I wish I had not worn that ugly suit that day. I’ve actually banished it from my closet, by the way. Had I then the confidence that I have now to be myself my students would have benefited even more from my teaching, because I would have been more comfortable, and more fully and more truly myself. I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femaleness and for my femininity. And I want to be respected in all of my femaleness because I deserve to be.
Gender is not an easy conversation to have. For both men and women, to bring up gender, sometimes encounters almost immediate resistance. I can imagine some people here are actually thinking “Women, true to selves? ” Some of the men here might be thinking “Okay, all of this is interesting, but I don’t think like that.” And that is part of the problem. That many men do not actively think about gender or notice gender, is part of the problem of gender. That many men, say, like my friend Louis, that everything is fine now. And that many men do nothing to change it. If you are a man and you walk into a restaurant with a woman and the waiter greets only you, does it occur to you to ask the waiter “Why haven’t you greeted her?”
Because gender can be…Actually we may repose part of a longer version of this talk. So, because gender can be a very uncomfortable conversation to have, there are very easy ways to close it, to close the conversation. So some people will bring up evolutionary biology and apes, how, you know, female apes bow down to male apes and that sort of thing.
But the point is we’re not apes. Apes also live on trees and have earth worms for breakfast but we don’t. Some people will say, “Well, poor men also have a hard time.” And this is true. But that is not what this… But this is not what this conversation is about. Gender and class are different forms of oppression. I actually learned quite a bit about systems of oppression and how they can be blind to one another by talking to black men.
I was once talking to a black man about gender and he said to me, “Why do you have to say ‘my experience as a woman’? why can’t it be ‘your experience as a human being’?” Now this was the same man who would often talk about his experience as a black man.
Some people will say, “Oh but women have the real power, bottom power.” And for non-Nigerians, bottom power is an expression which — I suppose means something like a woman who uses her sexuality to get favors from men. But bottom power is not power at all. Bottom power means that a woman simply has a good root to tap into, from time to time, somebody else’s power. And then of course we have to wonder what happens when that somebody else is in a bad mood, or sick, or impotent.
Some people will say that a woman being subordinate to a man is our culture. But culture is constantly changing. I have beautiful twin nieces who are fifteen and live in Lagos, if they had been born a hundred years ago they would have been taken away and killed. Because it was our culture, it was our culture to kill twins.
So what is the point of culture? I mean there’s the decorative, the dancing…but also, culture really is about preservation and continuity of a people. In my family, I am the child who is most interested in the story of who we are, in our tradition, in the knowledge about ancestral lands. My brothers are not as interested as I am. But I cannot participate, I cannot go to their meetings, I cannot have a say. Because I’m female.
Culture does not make people, people make culture. So if it’s in fact true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we must make it our culture. I think very often of my dear friend Okuloma, may he and all the others that passed away in that Sosoliso Crash continue to rest in peace. He will always be remembered by those of us who loved him. And he was right that day many years ago when he called me a feminist. I am a feminist. And when I looked up the word in the dictionary that day, this is what it said: Feminist, a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.
My great grandmother, from the stories I’ve heard, was a feminist. She ran away from the house of the man she did not want to marry, and ended up marrying the man of her choice. She refused, she protested, she spoke up whenever she felt she’s being deprived of access, of land, that sort of thing. My great grandmother did not know that word “feminist,” but it doesn’t mean that she wasn’t one. More of us should reclaim that word.
My own definition of feminist is: a feminist is a man or a woman who says – a feminist is a man or a woman who says “Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it. We must do better.”
The best feminist I know is my brother Kenny. He’s also a kind, good-looking, lovely man, and he’s very masculine.