Photo: Kelly Bedeian
being a woman in nigeria
A few days ago, I cleaned out an old box and found my wedding photo, the one where my husband and I posed with our wedding certificate, my gaze deadpan, the wedding gown tightly stretched against my protruding stomach. The unsmiling version of my nineteen-year-old self unsettled me. I could not reconcile the girl in the photo with the woman I had become.
The year was 2002. I had just moved from Kano State in northern Nigeria to Aba in the southeast. It was a new beginning. A girl is expected to move from her father’s house to her husband’s. I had fulfilled the purpose for which I believed I was born. On our wedding day, I was given the certificate; I was no longer Ukamaka Okoye, the daughter of her father. I became Ukamaka Olisakwe, the wife of her husband.
At first, the change was welcome. Neighbors never bothered to call me by my name because it was not important, because I had become Nwuye Olisakwe – the wife of Olisakwe. Because addressing me by my husband’s name was the expected thing to do. When I filled out forms at government offices, I was required to input my husband’s details – his hometown, local government, state of origin and surname.
I didn’t worry about switching identities; taking my husband’s name earned me respect. Men in cramped motor parks and open marketplaces apologized for groping me only after they had seen my wedding ring. “Oh, she is somebody’s wife,” they would say. I was saved the ridicule spinsterhood is fraught with, and when my stomach began to distend, men allowed me good seats in buses. They did not call me slur words – those were reserved for “single” women who dared to reject their sexual advances or cringed when they were groped. I was saved that misery. And when I gained admission into the polytechnic ten minutes from my home, my lecturers understood each time I missed class, each time I fell ill. They spoke kindly. They treated me with dignity. And I was grateful.
In 2003, during the final semester of my national diploma course, I missed a test that constituted thirty percent of a four-credit-unit subject. My lecturer understood when I explained that my baby had fallen ill. He set up a make-up test for me in his office. He asked about my daughter and told me to take all the time I needed. Later, after I had handed over the paper, thanked him and stepped out of the office, I saw my classmate, a buxom girl who had missed some classes because she had fallen gravely ill. She looked at me, her lips stretched in a sad smile, and said: “You are so lucky. He says I should come and take my test in his hotel room.”
Lucky. There was that word again. My cousins had called me lucky on my wedding day; my in-laws reminded me of how lucky I was every time they saw a gift my husband brought home from his trips. But hearing it this time felt different. It was veiled with threat. I would lose all the protection my husband’s name brought if he woke up one day and asked for his name back. I would no longer be lucky. I would be thrust back into the ominous reality my cousins dealt with, a society where they were often violated and were called prostitutes if they hung out at bars by themselves, a society where landlords would not rent them an apartment because they were single women, a world where they could not walk into certain places unaccompanied by men. I would lose the protection of a man’s name, the opportunity of dignity and escape from overt sexism.
The worry did eventually wane. I loved to tell myself that I simply shoved it out of mind and moved on to concentrate on my studies, graduate from school and later get a job at a local bank. I was happily married, had healthy children. I did not voice strong opinions during conversations with my husband. I was happy, I often told myself. But, later, when I allowed myself the truth of my assimilation, I realized that what actually happened was I had bowed to fear. Fear that my husband would get mad and send me back to my parents if I misspoke. Fear my mother would be mocked by the church and the community for raising a daughter who could not stay in a man’s house. Fear that my two daughters would be segregated by a society that punishes daughters for their mother’s decisions. Fear that my rebellion would hurt their future. As a woman, I owed my husband gratitude for the protection he provided me, and my daughters. And so I had to always lay it before him like an offering.
That was the key to a successful marriage in a society that describes a woman as the one “who squats to pee.” At the church, we were taught how to keep the man happy. What delicacies to prepare for him and the importance of doing his laundry, preparing his bath, kneeling to apologize when we misspoke. We learnt how to keep our heads down. Year after year, at the Women’s Retreat, we were blamed when the man philandered, were taught ways to keep him sexually satisfied, and when he still had affairs, we were taught to kneel night after night, our eyes shut tight in piety, and “pray” him out of his philandering ways. In many cases, when the man was physically violent, families would gather and plead with him to “control” his anger. We were taught to keep our mouths shut. “Do not speak back when the man is angry. If he hits you, it is your fault.” And even when you keep your mouth shut and put your head down but still got hit and confined in hospital for weeks, your families told you to return to him, your husband, because what God has joined together, let no man put asunder. Yet for all that silence, in Nigeria domestic violence cases are still at a shocking high.
