Middle class women have lost more ground in fight against patriarchy, says Ajayi-Soyinka
Omofolabo Ajayi-Syinka is described by The University of Kansas, U.S., where she taught for many years and retired as an inter-disciplinary scholar, as she bestrode Theatre Arts and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Departments. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, she speaks about the social constraints that hinder women’s from full equality.
Could you tell us how it was growing up in Abeokuta, particularly the Ake years?
I was not there (born) yet (at the time of Ake). My parents were disciplinarians. Although my older siblings said I was quite spoilt because I am the last child. But I don’t think so because I had my own share of the whipping; I got punished when necessary. The thing is, I am so far from all my siblings, in terms of age. The age difference between my immediate elder brother and me is seven years. So, it was like I grew up an only child. But our house was always full of neighbours’ and other children that our parents were training. In that sense, I would be the oldest of them all. It was fun. No matter how strict parents are, children will always be children. I was constantly getting into brushes.
I grew up climbing trees and rocks, picking snails in the bush and behind the hills that seemed so huge. I went to visit the place a couple of years ago and I was amazed because the hills that seemed so huge then now appeared very small.
How did the idea of ‘wild Christian,’ which Prof. used in Ake, apply to your mother?
My mother never liked that term. She objected to it. I think what he meant by that was that she was very religious but also rascally. I think we inherited that from her. Even as she is whipping you, she will also be quoting the bible. She was very practical. She was pious but it was not sanctimonious piety. She was jovial. She interacted with neighbours and people were always bringing their children to her to be disciplined for about two or three days.
Your research and teaching areas are on gender and sexuality. Would you describe yourself as a feminist?
Yes. Before you ask me, I want you to tell me your idea of a feminist…
A feminist is someone who fights for women’s rights. But some could go extreme. Precisely which area of our lives does not have its own extremity? There is none. So, why should feminism be singled out for extremism? We find excessiveness everywhere, in our lives and in everything we do. In Marxism and Capitalism, there are those who take them too far. There are those who do not understand it very well. But it doesn’t negate or invalidate the core essence of what feminism stands for. Feminism seeks justice for all women because the society has been resounding patriarchy, and in a patriarchal system, women are marginalised. It is like in a capitalist system. In a capitalist system, those with money have all the privileges while the poor ones are neglected and objectified. So what is wrong in fighting for those who do not have money to get justice, to make them able to earn visible wages?
That is what we are saying about women. Every society operates on a patriarchal basis although there are checks and balances. So that is what contemporary women are saying and it has always been there. No matter where injustice finds itself, you find people striving to correct the injustice. So that is what feminism is all about.
So, if you look back from when you were growing up till date, what significant strides or progress have women made in bridging this inequality gap and for women to really be what they want to be?
It has been an uneven journey. We have made some strides in some areas. We have lost grounds in some areas. I think that middle class women have lost more grounds. That is excluding the poverty side of it. Lower class women suffer the effect of poverty, which middle class women do not suffer. But then the ability to operate on that tier allows them to do things that middle class women are ashamed of.
Let me tell you a story. I was teaching at Ife before I left. So my feminist awakening started here, not after I got to the U.S. We used to go to a salon where we braided our hair. Women usually bring their children there. Men also brought their daughters. There was a day I was braiding my hair and some women were talking and laughing. They were just enjoying themselves. They were not Yoruba. After a while, I told them that I wanted to know what was going on. The women who came to campus to braid hair are usually the wives of junior staff of the university. So, they depended on their husbands to get them the permit to be able to come. This woman just had a baby. Unfortunately, her permit expired. So she asked the husband, ‘Please, can you renew my permit for me?’ The husband retorted, ‘So you can go and meet your boyfriend!’
So, after the first week, she cooked the meal and served the man one piece of meat instead of two pieces. So the man complained and she said, ‘that was what the money you gave to me could afford.’ The children came from school and wanted money for school books and she sent them to their father and the father drove them back to their mother so they would collect the money from her. The children said their mother had no money. By the following week, the meal had no meat in it except some scattered pieces of fish and vegetables. One morning, as she was enjoying her sleep with her new born baby, the man came and said she should get ready for work because her permit was ready.
I asked myself, ‘Would I do this as a middle class woman?’ It didn’t happen to me because I was lucky to have a good husband. I wouldn’t do it because I will say, ‘What will people say?’ I would want to maintain that standard, whereas this woman didn’t. I remember my mum had her standards and my dad respected her. That is why in one of my writings, I talked about double patriarchy. I said that we, African women, suffer from double patriarchy: our own indigenous form of patriarchy and the imported one.
How does your essay, So Long a Letter, further explicate feminism from the African viewpoint?
That article has gotten so much search in the academic. I analysed Miriama Ba’s work So Long a Letter, but I started from negritude. In negritude, one of the famous statements made about women was that Africa women do not need liberation because they are already liberated. That is very true because there are things that African women enjoy, which European women do not enjoy. That is the essence of that double patriarchy but when Europeans came, we lost those rights that we enjoyed. We brought in the marginalization of the European women, added it to ours and our men took what they enjoyed in our culture and what they enjoy in European culture. So, I looked at it critically and I used the poems of Sedar Senghor. He praises black women a lot. The male students are the soldiers. Hence they can’t wait to come back to Mother Africa to save her from the European, colonial destruction. So my question is, ‘Did Mother Africa give birth to only males?’ No, we have the females.
