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Nigerian feminism as alternative voice in feminist discourse

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In discussing the issues of women in relation to various factors, what comes to mind is the term “feminism”. And feminism is the belief that men and women deserve equal rights and opportunities in all spheres of life. It aims at defining, establishing and defending equal opportunities for women. It also denotes the activities of women and male “sympathizers”, and its aim is to combat all forms of discrimination -social, personal, economic, legal, health, literary, which women suffer simply because of their sex.

Essentially, feminism is two things. First, it is a theoretical paradigm in social theory that seeks to advocate and enhance women’s emancipation and equality with regard to gender, hence, feminism encompasses many varied activities and contexts. According to Elizabeth Ogini in Feminism and Black Women’s Creative Writing (1996), feminism has two main ‘axes’. As a belief, it emphasizes equality for men and women in all areas among which are legal, economic, political and social affairs. As a social movement, it advocates gender equality and is widely known as woman’s liberation or women’s rights movement. The movement began around 1800 in Europe and America. The leading proponents of this movement were Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf among others. They were known as suffragettes/suffragists. They fought for the rights of women to vote and own property, and above all, for the equality of the sexes, that is, an egalitarian society.

Globally, the idea of feminism refers to equally between the sexes, however, over time, various or specific types of “feminism” have evolved, especially in the 21st century. These types are otherwise called “multiple voices”, as they seek to protect the rights of women specifically, in their immediate and divergent worlds. Among them are radical feminism, cultural feminism, liberal feminism, post-colonial feminism, etc.

Western feminism hitherto has been accused of not taking into consideration women of other colour, race and region, other than European women. This accounts to why various forms of feminism evolved overtime. Thus, some Nigerian female writer or those from other Third world countries have a tendency of dissociating themselves from the broad term “feminism”, even though the idea has found a warm reception in the Nigerian soil. These women view Western feminism as a continuation or another form of imperialism. This is because, to them, the idea is western oriented and cannot adequately address and express the experiences of women outside Europe. These are glaring differences in the perceptions, worldviews and experiences of Nigerian women from European women, regardless of the tribe, culture or religion. This awareness that the West cannot speak authoritatively for other women outside Europe forms the basis of the search for an alternative terminology in Nigeria/Africa which adequately addresses Nigerian/African women’s experiences, thus, feminism will have to undergo a process of cultural “nativization” or “indigenization” in order to fit into Nigerian/African worldview, mannerism and ideals.

In Nigeria today, the mere mention of feminism brings to mind terms such as “man-haters”, “cultural non-conformists”, “angry women”, “lesbians”, and the likes. Feminism has been faulted to be the reason for divorce, teenage pregnancy, abortion, domestic violence, sexual abuse, etc in the Nigerian society. Thus, the Western idea is hardly accepted by famous Nigerian women writers like Buchi Emecheta, Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, Flora Nwapa, Zaynab Alkali, among others, hence the need for a Nigerian variant of feminism which will call for complementarity between the Nigerian woman and the Nigerian man.

There are various suggestions as to what the feminist theory that best fits the Nigerian women should be, among which are, “Womanism” by the Chinkwenye Okonjo-Ogunyemi in her article titled “Womanism”, “Shiwanism” propounded by Molara Ogundipe-Leslic in her book Recreating Ourselves, “Motherism” by C.O. Acholonu in her book Motherism, and more recently “Snail Sense Feminism” propounded by Akachi-Adimora-Ezeigbo. At the end of this essay, we will know which theory by these women best fit the Nigerian worldview.

Flora Nwapa, the famous Nigerian woman writer is a leading light when it comes to writing the Nigerian woman into literature and bringing the Igbo culture into light, like Chinua Achebe. She believes that the woman’s role in any society is crucial for the survival of the race, and this is why in her works such as Efuru, Idu and One is Enough, she tries to project a more robust and balanced image of womanhood.

