We Can All Be Feminists
“Why you dey behave like woman? Abeg, man up!”
“Don’t you know you’re a woman?”
At some point in your life, you might have heard statements similar to these. If you’ve really stopped to think about it, then perhaps you, like the rest of us, have wondered why. Why can’t men cry or show emotions when they are burdened? Why are women brought up to see marriage and satisfying their partners in the ‘other room’ as the height of achievement? Why is the thing between your legs a reason?
From the moment children are born, they are placed into one of the two major parts of the gender spectrum. According to Science Alert, everyone is conceived female until about the sixth week after conception when the Y chromosome takes effect in some infants and start to develop male physical traits. It doesn’t matter that, apart from this biological makeup, they are born more or less the same. So, what makes us so different if we were conceived the same way?
When you ask someone why they feel that everyone is not equal, they may talk about how they were not created the same and mention the roles accorded to different genders. By whom?
“We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what boys think of them. But the reverse is not the case,” award-winning Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in We Should All Be Feminists, which has become one of the world’s most popular pro-gender parity manifestos.
She adds: “We don’t teach boys to care about being likeable. We spend too much time telling girls that they cannot be angry or aggressive or tough, which is bad enough, but then we turn around and either praise or excuse men for the same reasons.”
Picture a set of twins, named Taiwo and Kehinde as is common in the Western part of Nigeria. Taiwo is a beautiful, little girl and her little brother, Kehinde, is in every way just like her.
In the typical Nigerian society today, how do you think these children will be brought up? Perhaps Taiwo will be restricted from climbing trees for fear that she may get hurt or Kehinde will be mocked if his favourite colour is pink. It is also possible that Taiwo will be taught to bake and braid hair while Kehinde will be taught to wash the cars and change the tyres.
This type of upbringing is limiting, making it difficult to discover the true potential of children at a tender age. What if Taiwo has the potential to become a great mechanical engineer? What if Kehinde has the potential to be a style genius?
These children will then grow into these roles, which have already handicapped them in one way or the other, and may not even realise it.
Now picture a world where the thing between one’s legs is hardly given as a reason for gender dichotomy.
Our culture has a selective use of gender as a reason for social norms. We use biology to explain the privileges men have, mostly referencing their physical superiority.
At some point in time, perhaps when these gender roles were formed, physical strength was necessary for survival and the strongest person ruled. Men are, as a matter of fact, physically stronger than women–this doesn’t minimise the fact that there are a lot of exceptional people who don’t conform to this statement–and, perhaps because of this, are more often than not put in leadership positions.
For these reasons, the fight for feminism is mostly dominated by women. This is partly because, on one the hand, a lot of men have been ingrained with a superiority complex from childhood. As a result, these men become a part of the problem and usually need a form of reorientation to see the need for change. On the other hand, there is a class of men who do not subjugate women but also do not feel the need to join the cause because they don’t feel included.
Men go through their own versions of some of these struggles, especially at a young age, but they are often ignored because there is a subconscious preconception that the male gender is at an advantage already and therefore doesn’t need any further help.
“We teach boys to be afraid of fear, of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves, because they have to be, in Nigerian-speak—a hard man,” Adichie says.
There are countless stories of boys who have had to sacrifice their dreams of being hairdressers, nurses or professional ballet dancers simply because their parents did not think it was “manly”. Who is responsible for fighting for these boys?
Gender roles are carved by social norms created by human beings and there is no social norm that cannot be changed. Unfortunately, negative gender stereotypes are firmly rooted in today’s youth by age 10, according to a recent global study that warns that such beliefs can raise the risk of depression, suicide, violence and HIV.
“Adolescent health risks are shaped by behaviours rooted in gender roles that can be well established in kids by the time they are 10 or 11 years old,” Kristin Mmari, lead researcher for the qualitative research at the Global Early Adolescent Study carried out in 15 countries including Nigeria.
She adds: “Yet we see billions of dollars around the world invested in adolescent health programs that don’t kick in until they are 15, and by then it’s probably too late to make a big difference.”
