Minna Salami: The time for women’s revolution is now
Listed by ELLE Magazine as one of the “12 women changing the world,” Minna Salami is a Nigerian-Finnish writer, speaker, blogger, feminist thinker and consultant, as well as the founder of Ms Afropolitan; a multiple award-winning feminist blog attracting nearly a million unique visits yearly. Minna writes for the UK Guardian, as well as a monthly column for The Guardian Nigeria and a Huffington Post blog. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she talks about the struggles of being a woman in Nigeria and how women can disengage from the shackles of patriarchy and why feminism is not a new concept for Nigerian women.
Kindly tell us a bit about your background?
My dad is Nigerian, from Abeokuta in Ogun State, which makes me a Nigerian. I grew up in Lagos and lived there till I was 13 before moving to Sweden to finish my secondary school education. Since then, I’ve lived in New York, Spain and now in London, but I shuffle between London and Lagos. Apart from writing and blogging, I’m also a speaker and what I would call a feminist thinker. You could say with everything I do, the purpose of my work, including lecturing at universities, is about changing values into more progressive and egalitarian values for both sexes and people of African heritage. My work is centered on women inequality, as well as the African renaissance and the promotion of a new set of African values.
How are you changing these inequality values you mentioned?
First, by disseminating information and ideas, because the way you shape and change people’s minds is through ideas. I usually try to engage with ideas that already exist or come up with new ones on how things should be and how we can get there, which is what the purpose is originally. When people come across my ideas, they either agree or disagree, but it creates a dialogue and it is through this means that we, as women, can inspire each other, learn from each other and come up with new solutions to things and to also understand who we are as a people and why things are the way they are. We need to encourage those kinds of conversations and that is what my work aims to do, whether writing a column in a newspaper or writing a feature in a magazine or speaking at a conference, I’m always focused on encouraging and pushing the conversation a little bit further. This is not an easy task, because you may say this is what you want to do, but in order to do that, you have to sometimes be provocative and have the courage to say something that really isn’t always comfortable, because people don’t usually want to change the status quo.
Did you experience any cultural shock returning to Lagos? How different is life here compared to where you’re coming from? I moved to Sweden from Lagos and I experienced major culture differences. It was a real shock moving to Sweden from Lagos as a teenager and it took a while to adjust. For instance, here in Nigerian schools, students are usually well behaved and if you misbehaved, you were punished, sometimes with a beating. But in my first week in Swedish school, one of my classmates got angry with a teacher and lifted his chair and tossed it to the front of the class. This shocked me completely and I was just sitting there thinking, ‘this can never happen in Lagos.’ It was difficult adapting in the beginning; things were very different from anything I had ever experienced before.
Would you say life over there was better than here?
This is tricky because I want to say no. There is something precious about being a Nigerian; you’re around your people and in familiar environments. I felt like an alien in Sweden. I say it is tricky, because Nigeria has a lot more poverty, is underdeveloped, battles with a complex history of colonial exploitation and the easy answer is yes, life in Sweden is better for a vast majority of people. But I think there are still a lot of positive things about being a Nigerian in Nigeria. This for me includes, the food, the language and the music amongst other things. This may look like small things, but when you add them all together and you’re in a country, where you’re eating things you are not used to, hearing languages nobody around you speaks, the music, the weather, all these things make you feel like you don’t belong.
Furthermore, if you experience prejudice, which our people experience often in European countries, the positive thing about being at home is the sense of feeling at home. Also, the most important factor to me is our sense of ownership and the fact that it is our generation that is going to shape this country on the path it would become.
Do you think Nigerian women are where they should be and doing what they should, compared to women of the same generation in other more developed climes?
A lot of women are breaking barriers, pushing against the glass ceiling, challenging the patriarchal structure but I don’t see enough of this. Sometimes, I’m afraid that things are not changing fast enough for Nigerian women, because when you look at the number of young women in the country, it’s really dire; there are still so many obstacles in the way of their emancipation and freedom. For instance, abortion is still illegal, a woman cannot confer Nigerian heritage upon her child without the consent of the father, and these things shouldn’t be happening in 2017. I believe the time for women’s revolution is now. And though there are young women who are trying to make it happen, but sadly, there are not enough of them.
As a writer and feminist thinker, how do you encourage women to surmount these several obstacles and patriarchal mentality? Setting an example is very important and this can be achieved by sharing insight. So many of these obstacles are self-imposed and there are things society says you cannot do as a woman, but you find out that if you push yourself, you can do them. What I try to do is to say and show a path towards fearlessness, because when you’re fearless, you will do whatever you want to do despite what society says. It’s more about the mindset, the psychological change and this is what I try to do with my work. I believe we can change laws, but the important thing is to change our psychology to empower women, to tell the society that we can do what we want to, whether it’s getting an education, choosing to stay unmarried and so on.
