If a survey was carried out amongst FGN and SGN Africans alike, asking whether one would class themselves as a feminist, I wonder what the results would be? Perhaps slightly more numbers amongst the SGNs I imagine, but probably still a low figure. That’s because most Africans still associate feminism with negative connotations, as observed by Chimamanda Adichie in her TEDx talk “We Should All Be Feminists”.
I, am one of those Africans that shudder at the word “feminist”. I believe that the determination to have a society where men and women are treated and deemed as exactly the same, is misguided and unhelpful. That’s because men and women are different. For example those who follow that line would argue that a man should not give up his seat for a woman who is pregnant, because that would mean the woman is being treated differently! I also find it irresponsible when feminists argue that women should have the right to do whatever they want AND the right not face the consequences.
But if we take the feminism at its most basic level and meaning, even I would be forced to admit that ideology should not be entirely frowned upon. I looked up feminism on Wikipedia and found the following definition: “Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women. This includes seeking to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment.”
Ok so that doesn’t sound so bad. In fact perhaps it a good place to start in terms of educating future generations about the way both men and women should be treated in society. The difficulty I have with African culture, is that there is often a noticeable adverse difference in how women are treated, starting with within the family, and then in society at large. To clarify, I do not think that there is a problem with society treating the woman as a “weaker vessel” (only in the sense of physical strength) if that means that the woman is treated more delicately, with respect, and in a chivalrous manner. What I do have a problem with, is society treating the woman as though she is an inferior vessel, less important, and is to be disrespected, and even treated as property.
Earlier this month International Women’s day was celebrated, which coincided with a long train of thought I’d been having about the inequality African women, in particular, face. It started with this picture, I saw online:
This picture, although alluding to Asian culture, pretty much summed up my childhood. The fact that my brothers were allowed to go out and about as pleased, whereas the girls were not – that was just the start. I was also frequently told that it’s not a boys’ job to cook or clean, and that I must learn to cook otherwise my future husband would leave me. From what I gather, it tends to be the same in many African households. How many boys who are the “only boy” in the family do you know that aren’t spoilt? Whereas if you’re the “only girl”, it’s most likely you’ve adopted the role of house girl.
I’ve tried to evaluate these experiences and consider whether there was any legitimate reason why male and females should be treated differently in this, starting from such a young age. I could think of none. I could however think of good reasons why both male and female children should be taught how to cook and clean. For example, until such a time as a man marries, and has a wife to do those things for him (if such arrangements still exist), then it would be useful for him to know how to boil and egg and not burn toast, and to maintain a hygienic environment. In terms of going out, as long as both male and female have safe arrangements to return home, do risks not otherwise exist in respect of both sexes?
I sometimes observe inequality when I come across African women in the line of work I do. There was once an Egyptian woman who could speak no English and had to have everything she said interpreted to me by a male interpreter. The Egyptian male interpreter was domineering, and at times tried to advise me as to how to do my job in between interpreting. The Egyptian woman had an abusive husband, and she was seeking protective help. She was trying to communicate her frustrations to me, and the interpreter told her to “shut up” in Arabic instead of interpreting what she said. She stood up for herself, but the interpreter deemed this as disrespectful and threatened to walk out. The woman started crying tears of frustration and helplessness. It was hard not to feel bad for this woman who seemed like another victim of a culture that oppresses its women.
Then there are the stories I hear of African women in oppressive marriages where the husband has fallen on hard times, leaving the woman to work and provide for the family, and do all of the cooking and cleaning, and once home, do all of the child care too! I hear of men treating their wives as property, though should this be surprising in a culture where a man has often paid a bridal price in exchange for the woman?
I have to be thankful that I’ve been exposed to certain opportunities in Britain. I’ve heard about how difficult things can be for the average non-connected female living in Nigeria to try and make a living. That female if not married, is therefore not being taken care of by a husband, and is put in a vulnerable position, because she does not have the power or status to take care of herself. When it comes to inheritance, her brothers will inherit everything and she will be entitled to nothing.
All these matters are concerning. Do we want to see a perpetuation of this aspect of the culture that demeans and sometimes even dehumanizes women? Is feminism the answer? Certainly not the traditional, white middle class type feminism that ignores the perspectives of other ethnicities. Maybe a repackaged, re-branded feminism that simply presents the woman as an equally intelligent, and autonomous being who like any other citizen, deserves basic respect and recognition.
“If the fact is that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we must make it our culture”
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