white women. Her defining of her activism based on race, goes back to the point on factions.The truth is until you critically understand all the definitions: feminism, intersectionality, womanism, they seem more like jargon that isolates rather than welcomes you into the supposed sisterhood that is feminism.
A recurring initial misconception about feminism among my subjects was that it was solely a means through which women sought sexual liberation, or tried to validate their right to be “hoes”. The narrowing of feminist ideology to sexual liberation whilst solely true for some, has been a conversation point employed to discredit the movement, especially in Nigeria. While I personally support the parts of feminism tied to sexual liberation as I believe it helps open up conversations about sexual health, reproductive rights, FGM, I understand how easy it is for people to hear sex and immediately close up due to cultural and religious beliefs. The strictures around how sex is discussed in Nigeria especially as pertains to women means that any conversation or conversation-starter that does not follow the script is immediately villiarised.
Interestingly, none of the women I spoke with still hold that view, crediting education and exposure to widening their understanding of the movement. Widened views, has however not inspired them to adopt the moniker. There is still a perception of the fight for gender equality as a means of emasculation – they are unable again to see the “end goal”. The fear is that feminists do not know their limits when it comes to their demands from society and the opposite sex. For a particular woman in her late twenties, there is too much anger and not enough rationale in the movement, she says, “the anger is justified but it is not the best way to bring about the change we want to see.”
Anger or iterations of it as a deterrent to women identifying with the movement, recurred when speaking to a woman in her mid-thirties who felt that people who identify as feminists are not open to conversation. This is a criticism I have heard severally: the lack of knowledge shared by feminists – too impatient with the gaps in people’s knowledge to take time to educate. For many feminists the counter-argument would be an exhaustion with constantly having to repeat aims and agendas that should be clear to anyone paying attention to society’s ills. However, identifying feminists must remember that education is a relentless endeavour and every single person encountered is leaving with a view not just of who we are but what we claim to represent.
There was a unilateral consensus despite critique of the factions, that Social Media has played a great role in education and breaking down of misconceptions around what feminism is. However, this does not mean that everyone has left with a positive view of the movement. For example, the woman who sees feminism as solely serving white women, was able to, via social media, find her way to “womanism” making the personal outcome positive.
For others, exposure and understanding of the movement has cemented the belief that it is not something necessary for Nigeria culture. Anaba Gail, in her early forties, sees feminism as classist when applied to the Nigerian audience, preferring that the issues placed under that banner simply be treated as Human Rights issues. I am inclined to agree with her when considering how alienating some of the terminology around the feminist movement can be to anyone is not conversant with the academic and theoretic aspects of the movement. The education sector, failing everyday citizens in basic subjects is ill-equipped to handle a topic as nuanced as gender inequality.
For others, iterations of feminism; specifically in the Yoruba culture do exist. That women are allowed to own property, run businesses and female education is a priority, is an example of normalised gender equality. This is enough for my subject in her early thirties, wary of what she perceives to be feminism’s penchant for pushing female “superiority” over men. She wants certain gender roles; male familial leadership, for one, to be honoured but does not see the honouring of this as disenfranchising the woman. For her, conversations about equality will serve to help both genders work better at complementing one another. She does not need the conversations to be spearheaded by “the concept of feminism” but rather simply be a conversation around equality.