And not long ago I wrote an article about what it means to be young and female in Lagos, and the printers told me “It was so angry.” Of course it was angry!
I am angry. Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change; but in addition to being angry, I’m also hopeful. Because I believe deeply in the ability of human beings to make and remake themselves for the better.
Gender matters everywhere in the world, but I want to focus on Nigeria and on Africa in general, because it is where I know, and because it is where my heart is. And I would like today to ask that we begin to dream about and plan for a different world, a fairer world; a world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently.
We do a great disservice to boys on how we raise them; we stifle the humanity of boys. We define masculinity in a very narrow way, masculinity becomes this hard, small cage and we put boys inside the cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear. We teach boys to be afraid of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves, because they have to be, in Nigerian speak, “hard man!”
In secondary school, a boy and a girl, both of them teenagers, both of them with the same amount of pocket money, would go out and then the boy would be expected always to pay, to prove his masculinity. And yet we wonder why boys are more likely to steal money from their parents.
What if both boys and girls were raised not to link masculinity with money? What if the attitude was not “the boy has to pay” but rather “whoever has more should pay”? Now of course because of that historical advantage, it is mostly men who will have more today, but if we start raising children differently, then in fifty years, in a hundred years, boys will no longer have the pressure of having to prove this masculinity.
But by far the worst thing we do to males, by making them feel that they have to be hard, is that we leave them with very fragile egos. The more “hard-man” the man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is.
And then we do a much greater disservice to girls because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of men. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller, we say to girls, “You can have ambition, but not too much.” “You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you would threaten the man.” If you are the breadwinner in your relationship with a man, you have to pretend that you’re not, especially in public, otherwise you will emasculate him.
But what if we question the premise itself, why should a woman’s success be a threat to a man? What if we decide to simply dispose of that word, and I don’t think there’s an English word I dislike more than “emasculation.” A Nigerian acquaintance once asked me if I was worried that men would be intimidated by me. I was not worried at all. In fact it had not occurred to me to be worried because a man who would be intimidated by me is exactly the kind of man I would have no interest in. But still I was really struck by this. Because I’m female, I’m expected to aspire to marriage; I’m expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important.
A marriage can be a good thing; it can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? I know a woman who decided to sell her house because she didn’t want to intimidate a man who might marry her. I know an unmarried woman in Nigeria who, when she goes to conferences, wears a wedding ring because according to her, she wants the other participants in the conference to “give her respect.”
I know young women who are under so much pressure from family, from friends, even from work to get married and they’re pushed to make terrible choices. A woman at a certain age who is unmarried, our society teaches her to see it as a deep, personal failure. And a man at a certain age who is unmarried we just think he hasn’t come around to making his pick. It’s easy for us to say, “Oh but women can just say no to all of this”. But the reality is more difficult and more complex. We’re all social beings. We internalize ideas from our socialization. Even the language we use in talking about marriage and relationships illustrates this. The language of marriage is often the language of ownership rather than the language of partnership.
We use the word “respect” to mean something that a woman shows a man but often not something a man shows a woman. Both men and women in Nigeria will say – and this is an expression I’m very amused by — “I did it for peace in my marriage.” Now when men say it, it is usually about something that they should not be doing anyway. Sometimes they say it to their friends, it’s something to say to their friends in a kind of fondly exasperated way, you know, something that ultimately proves how masculine they are, how needed, how loved — “Oh my wife said I can’t go to club every night, so for peace in my marriage, I do it only on weekends.”
Now when a woman says, “I did it for peace in my marriage,” she’s usually talking about having giving up a job, a dream, a career. We teach females that in relationships, compromise is what women do. We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for job or for accomplishments, which I think could be a good thing, but for attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. If we have sons, we don’t mind knowing about our sons’ girlfriends. But our daughters’ boyfriends? God forbid.