In a critical work title, “Women and Creative Writing in Africa”, Nwapa examined literature in Nigeria and indeed Africa, and how woman have been portrayed in the works of male writers, both African and Europeans alike. She acknowledges some male African writers who still try to “project an objective image of women, an image that actually reflects the reality of women’s role in the society”. Among these male African writers are Peter Abraham whose, A Wreath for Udomo presents three prominent female characters, Lois, Selina and Maria, who aid the struggle for independence. They were “the real power behind the struggle”; Ousmane Sembene, whose God’s Bits of Wood is about strong women who champion the railway workers strike and confront the colonialists during Senegalese struggle for independence.

However, Nwapa decries the efforts of Nigerian male writers such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Cyprian Ekwensi, J.P. Clark and others, who portray the Nigerian woman in a subordinating light. According to her, they have “in their earlier works played down the powerful role of women” (529). Thus, in Flora Nwapa’s works she undertakes the difficult tasks of “reversing” these subordinating roles of women by creating strong women who regardless of cultural disadvantages like childlessness, widowhood, divorce, still struggle to make meaning out of their lives.

In trying to posit a very good reason why there ought to be a Nigerian variant of feminism, or an alternative voice, it is important to bear in mind the socio-cultural, political and economic milieu of the Nigerian society, i.e., even with the advent of education, globalization and the equality Mantra, the Nigerian society and ways of doing things, are still specifically and peculiarly “Nigerian” and cannot be European. Issues like marriage, motherhood and divorce dealt with caution and not like how the West would handle them. For instance, it is rare for a young Nigerian woman to wake up and declare that she does not wish to marry or have children. It is likewise difficult for a married woman to say she is fed up with her husband and wants a divorce. But, they are regular phenomenon in the West; they are frowned at in Nigeria, except a proper understanding of intention is made. Flora Nwapa declares marriage as a “sacred bond that transcends a simple union between a man and woman”, it is a bond between two families. Therefore, a woman, or indeed a man cannot divorce at will, but get within this [Nigerian] tradition, divorce is possible, though difficult when children are involved (530). She even goes on to emphasize that an educated woman would hesitate to take her husband to court for committing bigamy (having more than one legal wife), for the sake of her children. This goes to show the divergent worldview or reality between a Nigerian woman and her European counterpart, who would not blink an eye until her husband is dealt with by the law for contracting another marriage.

On her own part, Buchi Emecheta, one of Nigeria’s famous novelist, addresses some of the issues that affect Nigerian women and the feminist question. In her phenomenal essay, “feminism with a small f”, Emecheta narrates her experiences; how she started writing from an early age; her failed marriage, and how at twenty two she was left to suffer and struggle to cater for five young children.

According to Emecheta, she writes from everyday happenings, especially from a woman’s point of view, and this has earned her the label “feminist”. However, she declares, “being a woman and African born, I see things through an African woman’s eyes. I chronicle the little happenings in the lives of the African women I know. I did not know that by doing so I was going to be called a feminist. But if I am now a feminist, then I am an African [Nigerian] feminist with a small ‘f’. In my works I write about families because I still believe in families. I write about women who try very hard to hold their family together until it becomes absolutely impossible. I have no sympathy for a woman who deserts her children, neither do I have sympathy for a woman who insists on staying in a marriage which a brute of a man, simply to be respectable” (553). To many readers and scholars, this is what Nigerian feminism should look like!; one that pays premium to family, independence and the ability to leave when one’s life is under threat in a marriage.

Emecheta points out that sex is important to the Nigerian woman, but it is not the centre of her being. She says “most of the Nigerian women who are promiscuous are so for economic reason…sex is part of life. It is not THE life”. She clearly adds that the feminism she subscribes to “is free of the shackles of Western romantic illusions and tends to be much more pragmatic. We believe that we [Nigerian women] are here for many, many things, not just to cultivate ourselves, and make ourselves pretty for men”. (554)

Like Flora Nwapa, Emecheta believes that issues such as marriage, divorce, and barrenness are or ought to be handled with caution, especially from a woman’s point of view, thus, “in the West, many women hurry to get married again after a divorce or bereavement. Our women are slower. And many who have children don’t even bother because a new life opens for them” (555)
Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo on her part approaches the gender and feminist issue with a “home-grown common sense”. Her stand is not radical, rather she proposes a more sober and liberal alternative to a staunch feminist ideal, which she calls “Snail Sense Feminism”. To achieve this ideal [Nigerian] feminism, Adimora-Ezeigbo believes that Nigerian women can adopt this approach through education, maturity, dialogue and patience.

