I have more of my mother in me than I’d like to admit sometimes. Her theatrics, zest for life, strength in adversity and sense of ambition. And of course, there’s the dentition. My mum was like a lot of African mothers in the way she laced her scolding in anecdotes and proverbs, usually in our mother tongue – Igbo. The proverbs broke the entire ordeal into bearable bits because proverbs seem as though they have to be told with a certain measure of calm. The delivery moment for the proverb is supposed to be a profound one in which everyone lends it their attention. You cannot be delivering a slap simultaneously with your proverb. It comes before or after, preferably the latter – a profound grand finale to sum up the essence of the whooping or scolding you’d just received.
My mother had a few favorites that she delivered without fail depending on the nature of our offense. We could almost guess right which proverb would follow the yelling based on what we’d done or allegedly committed. Quite frankly, I liked some of them, especially those she said her mother always said to her and her siblings. Those felt like I was getting in on some century-long code of tradition that I could pass down to my own kids. More so, they made sense to me. Once I successfully deciphered the literal translation of the proverb, I could almost always decode the metaphor. Their meanings weren’t lost on me except for this one proverb that interestingly, she always delivered in English. “Girls should be seen before they are heard”. What???
In my opinion, that was a way of saying to girls “shut up until we permit you to talk!”. ‘But what if I have something to say?’, I’d wonder. Her intentions were harmless, perhaps even righteous. Her aim was to teach me about poise, intentional speech, and composure. Quite frankly, each time she said it, the scenario that came to mind was of people in our living room cringing at the sound of my sister and I screaming from the room, probably thinking “what kind of girls are these loud?” It took me growth and experiences of the constructs around which the African woman’s experience is built to realize that the proverb could be interpreted in multiple numbers of ways that were apparent in everyday living. I began to see how century-long patriarchal systems across marital, academic, career, religious and other cultural institutions have all been intricately woven together to engineer the realities of women by curbing self-expression in them. This transcends different dimensions of expression from creative to articulating opposing views on norms even when womanhood is central to the issues at hand.
Today, we find women beginning to challenge the status quo and rise to the occasion of calling out systematic flaws that have worked to contain the fullness of the woman’s humanity. Recently in Nigeria, there’s been a wave of women who have experienced gender-based injustices igniting conversations about their experiences and demanding a paradigm shift in how the society propagates and responds to these situations despite the stigmatization, victimization, and backlashes that are the default repercussion for this form of expression by women. However, there is the need to increase representation especially in societies where women are more vulnerable. There is a need for more voices. There is a need for more questioning, more probing, more expression of thought.
Here, I shed light on five facets of life that have historically presented with grey areas that women have not been conditioned to navigate in terms of expression and exploration in their fullness. These are areas where I think women ought to begin to have loud, intentional conversations about if we will realize more wholesome societies and women.
Women and Money
Always been a hard one. Quite frankly, I’m only just getting in tune with this, myself. In some societies, women having their own money is treated like an outright taboo with justifications like emasculating the man, excess pride, dysfunctional motherhood etc. leading the way. In some others, the narrative of women not being savvy with finance either as a discipline, career path or pillar of lifestyle is embedded in upbringing, models of consumerism, educational systems, oral tradition, professional ecosystems and even organized religion. Women over time, embraced that finance is a man’s world and that you must be an outlier of sorts as a lady to thrive in this area. Many women have believed that the money code is hard to decipher, numbers not compatible with svelte body and even that they do not necessarily need to navigate the world of finance to be themselves.
Well, I think that it is impossible to harness empowerment in its fullness without exploring and attaining financial upliftment or security. An empowered woman is one who has physical, intellectual, emotional, financial, spiritual and social resources at her disposal to create value for herself and society. She cannot afford to be estranged from money or the idea of it. It is time for women to sustain conversations around the interplay between womanhood and money; our need for it, how to earn it, how to multiply it, how to create from it and how to spend it. According to Harvard Business Review, women represent a bigger opportunity than China and India combined. Let that sink in but in the meantime, Ladies, let’s talk money!
Women and Respect
In many societies, you’d almost think the world was created with men allocated a monopoly on respect. While I acknowledge that men tend to have a heightened need to be accorded respect over many other emotional needs, women also have a valid need to be respected first as humans and secondly, as women, in the light of some of the peculiarities that come with that. Respect should be a human thing and every human should give it as well as demand and earn it.
The intricacies of gender-based injustice, I dare say, are built upon disrespect as much as any other factor that drives it. Women are expected to sacrifice their right to be respected at the altar of acceptability and malleability. Women who demand respect are termed angry, disgruntled and in the most ridiculous and unflattering way “feminist”.