If we change the law without changing the mentality, nothing has changed. For instance, contraceptives can be made readily available, but if women still think it’s a sin to use them, they wouldn’t still use them. I try to focus on psychological, as well as spiritual change, because the psyche and the spirit are the same in many ways. My dream is for Nigerian women to be spiritually and psychologically healthy and empowered and this doesn’t mean just going to church or mosques, but to be wholly and truly healthy and empowered. Whatever I do, I ask myself how I can contribute to this dream, so that other women feel inspired to go on a journey of her own spiritual empowerment. It is important to join prayer to revolution, because prayer alone is not enough.
Do you think government is doing enough to protect women and children, seeing as they’re the most vulnerable members of society? There are those in government doing positive things, but there are also some people doing things to erase what little good is done. There are still some politicians who think child marriage is okay and mass marriage is an achievement. If you have someone trying to prevent this kind of things, how does that government operate functionally? I don’t have a pessimistic view, however, as I think there is a lot happening within government to do good things for the girl child. Women are more connected to the land and the land is where the riches are. Once we can understand this, we are a step closer to solving a myriad of issues. Women are now having easier access to loans from banks, information resources and this is something positive government is doing. I am happy this government has been smart enough to realise we need to move away from oil and farming. Agriculture is a positive area they are turning to.
How do you joggle all your responsibilities, writing, blogging, lecturing and so on?
This is what my life is about. I am passionate about it and this keeps me going. Even if I weren’t doing something that is giving me a paycheck or keeping me occupied career-wise, I would still do what I do. I always try to reach out to young girls and women, even in my spare time. I love to keep women informed, because truthfully, there is a dearth of information and we all know information is empowerment. Most women have no idea what is available to them and the press has a huge responsibility to encourage civil society engagement.
Feminism has been given a bad name in this part of the world. What brand of feminism can effectively work for Nigerian women and keep perspectives balanced?
Nigeria has a large feminist movement, whether we want to admit it or not. Several women play very key roles and have a strong voice in driving discourse. Even looking at the older generation, especially the female writers, they have been practising their unique brand of feminism for ages. Saying Nigeria has no brand of feminism is wrong and negates the efforts and work of so many women. I believe Nigerian feminism is a humanist one, in the sense that it is about both inner and outer changes, compared to the West that is all about outer changes. Our feminism is expressed through art, writing, pottery and so on. If your husband doesn’t allow you to fully express your feminism, there is a discrepancy and a lack of equality in your relationship. We want to make feminism comfortable, but it cannot be comfortable because the situation we are in is disempowering and in order to take the next step, we need to do it gently and that is what I mean by the humanist angle.
Compared to male writers, there are few female writers. Why do you think this is so?
There is nothing more fully human than having a voice and being able to do it publicly. So, if you grow up in a culture, where your voce is always suppressed, it is difficult to see women talking about controversial topics or political topics. As a woman, writing about such ‘serious’ topics as politics, ideas and so on, they get criticised more and label you a feminist and try to suppress your voice. Writing in Nigeria is actually a risk and takes a lot of courage, more so, if you are a woman.
Who and what motivate you daily?
It may sound cheesy, but love motivates me. By love here, I mean passion for whatever it is you do, no matter what it is. So many great people and teachers I look up to inspire me. My late mother is my first inspiration, teacher and role model. She always told me to find my happiness, no matter what. The late Miriam Makeba also inspires me. She was so fearless and had a beautiful, soft spirit despite all the racism and sexism she faced. She lived life on her own terms, moved around the world ad married several times.
How do you relax?
I enjoy listening to music, going out with friends, but I’m also addicted to calm because my life is quite hectic, as I travel a lot for work. I’m always researching, writing or speaking and so, I’ve become addicted to finding pockets of calm daily either though yoga, or sitting in the garden reading or having a cup of tea or meditating. This might sound strange, but when your mind is always racing, you begin to look forward to moments of calm. I also enjoy connecting with new people and nurturing relationships, this brings me a lot of joy. I enjoy reading non-fiction novels, even though I don’t get a lot of time to read. I love novels that are epic stories and really take you on a journey.
How would you describe your style?
I usually go from casual to glam; there is no in-between. I’m more of a t-shirt and jeans kind of woman and when I’m not doing that, I’m in a sparkly gown with heels. If I could raid a celebrity’s closet, it would be Asa. I love her style, even though I don’t dress like her. She wears unusual, quirky, bold pieces, and I think they really fit her look.
What are your plans for the next five years?
I hope to do more of what I’ve been doing so far and to expand it. I’m working on a project to expand a talk/long essay I gave recently into a poem and it is called ‘Oyalogy: A Poetic Approach To African Feminism ’, after the Yoruba goddess Oya. I want o understand feminism not just how it exists today, but throughout our history. She was definitely a feminist goddess and what she represents in the Yoruba pantheon of deities is a female force that changes things, when they are not working.
I recently read this essay, and had a musician play an instrument, while reading it and it was well received. I am now working with a Nigerian musician to ‘perform’ the essay here. I hope to do more of the same, but come up with new ways to get the message of psychological, spiritual and political empowerment out there, and there are many ways we can do that. The next five years would see me being more creative with my work.
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