There is no reason why the world has to spend such amount of money trying to correct harmful consequences of practices we have domesticated out of our volitions for centuries. Unfortunately, effects of asymmetrical gender relations in society do not stop at the ones enumerated in the foregoing study.
“The higher you go, the fewer women there are,” says Kenyan Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai. Maathai’s statement is more poignant if backgrounded against the fact that a lot of women are denied seats at the table not because they are incapable of delivering on the job, but because of the gender.
For women, “developing executive presence, influence, negotiation skills, management skills and emotional intelligence are often as important as technical skills” as they move up the ladder at the workplace, says Dr Ola Orekunrin-Brown, the founder of West Africa’s first air ambulance, Flying Doctors Nigeria.
Regardless, a gender-fixated society will overlook qualified women when it comes to an appointment.
In some climes, conservatives cultural and religious dogmas have advanced as reasons for precluding women participation in sports. While the likes of Saudi Arabia are opening up to the idea of empowering women, Tonga, a Pacific nation, earlier this week bans her women from participating in boxing and rugby under the pretext of preserving “the dignity of Tongan women and hold on to Tongan cultural values.”
There have been sadly amusing debates on social media about women and cooking and wives having to cook for their husbands like the survival skill was only pre-installed in women at birth. Domestic work in all forms is something both women and men should be able to do; they are not inherently feminine. It is important to be able to do things for yourself, from cooking to changing a tyre.
If we don’t force straitjacketed gender roles on people, they will have the space to reach their full potential not limited by these roles. However, these roles are so deeply conditioned in us that we will follow them even when they go against our true desires, needs or wellbeing. They are very difficult to unlearn.
If the reason for telling women to cover up, for instance, were to avoid pneumonia or a cold, then that reason would be valid. However, the reason is mostly to protect men or to avoid being harassed by men; this reduces women to mere objects. Instead, why don’t we tell men to stop harassing women, regardless of what they wear?
That a certain part of our culture is the way it has always been does not make it right, or else slavery, for instance, would never have been abolished.
Women fought for political rights and that expended to issues concerning sexual, reproductive and economic matters. Then it focused on the workplace, sexuality, family and reproductive rights. Women still fight for what should normally be theirs, but their gender reduces them to their marital and maternal roles more than anything else.
There are parts of Yoruba land where women are considered to be only good enough to serves as regent – a stopgap ruler whose gender makes automatically unfit to be made a permanent king. That in itself is rooted in an event in history. Oduduwa, the acclaimed progenitor of the Yoruba race is acknowledged to have bypassed his two eldest daughters to bestow rights to govern new territories on his seven sons.
The World Economic Forum said, in the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, that it would take a hundred years for gender parity to be reached. What would such a world be like in 2118?
We believe it’s possible, as long as we change our mindset. It is a learning and unlearning process we all have to undergo. Human beings have the ability to make and remake themselves for better. It’s okay to make mistakes along the line. What’s most important is that we make a conscious effort to stop making anyone’s gender a reason for doing something.
We should teach both children to be kind and brave and to speak their mind truthfully and say what they really think. We should teach boys the same things we teach girls. They should be able to nurture the way girls would, to cater for their families. Girls should also be able to participate in different physical activities in the same way boys are because of the mental and physical health benefits.
Achieving gender parity should go beyond beer parlour discourses – rich in intoxicated grandstanding, devoid of real intention. Real, coordinated actions, hinged on necessary systemic backing must be set in motion. The era of lip service should be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Gender disparity is a grave injustice as it is today. If you believe that everyone should be whoever they choose to be, regardless of what gender they were born into, then you are a feminist.
Call yourself what you are – a feminist.
Feminism, in its truest form, is the acceptance and promotion of balance among both genders irrespective of the roles and doctrines that society and culture have established in times past. What this means is simple: if women are not treated inferiorly because of what is between their legs, it should also not be assumed that men are always at an advantage simply because of what is in between their legs.
Irrespective of whatever gender a person belongs to, they should be seen as unique individuals with their own strengths, weakness and uniqueness.