So, that is where I used Mariama Ba’s So Long A Letter to examine what is happening to the girls. They are at home waiting for the black male soldiers to come back and rescue them. But what happens? Even though when they were going to school, there was that parity between boys and girls but then separation happened. He goes for further studies while she stays at home. Then, when the soldier comes back, he doesn’t want the older woman and that is why her (the narrator’s) husband decides to leave her and marry a younger woman after she has had six children. When they were both struggling together as students, they used to say, ‘We don’t want that habit of our parents where they practised polygamy. Ours will be one man, one wife.’ Then he goes ahead to marry the young girl who is the age mate of his last daughter, and then, ‘it is Islamic tradition. The religion allows you to have up to four wives.’ She was pouring out her heart. That was what my negritude was all about.
Your name is Ajayi-Soyinka, not Soyinka-Ajayi. You pulled off some feminist stunt there, didn’t you?
I just did it my own way that was convenient for me. I did it because if all of us are together and we have a function, they would call my husband Ajayi and I will be called Soyinka-Ajayi. In alphabetical order, they would call them first as my name will be far behind and I don’t want that. But for that name, if I didn’t add that name, I wouldn’t change my name to my husband’s name. It is not our culture to take our husband’s name. So that is not feminism. I am referring to Yoruba culture.
Don’t you think that referring to a woman as the ‘wife of so and so’ instead of the ‘daughter of so and so’ is the reason a woman changes her name to her husband’s name?
Alright, let that argument stand for a moment. In Yoruba culture, you are given many names. By the time you get married, you are referred to as the ‘wife of so and so’ but you are not forgotten as ‘daughter of so and so.’ So in the European culture, where women take their husbands’ name, do they remember your maiden name? We don’t even say our father’s name. Let us go back to Yoruba culture; you are traced from your lineage poetry, which is now called praise poetry. It is lineage, which recounts everything your family has done – both the good and the bad. Now, in my part of Yoruba – we are Ijegba – when an elderly person meets you, he or she will say, ‘Where do you lean?’ Which means, ‘Do you lean on father’s side or your mother’s side?’ So, whichever you choose, they will start your lineage poetry based on that.
Practical experience; have you encountered children of the same father who have different surnames? Have you wondered why? It is because when they went to a formal European school, they will ask the first one, ‘What is your name?’ He would say, ‘Peter,’ for instance. ‘What is your surname?’ The pupil will ask the teacher back, ‘Surname?’ That is your father’s name. The first one will remember how the grandmother calls him ‘Johnson’ and he will say ‘Johnson.’ Then the second one comes and says first name is ‘James’ and surname is ‘Zebrudaya’ because that is what grandfather calls his father. So his name becomes ‘James Zebrudaya’ and the other is ‘Peter Johnson.’ That is what happens. I know it happens in Abeokuta.
We are a people of a thousand names. But what used to tie one’s child to either the mother or father is that lineage poetry. So, whatever culture we are practicing now is all mixed up. Again, men are in the forefront because they have the advantage as men in the patriarchal system.
Are you home finally now? What would you like to do here?
I am currently working on a project of women of Lagos State. I have retired and that is why I am able to come and do this. This is what I want to be doing more frequently. A couple of years ago, I reached out to some universities to come and give lectures. I was trained in this country save for the two years I spent in England for my Masters. I had all my education in Nigeria. So I owe Nigeria a lot. Circumstances made me go there; I had to leave. I didn’t want to leave. So it is time to come back. I have been away for too long. I have children and grandchildren there. Last year I was in Ilorin. They wanted to consult about starting a women’s programme.
What prompted you into literature and drama? Were you following your older sibling’s footsteps?
I think it was my own personal inclination. Of course, having a brother who has made his mark in that area encouraged me but it also intimidated me. When I was growing up, he was already out of the country. I think I had a sort of hazy image of him when he was about to leave. I never shared my childhood with him. He was not there, when I was growing up. It is my other brother who I remember was there. I think the main factor (for taking to drama) was the travelling theatre. They would come to Abeokuta with a lorry and megaphone, driving up and down, announcing the show and my older siblings around and I would go for the show. The most popular shows were ‘I Show Pepper’ and ‘Ogunde.’
My father would grill me by saying, ‘What are they showing? Why do you want to go? How do you know it is good? Have you seen it before?’ Of course, it was because of the money. At the end, we would still go. So, I just loved everything happening in the shows. It was also the cinema that influenced me. They would say, ‘Come and see John Wayne in front of the Palace Square.’ I think it was then I developed that taste. But then it was ironical because when I started secondary school everybody thought I would be a pharmacist because I loved mixing things, leaves of trees.
Where did you learn that?
