Last week of October in Western Africa was marked by the events surrounding Ake Arts and Book Festival organized for the first time in Lagos, instead of the traditional choice of ex-capital Abuja, I was talking to Ms Ope Adedeji about the importance of books, feminism and women’s role in Nigeria.
“A Nigerian woman, before she unlearns gender roles and stereotypes knows that she must be on her best behavior, that she must act and speak a certain way and most importantly, that she must be at the service of men — from her father to brother, to husband — at all times. To do otherwise would be to be an outcast, unladylike. She feels an obligation to learn how to cook, to be kind, to be warm, to smile. Being a woman in Nigeria means learning to feel like you are “property” because your custom believes you are.”
- Tell me, what is like to be a woman in Nigeria?
– Being a woman in Nigeria comes with feelings of being subordinate and secondary. It is the way most women were brought up and socialized in various religious and cultural Nigerian settings You learn quickly as a girl-child that people tend to place a higher priority on the male gender, especially if you grow up in a home with brothers. It happens in schools too, where a brilliant girl is termed as being “too ambitious” when she does better than the boys, as if being too ambitious is a bad thing for a girl — and this I know happened to a friend. The patriarchy is everywhere, ingrained in all institutions and fragments of the society. So as a Nigerian woman, I face multiplicity of constraints: typically legal, economical and social.
As a Nigerian woman you have to the deal with the problem of (street) sexual harassment. I wrote something recently about being in Uganda and having culture shock when I went out at night in a really short dress and nobody tried to harass me even though there were several men lurking around. My friend from Botswana and I had normalised the street sexual harassment we faced in our countries and were so shocked that we were able to walk freely in another African country, at night. It was normal for us to have men follow us, try to touch us, and hurl insults at us when we refuted their advances.
- So you feel bad either way – respond or not respond?
– Yes, unfortunately. It is something that is ingrained in the system and women have had to accept. It is only now with social media and a lot of reading, education and travelling that we Nigerian women and especially millennials are identifying it as a patriarchal problem and something that shouldn’t be accepted. It (patriarchy) is an all-consuming venom that is deeply rooted in our religions and culture.
3. This problem of patriarchy is a problem rooted across the globe. But, for a country as new as Nigeria in terms of democracy, human rights and feminism it must be even tougher to get the word of change out. Do you feel like you are having consequences for speaking up?
– I think about this a lot, especially in terms of social media backlash. Social media has created a space for people and groups fighting for equality to speak up. It is one of the fastest ways to proselytize the good news that is Feminism. And maybe for a tiny while, it was a safe space for women. These days, it is far from being a safe space. Once you identify as a feminist, people tag you as: “angry”, “woman with daddy issues”, “lesbian”, “witch”,etc and only because you are deviating from custom, only because you are speaking up on what you think and know is right. When this backlash comes from women, it hurts even more because we should all be in this battle for equality together. The reality is that a lot of these women do not understand the goal, and where they do, perhaps, decide to be deliberately obtuse about it. The road to the feminist goal of gender equality embodies some of the greatest everyday obstacles that shape our lives.
I wrote an essay recently on LGBTQ and patriarchy in Nigeria, I shared it on my twitter timeline but I didn’t write that I’d written it because — at the risk of coming out as a coward — I wasn’t ready for the backlash. Women on the daily get abused for speaking up for their rights. I understand that humans are always angry when people try to introduce new ideas or when people do not share their opinions, or when people try to deviate from status quo. But I feel like as humans, the one thing we should be especially open to is change, and that is why I try to keep an open mind. I try not to disregard or ridicule any ideas or opinions especially when they are different from mine. This is something at least 70% Nigerians cannot do, hence the continuous backlash.
- When it comes to LGBT in Nigeria it seems clear where the country stands. Is it challenging even to talk about it?
– Really, itis a no-go area. Lives of Great Men is an example of a book we (Ouida Books) published this year. It is a memoir about a gay Nigerian man, written by a gay Nigerian man. When we started supplying bookstores around Nigeria, it was rejected in some stores by store ownerson the grounds that it went against their moral standards, values and beliefsto sell a book written by a gay person. We have not been able to wrap our heads around such reasoning. It is simply mind boggling. It is so interesting to see how something that people do consensually inthe privacy of their homes, something that doesn’tremotely affect the public, thataffection and love between two grown and matured people can be such a big deal to other people.
- It is interesting to see this gap between women. You are a young intellectual, an outspoken woman that reads and is open to the world. But, there is this whole other generation of women – your mother, grandmother, great-grandmother that you share a big generation gap with. Would you be able to have this conversation about emancipation, women’s rights, male dominating society that needs a change with them at the dinner table?
– That’s a very interesting question. I have to be very honest, I haven’t tried with my mom. I did with my older sister and she made a very interesting comment “you are reading too much Chimamanda”. (You know Chimamanda is at the forefront of feminism everywhere. She is always speaking up for women. Her definition of feminist as a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes is quoted everywhere. Nigerian women on twitter these days like to identify as Daughters of Chimamanda, just as a lighthearted way of pledging their undying allegiance to the Feminist movement). I think at the time I had the conversation with my sister, I had just finished reading Chimamanda’s “We Should All Be Feminists” and had recommended it to her to read. Seeing as my older sister, with a five year gap between us is an educational psychologist, I had just somehow imagined that she would be a little bit woke and open minded but she was not. It was an interesting conversation. Perhaps I’ll try to have it with her again, maybe when she has a daughter because I worry more about the women coming after us. I do not want them to go through the things we did, the things our mothers and grandmothers went through.
My younger sister and I on the other hand have these conversations all the time, we are both proud feminists and that’s why I often think that the older generations might just be a lost cause, and maybe I should be focusing and channelling my energies more on the younger people that are coming after us.