There is the need not only for women to speak about the different situations that call for the respect that ought to be accorded them to be restored but also to demand it, set the example and be intentional about inculcating this in others. This is a subtle topic that calls for a high degree of responsibility from women as much as the men and systems that we’re demanding respect from. It is also noteworthy that women are not to withdraw the respect accorded men as a language for demanding it for themselves. There are enough respect and right action where they came from to sustain all humanity.
Women and Religion
The dance between women and religion has been a tense one for a long time. While I personally appreciate and indulge in the pursuit of spiritual growth, I cannot deny the negatives roles that organized religion may have been playing in the placing a ceiling over the development and empowerment of women.
This issue is even more of a grey area for women who are unwilling to give up their religious or spiritual beliefs because of the truth it holds for them but are uneasy with the cultural and personal influences that command many religious values and practices. Religion has been used in many societies to propel fanatism, terrorism and other forms of extremism which in most cases, prey on women physically and emotionally. Some other religions discourage the acquisition of knowledge by women in order to protect the self-serving interests of patriarchy or age-long biases against powerful women and their capabilities.
As is with any effective form of conditioning, many women are unable to see the line between the true precepts that govern their spirituality or religious beliefs and ulterior motives that religious authorities have infused into doctrines and religious practices even when there are obvious contradictions. Women need to allow them their rights to questions their own beliefs and the validity of the religious doctrines they subscribe to against the backdrop of the spiritual precepts they seek to adopt. Often, spirituality which ought to be a pathway to unlocking our truer, higher and freer selves is then altered into a white sepulcher that places limitations on women’s capabilities to thrive and white-washed injustices meted out to them. Women must begin to uncover these by interrogating the system with the aim of uncovering the truth and true spiritual wellness for themselves.
Women and Independence
To a large extent, most women in the world today function with identities that are hinged to the social statuses accorded them by society – a wife, a mother, etc. The higher the value the society communicates it places on a role or position; the more women are encouraged to aspire to be identified in the light of such a role.
Women are seldom allowed to demand to be identified as who they please to be addressed as. Even when a woman has achieved success in certain areas of life, her successes are discounted if they are not hinged to the society’s benchmark for her. It is often forgotten that there are facets of women including dispositions, needs that are independent of their social roles and are fueled solely by individuality. Women who dare demand this dimension of freedom to explore this aspect of themselves are termed selfish, wild, uncontrollable and even unwomanly. Who best to define womanliness but women who are in themselves an infinite combination of endless possibilities?
It is time for women to begin to navigate with constructive discourse the complex issue of identity and the independence of the women from the templates that she is thrust into by obligation, external pressure or even internal compasses that are being worked by generations worth of conditioning. Women must expose the nuances that exist in how their independence means to them and the world around them.
Women and Sex
Sex and the woman have had a very delicate relationship across cultures, religions, and economies. Women’s sexuality is a topic for women to walk around as if on eggshells even though it’s theirs for a lifetime. All sorts of abuse thrive – sex trafficking, rape, assault, female gender mutilation – yet the victims are anonymous and the perpetrators unknown.
It is time for women to raise the volumes on the conversations we have within and among ourselves on sex and how the constructs around it affect us and the quality of our lives. It is time to demand the freedom to navigate sexuality from a place of equality, justice and faith, for the women who believe in God’s design for their sexuality.
Almost every woman has some experience with one form of sex-related, socially propagated dysfunction and is aware of the exponential impact that these have on her life or at least outlook on life, predominantly negatively. However, fear of victimization, stigmatization, isolation, criticism and taking on the well-funded, sophisticated sexist empires of the world have created a form of silence that most women partake in at the expense of themselves.
Women must now, more than ever, disregard the repercussions of expressing themselves when it comes to matters of the woman and sex. These consequences have only been potent because we have been conditioned to consider them as so. Fortunately, a few movements such as #metoo and #Istandwithbusola which raged in Nigeria have portrayed a foreshadow of the power of voices as agents of change in shifting the narratives and institutional structures that have oiled the sexist machinery over centuries.
The best time to pursue change is now. Change is not easy. These conversations may call for more exposure than women are used to. It may break the molds that we’ve poured ourselves into as coping mechanisms. These conversations may require more energy than women have ever hand to spend on dialogue but until they are had, the world’s systems will never truly be optimized, and value maximized. Until women can be heard, whether or not they are being seen, our societies will be shadows of what they are truly capable of in every positive sense of the word.