I don’t know. You get a wound, I would take some leaves, squeeze and put them on it. I had wounds all over because I was always climbing trees. I went to my first school, Anglican Girls’ Grammar School (A.G.G.S.), Abeokuta, but I pestered my dad to change my school because they were not offering science subjects. It was just General Science that was offered and I wanted to get a good science background. I was wondering how one could go to school at that time and not have knowledge in science. My father, a rascal that he was, too, found me a good school, Mayflower School in Ikenne. I loved Mayflower School so much. Part of it was that I wanted to be away from home and at A.G.G.S. Abeokuta, I was a day student.
That was when I got the love of theatre. First, Tai Solarin will not allow any Dramatic Society at that time. So, we didn’t have a Drama Club. If you try to start one, you are on your own because he neither discouraged nor encouraged you. But my friends and I put something together. I think the main factor was a film show of an Indonesian Dance. And my colleagues were saying, ‘Ah! We don’t have anything like this.’ I said, ‘What do you mean we don’t have anything like this? Okay! I will show you that we have a lot of beautiful dances.
Did you then drop out of the sciences?
Yes, I did. For my School Certificate I had to do all the sciences. I was very good in all the sciences. Perhaps, I sub-consciously dropped out of the sciences. But I think that the main deciding factor for me was that Indonesian Dance and my colleagues’ reaction. By this time, I knew had switched to the arts. Maybe it was because of my performance in mathematics that was really bad. I didn’t trust myself with mathematics. However, I didn’t want to study English in the university. My sister had a large collection of magazines. I guess she was subscribing to them, The Family of Man, and they were in series. I enjoyed reading them. That was when I decided that I was going to be an anthropologist. I got admission into University of Ife. At that time, if you want to do Social Sciences, you needed mathematics. I then switched again because I couldn’t do mathematics. I really wanted to do Anthropology. I said I won’t do English because that was what my brother did. So, I did French. So, my first degree was in French. By then my brother, Professor Wole Soyinka, was already popular.
At Ife, I was interested in both theatre and students politics. Going from Ife to Ibadan, especially after one Kunle was killed in 1971. That was the first student murder and student protest. My brother was in Ibadan. All the Student Union Executives from all over converged on Ibadan. I was among those leading that students should respond to the murder. When I was leaving for the university, my parents sat me down and said, ‘Do not participate in students’ demonstration because you are going there to read.’ I promised to heed their advice. It was when I saw myself leading the demonstration in the newspapers that I remembered I had broken my promise.
I wanted to run for Students’ Union Vice President so I would be the first female to occupy that position. We had a group of girls that made one another’s hair every Sunday and during that time we would criticize the government for its inefficiency, corruption, etc. My friend got the form for me. When I told my friends I wanted to go for Students Union Vice Presidency, they were in total support. But I started hesitating because there was another woman who was also vying for that same position. I was worried because that was the first time any female had interest in school politics. And I said, ‘why should we be two?’ My friends were trying to convince me but I said, ‘no.’
I think I would have won, but then one of them said, ‘Folabo, just go in there and bring money for us to chop.’ I said, ‘Don’t even joke about it.’ She quickly said it was not a joke. I told her that for almost two years now, ‘we have been criticizing corruption in Nigeria’ and she said that it was just mere talk. That was how I gave up on politics and concentrated on theatre even though there was no Theatre Arts department in Ife then. But there was the Ori-Olokun in the Institute of African Studies. I have always admired Ola Rotimi.
I matured into dance. I can do chorus. I would hide under others. When I graduated, I taught French in secondary school in Maiduguri as I was among the first set of National Youth Service Corps. When I came back, my mother wanted me to go into teaching. What can you do with French but teach? I objected, saying that was my father’s job. I don’t want to be a teacher. She was very disappointed. She wanted me to move to Lagos because she had moved to Lagos at that time; then my dad had died. He died in my final year. So, she said, ‘What else can you do? Look for a job!’ Then I went to the United States to do my Post Graduate Diploma in Theatre Arts. That is my journey. I got recruited at Ife in the institute to be a dance researcher.
In your journey as an academic and dancer, have worked with your brother?
Yes. When I was at Ife and under Professor Abayode who was the Vice-Chancellor then, he broke up the Institute of African Studies into departments. I think the Institute then was divided into Fine Arts, Drama, Music and Film Section. I got into Drama and what happened? They brought my brother from Ibadan to come and head the department because Professor Ola Rotimi had left for Port Harcourt. He was there while I was there in the institute as a Research Assistant. So, I was dragging around collecting materials. Oh! I think somewhere in between, just before the creation of the department, they needed a higher degree. So I had to get my Master Degree. I started my Ph.D. But then they said, ‘come back, we need staff on ground to start teaching because many students were coming in.’
So, I came back and started teaching. I think I just did the first year of my doctoral. I then enrolled, of all places, in the English Department for my doctoral because drama was just starting. Since I didn’t want to do strict English, and, of course I am in Theatre, I kind of fashioned my studies. In my wide reading again, I came across Semiotics. So, I more or less built my Ph.D. programme.