But of course when the time is right, we expect those girls to bring back the perfect man to be their husbands. We police girls, we praise girls for virginity, but we don’t praise boys for virginity, and it’s always made me wonder how exactly this is supposed to work out because…I mean, the loss of virginity is usually a process that involves…
Recently a young woman was gang raped in a University in Nigeria, I think some of us know about that. And the response of many young Nigerians, both male and female, was something along the lines of this: “Yes, rape is wrong. But what is a girl doing in a room with four boys?”
Now if we can forget the horrible inhumanity of that response, these Nigerians have been raised to think of women as inherently guilty, and have been raised to expect so little of men that the idea of men as savage beings without any control is somehow acceptable. We teach girls shame. “Close your legs”, “Cover yourself”. We make them feel as though by being born female they’re already guilty of something. And so, girls grow up to be women who cannot see they have desire. They grow up to be women who silence themselves. They grow up to be women who cannot see what they truly think, and they grow up — and this is the worst thing we did to girls — they grow up to be women who have turned pretense into an art form.
I know a woman who hates domestic work, she just hates it, but she pretends that she likes it, because she’s been taught that to be “good wife material” she has to be — to use that Nigerian word — very “homely.” And then she got married, and after a while her husband’s family began to complain that she had changed. Actually she had not changed, she just got tired of pretending.
The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are. Now imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations. Boys and girls are undeniably different biologically, but socialization exaggerates the differences and then it becomes a self-fulfilling process.
Now take cooking for example. Today women in general are more likely to do the house work than men, the cooking and cleaning. But why is that? Is it because women are born with a cooking gene? Or because over years they have been socialized to see cooking as their rule? Actually I was going to say that maybe women are born with a cooking gene, until I remember that the majority of the famous cooks in the world, whom we give the fancy title of “chefs,” are men.
I used to look up to my grandmother who was a brilliant, brilliant woman, and wonder how she would have been if she had the same opportunity as men when she was growing up. Now today, there are many more opportunities for women than there were during my grandmother’s time because of changes in policy, changes in law, all of which are very important. But what matters even more is our attitude, our mindset, what we believe and what we value about gender.
What if in raising children we focus on ability instead of gender? What if in raising children we focus on interest instead of gender? I know a family who have a son and a daughter, both of whom are brilliant at school, who are wonderful, lovely children. When the boy is hungry, the parents say to the girl “Go and cook Indomie noodles for your brother.” Now the daughter doesn’t particularly like to cook Indomie noodles, but she’s a girl, and so she has to.
Now, what if the parents, from the beginning, taught both the boy and the girl to cook Indomie? Cooking, by the way, is a very useful skill for boys to have. I’ve never thought it made sense to leave such a crucial thing, the ability to nourish oneself, in the hands of others.
I know a woman who has the same degree and the same job as her husband, when they get back from work she does most of the house work, which I think is true for many marriages. But what struck me about them was that whenever her husband changed the baby’s diaper, she said “thank you” to him.
Now what if she saw this as perfectly normal and natural that he should, in fact, care for his child? I’m trying to unlearn many of the lessons of gender that I internalized when I was growing up. But I sometimes still feel very vulnerable in the face of gender expectations. The first time I taught a writing class in graduate school I was worried. I wasn’t worried about the material I would teach because I was well-prepared and I was going to teach what I enjoy teaching. Instead, I was worried about what to wear. I wanted to be taken seriously. I knew that because I was female I will automatically have to prove my worth. And I was worried if I looked too feminine I would not be taken seriously. I really wanted to wear my shiny lip gloss and my girly skirt, but I decided not to.
Instead, I wore a very serious, very manly, and very ugly suit. Because the sad truth is that when it comes to appearance we start off with man as the standard, as the norm. If a man is getting ready for a business meeting he doesn’t worry about looking too masculine and therefore not being taken for granted. If a woman has to get ready for business meeting, she has to worry about looking too feminine, and what it says and whether or not she will be taken seriously.