And I didn’t understand how Louis could not see what seems so self-evident. Then one evening, in Lagos, Louis and I went out with friends. And for people here who are not familiar with Lagos, there’s that wonderful Lagos’ fixture, the sprinkling of energetic man who hung around outside establishments and very dramatically “help” you park your car. I was impressed with the particular theatrics of the man who found us a parking spot that evening, and so as we were leaving, I decided to leave him a tip.
I opened my bag, put my hand inside my bag, brought out my money that I had earned from doing my work, and I gave it to the man.
And he, this man who was very grateful, and very happy, took the money from me, looked across at Louis, and said “Thank you, sir!”
Louis looked at me, surprised, and asked “Why is he thanking me? I didn’t give him the money.”
Then I saw realization dawned on Louis’ face. The man believed that whatever money I had had ultimately come from Louis. Because Louis is a man.
The men and women are different. We have different hormones, we have different sexual organs, we have different biological abilities, women can have babies, men can’t. At least not yet. Men have testosterone and are in general physically stronger than women. There’s slightly more women than men in the world, about 52% of the world’s population is female. But most of the positions of power and prestige are occupied by men.
The late Kenyan Nobel Peace Laureate, Wangari Maathai, put it simply and well when she said: “The higher you go, the fewer women there are.”
In the recent US elections we kept hearing of the Lilly Ledbetter law, and if we go beyond the nicely alliterative name of that law, it was really about a man and a woman doing the same job being equally qualified and the man being paid more because he’s a man. So in the literal way, men rule the world, and this made sense a thousand years ago because human beings lived then in a world in which physical strength was the most important attribute for survival. The physically stronger person was more likely to lead, and men, in general, are physically stronger. Of course there are many exceptions.
But today we live in a vastly different world. The person more likely to lead is not the physically stronger person, it is the more creative person, the more intelligent person, the more innovative person, and there are no hormones for those attributes. A man is as likely as a woman to be intelligent, to be creative, to be innovative. We have evolved; but it seems to me that our ideas of gender have not evolved.
Some weeks ago I walked into a lobby of one of the best Nigerian hotels. I thought about naming the hotel, but I thought I probably shouldn’t, and a guard at the entrance stopped me and ask me annoying questions, because their automatic assumption is that a Nigerian female walking into a hotel alone is a sex worker. And by the way, why do these hotels focus on the ostensible supply rather than the demand for sex workers?
In Lagos I cannot go alone into many “reputable” bars and clubs. They just don’t let you in if you’re a woman alone, you have to be accompanied by a man. Each time I walk into a Nigerian restaurant with a man, the waiter greets the man and ignores me. The waiters are products…at this some women felt like “Yes! I thought that!” The waiters are products of a society that has taught them that men are more important than women. And I know that waiters don’t intend any harm. But it’s one thing to know intellectually and quite another to feel it emotionally. Each time they ignore me, I feel invisible. I feel upset. I want to tell them I’m just as human as the man, that I’m just as worthy of acknowledgement. These are little things, but sometimes it’s the little things that sting the most.
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.