Charles Nnolim asserts that Adimora-Ezeigbo’s “Snail Sense Feminism” depicts her as a feminist theorist with a pacific native wisdom since she still keeps her family intact where abrasive feminists would have asserted their feminism through divorce” (Introduction, XIXI).

The idea of “Snail Sense Feminism” adopts a cooperative attitude to the Nigerian women’s relationship with men. In an interview with Olu Obafemi, Adimora-Ezeigbo says that “the snail crawls over boulders, rocks, thorns and tough terrains smoothly and efficiently with a lubricated tongue, which is not damaged or destroyed by these harsh objects. The snail goes where it will in this manner and arrives at its destination intact. If the worst happens, it withdraws into its shell and is safe”. Thus, she believes this should be the attitude of women from this part of the world, because to her, the Nigerian women who subscribes to the western idea of feminism makes herself an enemy of the men and in Nigeria, a woman needs the support of the man to support. Thus, she ought to be like a snail, that is, she must master her environment and negotiate for her emancipation as a snail does. She tells Henry Akubuiro in an interview that:

Women have to really negotiate with men to have a stake in this country, because our society is very patriarchal and women don’t really have many chances to make progress if they don’t have the cooperation of men. (The Sun Newspaper, August, 5, 2012)

This essay among other things has attempted to proffer reasons why there ought to be an alternative voice to the feminist discourse in Nigeria, bearing in mind the gender, political and socio-cultural issues in Nigeria. Some people still believe that we do not need feminism in Nigeria, because the Nigerian society is still patriarchal, even though women are beginning to tread on spaces otherwise believed to be male domain. Feminism is still frowned at in this part of the world as people look at the negative aspects of the movement. But feminism, regardless of its many flaws, has never been and is not a movement against men, because men and women always need each other. The essence of feminism was and still is to liberate women. This liberal stand of western feminism is what a Nigerian feminism will subscribe to.

Historically, Nigerian women have faced a lot of problems in relation to gender. Patriarchy and its attendant male chauvinism has been a force impeding the rights of women, thus, women in Nigeria have been marginalized and exploited in both private and public spheres. The Nigerian society continuously fails to protect and support women against domestic and social violence. Our culture has celebrated ideologies that have exposed women to discrimination and gender bias, and deprived them of many choices and entitlement. In some Nigerian culture, for instance, a woman is not entitled to inherit her father’s property; or a woman is not complete until she has at least a male child. These are obnoxious practices, and what the aforementioned Nigerian female writers and critics seek to achieve with their works, is to advocate for the Nigerian woman’s cultural, societal, political, religious and ideological audibility, challenging and questioning the aged-long notion that Nigerian women are “voiceless”.

A Nigerian feminism will therefore embody the totality of the Nigerian woman in self-assertion and self-expression in positive and not negative ways. It will explore reality from the Nigerian woman’s point of view, like Ginika in Adimora-Ezeigbo’s Roses and Bullets, Olanna and Kainene in Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Efuru in Nwapa’s Efuru, Enitan in Atta’s Everything Good Will Come, thereby, showing that Nigerian women are not in any way intimidated by the presence of the men, rather, they seek better co-existence and complementarity. A Nigerian feminism will also be about the unique and positive experience of Nigerian women as empowered individuals, for to be a Nigerian woman can be a beautiful experience at home, at work, and the wider society. These Nigerian writers are creating a ‘new’ vision and telling the world that Nigerian women are seeking ‘self-identity’ by defining themselves in their own terms; by trying to escape the customary roles designed for them as slaves, witches, mothers, wives, prostitutes and mistresses, and above all, they desire love, understanding and equal opportunity as their male counterparts. In all, Nigerian female writers and ‘Nigerian feminists’ are succeeding in reversing the ‘status quo’, that is, the patriarchal image of women as docile, helpless beings with no control over their own fate.

• Uwandu is a doctoral student in the Department of English, University of Lagos.


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