That is the price women are expected to pay for marriage. We shed our former identities and cling to the man’s for relevance. We must not question why our children’s personal details at school reflect only their father’s origin and details. We are the lucky crop of females. We must not be too ambitious. We must remain humble. I swallowed my earlier dreams. I let myself believe I was enjoying this society.
In 2010, when I was twenty-eight, I received a mail request from a senior colleague at the office. After I sent my response, he replied, “Are you a writer?” It was an awkward mail from someone who was my office supervisor and who could dissolve my appointment if I erred. I replied that I was not, and he sent yet another awkward response: “I think you are a writer.” He said this in a way that made me repeat my first reply. I had only narrated my version of an event. I had talked too much, I thought. But he as senior staff cared more about the prose, and he assumed the unsolicited position of a mentor. He urged me to write about my daily experiences at the office. He said things that made me believe I could actually tell stories. He persisted, until I budged.
That is my favorite memory from that workplace. I began to make diary entries that would later stretch into my first TV series. I moved into this new phase with ease. Soon, I began to call myself a writer and found daily reasons to scribble stories. My days no longer moved in a blur. I joined the community of Nigerian writers on Facebook and surrounded myself with progressive friends. I read books I had never thought could be written by women. Women who spoke against things I had long ago swallowed, women who dared question the system. They wrote so that I could write, and I was writing all the time. I was back to being the child who once climbed trees and played football with boys. The child who believed she could imagine things and become them. I experimented with memory fiction. I found liberation in my stories. I began to feel a strange, comforting sense of belonging in my stories.
In 2012, I published my first book and, two years later, completed a 100-episode TV series that was aired on a station all over Africa.
My second liberation was in Iowa in 2016, when I participated in the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency. The memory that stays with me is all of us, thirty-six writers from all over the world, at the welcome ceremony where we all introduced ourselves to our hosts. I watched women like me, who spent their lives telling stories, talk about themselves. They talked of themselves and not their men. They spoke about themselves as human beings, full human beings whose value was not tied to marriage. They spoke in a way I had never imagined people could do. I was tongue-tied for many days. I was afraid to speak; I never knew women could be allowed such freedom. And many nights when I lay in my bed, I dared to give voice to the questions that had been sitting in my stomach like a stone: what would my life have been if I didn’t accede to marriage?
Do not get me wrong: I cherish my family. But many times, when I lie down to sleep and allow myself the sin of questioning the status quo, I wonder how I would have turned out if I did not live in a society that only permits a woman some dignity on the condition that she marries. At the end of the program, I realized what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: tell stories about women, because through my stories I discovered who I am and what I want.
I love hip-hop. I love Afrobeat. I love jollof rice. I hate driving. I love dark garments. I love cooking. I hate washing things with my hands. I love my children – fiercely. I fear for them each time they step out of the house. I fear something bad will happen to them. I keep them close to me as much as possible. But I hate all the exertion this aggressive protection demands. I don’t want more children, and feel I will die first before putting my body through that horror again. In my next life, I won’t have children.
I love ice cream even though I immediately regret it after finishing a cup. I love makeup. I hate big cities. I have little patience for nonsense. I hate when people think I don’t know what I want. I use “fuck” a lot and hate when people express shock when I say it. I hate being told I am beautiful because I think it is objectification. I am aggressively independent.
I stopped twisting myself into shapes to please people. I stopped having patience for people who used “African culture” as a justification for misogyny, including those who use the holy books to repress women. I stopped enduring bullshit, stopped smiling in the face of daily sexism. I have stopped being grateful and now demand appreciation, too, because love should not be one-sided. It is give and take.
I have no patience for men who blame women for patriarchy, who say “but it is natural for women to raise girls to aspire to marriage.” These folks, in a society like mine, refuse to admit that it is the men who give their daughters out to marriage, who marry these girls, who give them new identities, who keep them repressed, who want them to remain forever grateful. Who describe girls using demeaning terms like “the one who squats to pee.”
I have no patience for dishonest men who say it is women who mutilate the genitals of girls, but become selectively blind in societies where girls are cut into shapes for the man’s sexual pleasure. I have less patience for men who say “women pray to God for a husband,” but ignore the society that makes the lives of women a horror if they choose to remain unmarried. I see such men as dangerously dishonest.
I was able to realize all this because I learned to love myself, to see myself honestly. I am not perfect. I am annoyingly argumentative. I am saddened each time I read about women who reject the idea of feminism but thoroughly enjoy the proceeds from feminist struggles. I am deeply committed to changing my society. I want laws that will protect widows from greedy in-laws. I am a feminist. I belong to me, first.