My mother and I talk a lot about being financially independent. She’s not a feminist, and I doubt she would agree with the feminist goal or values. Still, there is this part of her that promotes gender equality when she talks about the benefits of being a financially independent woman. She tells my siblings and I that she started driving when she was 16, had moved out by 25, and was already working in a bank. She’s a banker and has spent most of her life working as a banker.
Our conversations about financial independence is at the root of my interest in feminism. Because we live in a society where women are socialized to be dependent on men in many ways and financially as wives, as daughters, as sisters, as mothers. What my mother was going for, was training her daughters to abstain from that sense of entitlement to a man’s money, regardless of who he is. And largely she has succeeded. But in the university and even now, in life and beyond, you come across men who want to give money and indirectly collect your body in exchange. Where you refuse to give it to them, they take it by force. Rape. “Tit for tat, I scratch your back, you scratch mine,” kind of arrangements.
I started questioning these things at the beginning of university: Why does a woman feel entitled to a man’s money, and why do men feel entitled to a woman’s body? I like to believe that feminism should not be one sided. If we are going to call out men for being scum, we should be able call out women for their wrongs too.
6. There is this huge difference between North and South in Nigeria. Polygamy issue that still stick around for religious, but also practical reasons? Is marriage looked upon as something practical or romantic?
– I would say it’s still tilting to the more practical side. Let me give you an example. I have friends that still live in their parents’ houses because their parents do not believe they should be living on their own and you would also find that a lot of landlords in Lagos are not willing to rent apartments to single women because they worry about them being promiscuous. So, Nigerian parents don’t want their daughters to live outside their home because they feel that the natural transition is from the father’s house do the husband’s house. There is no space for you to experience independence on your own.
For a lot of young people, it could be for romantic reasons, but for a lot of parents it is mostly practical. They do not want their daughters to be promiscuous. They place a lot of value on the institution of marriage, it’s a thing of pride when women especially get married in these parts. Parents also look at it from the practical angle when they want to secure a financially buoyant future for their daughter as if to imply that their daughter cannot get wealthy on her own.
- Is it still a bigger joy when a boy is born than when a girl comes to world?
– Yes, it is. When you have more female children, the men would do as much as possible to get male children. Sometimes going as far as marrying another woman to try to get boys. It is the most common situation. Not to say that there aren’t families who are content with just girls. I’ve had someone tell me, years ago, that my parents are lucky that my brother is the first child since my parents’ 3 subsequent kids were girls. Till today, I do not understand the luck, the value that is placed on having a male child.
- . Throughout the world history women have tried to fight for their rights, many times through the written word and anonymously to avoid problems Nigeria has a reputation of being dangerous, more so for women than men Why is the written word here so important?
– I cannot imagine the world without words. There’s a verse in scripture, the bible, I like to take literally: In the beginning was the Word. So words have existed for long. They help us understand other human experiences, and teach us empathy. Written word is one of the best ways to travel through different geographical locations because the reader keeps inventing and reinventing what places they have never been to look like. It really sparks up the imaginative side of us. It chronicles experiences and in turn preserves traditions and memories.
I think the written word is like juju* — it can takes you places in the present and in the past – its 2018, and I can read Shakespeare and try to understand life in the 15th and 16th century, what was going in Shakespeare’s mind; I could read a history book and understand exactly the past from different perspective. It helps us understand the world, and that emotions, feelings, experiences, they are largely universal. World without a written word would be a disaster.
- Tell me more about the festival.
– The theme of the festival was FANTASTICAL FUTURES. We had guests from all over Africa and the world speaking a reimagined African future. The Ake Arts & Book Festival is five days of cultural immersion. As is always the case, Ake Arts and Book Festival aims to showcase the very best of contemporary African literature, poetry, music, art, film and theatre. This is the sixth edition and it took place for the first time in Lagos on October 25 – 28, 2018.
Ake Festival 2018 featured book chats, art exhibition, a stage play, an in-depth interview, school visits, stimulating panel discussions, film screenings and so much. I am very excited to have been a part of the core team for the first time. I have volunteered twice in the past, and have press work for the festival.
- What would you want the women and girls that maybe will never get a chance to come to Nigeria know about living in Nigeria?
– Nigerians are very happy people even though living in Nigeria as man or a woman can hell. Still, we manage to rise above it and be happy. We are also very accommodating people. The culture is colorful. I mean, we are very diverse here and there is not one script to describe the average Nigerian person, or the average Nigerian city or lived experience, but it can be a really happy place. The life can be very fast here in Lagos, but it’s a part of experience.
- Why is it good to be a woman in 21stcentury? Why are you and I lucky to be here?
– I think we are lucky to be here because we are at the forefront of something great that is happening, there is a certain kind of awareness that is coming around. The idea might have always been there, but now I feel that Nigerian women are joining hands to fight the patriarchy. The best part of being a woman now is probably the amazing friendships we nurture and cultivate through encouraging each other to be better and motivating each other to do great things. Now is the time when glass ceiling are being broken and it is just amazing when you see that the women you know and respect are a part of this change and they are finding their own role in this previously male-dominated system.
- Do you feel the change coming?
– Yes, yes, I feel it, I see it coming.
- What kind of partner are you hoping for?
– Really, I’m not keen on marriage. Sometimes I think I’m hoping for a unicorn. Which might not be a bad idea. But to answer, I’m looking for a kind person, who like me believes in the importance of feminism, the importance of gender equality, the importance of reading, the importance of being open minded. Physical traits come right after.
*Juju is a fetish or charm believed by West Africans to have magical or supernatural powers.