Toke, Tiwa and Nigeria’s shaming culture
Unless you’ve been living under a rock or impressively stealth at avoiding all types of social media this lately, you’ll know that Toke Makinwa released her memoir “On Becoming.”
Described by the author as ‘a must tell’, the book is a story about her life and in particular her tumultuous relationship with her ex-husband. As soon as excerpts of the book hit the net, social media started buzzing. As expected there were people championing her decision to tell her story and people deriding her for doing so.
It wasn’t the derision that drew my attention, but rather the disturbing pattern that emerges when women chose to speak out about a bad relationship. First, they’re accused of lying. ‘How do we know she’s telling the truth?’ Usually followed by rumours about her character, ‘She’s like this anyway, so how do we know she’s telling the truth?’ This is then followed by demands that the man in question should come and ‘set the record straight.’ It’s interesting to note that when the situation is reversed, less people clamour for the woman’s side of the story, and if they do try to tell their version of events, they’re criticised for it. Remember the backlash Tiwa Savage received for her interview?
After denouncing the story as untrue or half-true, next comes the argument: “She’s doing it for money” or “to blow.” This idea of mass financial gain as the motivation for stepping out is an attempt to undermine the validity of the story. To some, it doesn’t matter if these women are already successful in their own right.
If those angles don’t work, next is the attempt to downplay the experience, thereby invalidating the story. Cue questions like: ‘‘Shebi she knew what he was like before, who begged her to marry him?’ or ‘If this one is writing a book, what should Aunty so and so do?’ When there’s evidence to back up the claim that the man in the relationship acted questionably, it’s time to find fault in the woman. What did she do to make him treat her like that? Was she too career-focused like girls of ‘these days’? Was she cooking for him or too busy going to parties?
When all else fails, it ends with ‘she should just have kept her mouth shut’. Even if her husband or boyfriend was the worst person in the world, she shouldn’t disgrace him or herself by displaying her laundry in the open.
Women are shamed for all kinds of things: drinking alcohol, having sex, being unmarried, being divorced, being too fat, being too thin, even telling their own stories. While it may all seem like innocent commentary about people who have chosen to open up about their private lives, on some level it is also about shaming. Although shaming is not unique to Nigeria, it is certainly ingrained here.
In a New York Times article about shame culture, David Brooks cites Andy Crouch which begins with a distinction between guilt culture and shame culture. “In a guilt culture, you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture, you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honours or excludes you.” Which one sounds most like Nigeria?
Shaming is so ingrained in society it almost comes across as normal, particularly where women are involved. Women are expected to suffer in silence, carry their crosses reverently and meekly, like they did in the old days. To speak out is to go open yourself up to accusation, humiliation and shame. It’s little wonder everyday women so often don’t tell their stories, (whether powerful, successful, financially secure) for fear of being shamed and critiqued if they tell all.
So how do we combat this shaming culture’? According to Brooks “In an era of omnipresent social media, it’s probably doubly important to discover and name your own personal True North, vision of an ultimate good, which is worth defending even at the cost of unpopularity and exclusion.”
In other words, people, particularly women, need to keep talking. They need to keep telling their stories, in spite of shame, not just because other people can learn from them, but because they have a right to be heard.