Despite all of this self-love, this discovery and fulfillment in self, I still crumble when gender is raised in public discourse, especially within Nigerian circles. Some days ago, I put up a Facebook post: Why does society always expect women to thank God daily for the marriage they have? A few of the men who responded to the post denied the existence of this gratitude culture. “Which society is that?” asked a friend, and then he went on to list how good he is to his wife, how the men in his family respect their women. He warned me not to use “my personal experience” as a yardstick to measure our society. Another man called it “an exception.” To these men, such sexism does not exist, and if it does, it is in small, easily dismissible pockets that don’t tell the Nigerian story. But they are wrong, as proven by many who agree that such sexism is a daily occurrence because it is men who run the family.
This sad, contradictory premise has reduced our society to a dangerous place to exist as a woman. Take my friend who has been working in a bank for over eight years. During a chat with her in 2014 when she asked me for yet another “small loan,” she revealed she gave her monthly pay to her husband, and she had been doing this for many years. Here’s what happens: she transfers every single kobo she earns into his personal account, even the car loan she took from the bank. Then she returns to him every day, to beg for money for the upkeep of their family, for her makeup, for pocket money. He polices how much she spends. I was depressed and alarmed by how much she had shrunk herself for the sake of her marriage. To their neighbors, they are a traditional Nigerian family, while he is the kind of man who wears his masculinity like shoulder pads.
One evening, on the day auditors visited from Lagos, we stayed at work until past nine. When the auditors finally left and we stepped out of the office, my friend’s husband was standing by the gate, hulking and visibly angry. She shrank immediately when she saw him, and when she walked over to speak to him, he slapped her across the face so viciously she crumbled to the ground. The men at the security post rushed to hold him back from doing further harm. They begged him to “understand.” My friend was cowering on a street corner, begging him to understand, too. He stormed off and got into the car, and she hurried behind him, calling him pet names. I could not understand why he would humiliate the woman who sacrificed so much so he could stand tall.
Her story is the familiar Nigerian story of women shrinking themselves for their men. Women give away their income so that their families can fit into that old mold of what a Nigerian family is expected to be. They must not ever put their men second, no matter the position of power and prestige they attain. When you read every interview given by one of the world’s richest women – Folorunsho Alakija, a Nigerian – it is always about how submissive she is, how she still washes her husband’s clothes, cooks his food, kneels for him. How she puts her head down, because no matter how successful she is, he comes first. Our media continues to give her submissiveness priority, rather than telling her business success story. Or else, like a Facebook friend put it, the woman would be accused of “crumbling the virtues of family and marriage.”
Shared responsibility can be a good thing, a thing to aspire to. But why do we set different expectations for men and women?
Now, take my experience at the Ake Festival in 2014. After a session on feminism with inspiring women like Zukiswa Wanner and Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, a male journalist approached me. He wanted to probe further on the topic of female complicity in patriarchy, which I had raised in the panel. I agreed to the interview. We walked to a corner where we found a seat, but then another writer, a male, walked by, and this journalist begged to interview him first.
“I have been searching for him all around the place,” he told me. I didn’t think much of it, and since I had a free afternoon, I said it was okay. I hung around, half listening in on their conversation, and I was impressed by the critical topics this journalist raised. After the writer left, Mr. Journalist finally turned to me with a big smile. He switched on his voice recorder, but for the next five minutes or so, he asked questions about my husband, my children, how I was able to combine work and writing, whether being a mother and a writer was a difficult thing. How I must be grateful that my husband allowed me the opportunity to attend literary events.
These are valid questions, especially if I were talking with young women who needed tips on how to jostle work and family. I often also find myself chirping in talks about having a supportive partner. But it was different this time. This journalist felt the priority was not what I had to say about my works, but my family.
I felt the urge to stand up and leave, but I asked why he didn’t pose the same questions to the male writer whose marital status was as much a matter of public record as mine.
The default premise is that a woman must put her marriage first. Sometime in April, I had a tense argument with a Facebook friend. We were having a conversation on the etymology of some Igbo words. To drive home a point, my friend said, “Even a writer from your husband’s place in Abagana had written about this.” Apparently, he had checked my bio and saw that I noted Abagana as my hometown, and to him that automatically meant where my husband is from, because as a married woman, I must carry my husband’s identities at all times, on government forms and even on social media. My friend is the product of a society that expects me to erase my father’s history after marriage and to do so without grumbling. And each time I am caught in such situations, I feel invisible. I feel like I do not exist, and I get angry.
I get angry because we continue to be a culture that expects a woman to tap into the root of the man’s colorful story for relevance and belonging. It is a culture that refuses to acknowledge a woman as a full human being – a person equal to a man.
We tell women that marriage and children are our priority. And we teach men, among all other things they can be, that they should be generous, valiant beings providing for their obedient housekeeping wives. We become willfully blind when the women are the source of the families’ income, or we tell them to shrink themselves so that their men do not feel emasculated. We acknowledge women’s position of power and prestige on condition that they bow to men. But we applaud when men do otherwise. We teach women that they are not equal human beings with full rights as men. We teach women that they belong to men. We also tell women that they are responsible for the man’s success or failure.
Last December, I travelled with my family for Christmas and met an uncle, a man I had last seen on my wedding day. He hugged me and shook my hand. He was impressed that we came home with a nicer car. He said I brought my husband favor. That comment, even though well meaning, reflects a deep-rooted culture of blaming or praising the woman when her husband fails or succeeds in business ventures. I not only take on my husband’s identity, I become responsible for his success or failure. And it is a hard burden to bear, a burden I had learned to carry when I was only twenty years old when an in-law berated me for the state of my husband’s car. He said, “Our son was driving this car when he married you, now look at the car he is driving!” This simple statement he made in passing became an extra weight, like sacks of garri, heaped on my shoulders. I learned to work my nerves up to death in the hope that my husband would succeed so that society wouldn’t mock me.
Conversation about gender and belonging is not an easy one to have in my society. Often, I’ve been caught in heated exchanges with extended family members over these topics. The most recent was when I questioned the culture that isolates a woman should she choose to walk away from an uncomfortable marriage. My society does not know how to accommodate a divorced woman. We built a strong community for married women. We have the same for single women, which basically preps them for marriage. But the divorced woman is left out. She cannot be assimilated into either community. She is better off as a widow, because a widow still holds on to that distinctive identifier – her husband’s name. So her membership in the married women’s club is never revoked.
When I was ten years old, my aunt packed her things and left her marriage. She did not take her children with her. She was tired of pretending to be happy in an uncomfortable union. Knowing how dangerously unkind society is to a divorced woman, she travelled far away for home. And for two decades, she remained isolated from the society that spurns her brave kind, until her children, all grown up, found her again and brought her to live with them.
A man is not faced with these challenges.
These are very uncomfortable conversations to have. We have created a culture that normalizes misogyny. We do a great disservice to boys by encouraging a standard of behavior that is also detrimental to them. We raise them to believe that certain negative traits are what it takes to be a man.
I recently had an argument with a male colleague. We had just read about a man, an educated Nigerian man, who sexually abused his teenage domestic staff. My colleague excused the man’s behavior as natural. He called it “basic instinct” and said that violence was etched into the gene of every man – that it is what makes men who they are.
But that is untrue. What simply happens is that we raise boys to conform to socially constructed attitudes that shape them into violent beings. We raise boys to dominate and subdue. We fill their world with games and movies and books that emphasize that narrative. We teach them not to show emotion. They internalize this idea of masculinity and as adults become aggressive beings who take and take, who think a woman belongs to them. Who wreak havoc on the bodies of women, because they were raised to believe that the bodies of women are theirs to exploit and conquer.
On the other hand, we raise girls to be subordinates, to play with certain kinds of toys, to play pretty, to be needy, to show emotions and cry. We raise girls to aspire to marriage, to keep their head down no matter the academic level they attain, to swallow their sexual urges. We spend years teaching girls how to become decorative fixtures in the lives of men.
What if we do away with these toxic practices? What if we stop hurting our sons? What if we stop punishing our daughters? What if we teach men that a woman is a full human being who belongs to herself?
My late grandmother lost her husband when her children were small. She raised the seven children – six of them girls – all by herself. She let those girls go into early marriages so they could escape the harsh society that says a woman has no name.
I advocate for teaching girls self-reliance first. If they come of age and choose to solidify their relationships with their partners through marriage, perfect. But let it be because they chose it, because their childhood was not messed up with the idea that they must aspire to marriage. Because as adults, they are clearheaded and can shape their marriage in ways that are beneficial to both parties and because we all belong to ourselves first and foremost.
And if that’s our definition of crumbling the “virtues of marriage and family,” fine. Let it crumble, and let us start all over again.
Ukamaka OLISAKWE writes TV scripts (most recently the series “The Calabash”), essays, short stories, and has one novel, The Eyes of a Goddess (2012). Selected in 2014 by the Africa39 Project as one of the continent’s most promising writers under the age of 40, she has had her work appear in the New York Times and on the BBC, as well as been published in Jalada, Saraba, Sentinel Nigeria and Short Story Day Africa. She lives in Lagos.