Feminism’s transformative power is one Nigeria greatly needs; but the work of unravelling patriarchal power is not a feminist burden to bear.
Not long after organizers of the Market March Movement protested against street harassment in Lagos, in June 2019, many of the women who protested took to the streets again. This time, they were marching in response to allegations of harassment in the church, Commonwealth of Zion Assembly, or ‘COZA’, headquartered in Abuja. The protests followed an interview in which Busola Dakolo, a photographer, narrated an experience of sexual abuse at the hands of the church’s leader, Biodun Fatoyinbo. The protests occurred on the Sunday after the interview and elicited strong responses from many women who shared similar experiences. But there were others, also, Christian men mostly, who considered the demonstration an affront. During the protests, a photo surfaced online of a man wearing a shirt whose printed message referred to feminists as ‘Children of Disobedience’ an epithet like ‘Daughters of Chimamanda’, intended to be pejorative.
In the wake of these protests, conversations both online and offline have revealed that far too many Nigerian men understand rape as the inevitable consequence of proximity to women. A striking number of men also believe that women possess a natural tendency to provoke lewdness, and to weaken men’s ability to control their ‘sexual urges’. The problems with this framing are obvious. Primarily, such framing is rooted in the hyper-sexualization of women both as unwitting temptresses and as objects purposed exclusively for male desire. It reinforces the notion of the female body as a site for male intent and presents assault as the spillover effect of male libidinal supremacy. In this thinking, male libidinal supremacy is an essential element of maleness; a construct mediated and validated by the constant self-caricature of those it directly benefits. Acts of dehumanization must, by necessity, disfigure the dehumanizer; and what we see in the urgency and resolve of the feminist movement in Nigeria—where women in increasing numbers organize, write and speak in the long tradition of the gadfly, pricking the nation out of our numbness, our casual acceptance of status quo—is fewer avenues for men to hide from or ignore their reflections. Many men are being forced, perhaps for the first time, to reckon with what they have made of themselves.
It is often pointed out, the contradiction in the idea that men demand respect on the basis of belonging to the more rational gender and yet excuse abuse on the basis of being unable to conduct themselves rationally. This is a remarkable instance of doublespeak in which the processes of self-apotheosizing and self-infantilizing happen simultaneously and without conflict. And this is the preserve of the powerful: to inhabit a world that protects one against critical awareness of oneself, because one can never doubt what one is, or one’s right to be what one is. To doubt the fundamental inviolability of one’s position is to be aware of the other and her vulnerability; is to see one’s oppressiveness for what it is and to see this is to allow consciousness of guilt. Naturally, the underpinning logics of the myth of inherent male superiority abound and are enforced by society’s institutions, in the private and public spheres, in religious and political symbols, and in the relations between men and everything and everyone that is not a man.
In the male imagination it is necessary to believe that men rape women because women either present or allow themselves to be raped. Even the terminology is contested: the word ‘rape’ suggests imposition. Someone is inconvenienced. Don’t women enjoy it, secretly? The word rape suggests a breach of will. Do women have will? All semantic implications are considered but the ones which might imply wrongdoing on the part of the man. To imply wrongdoing would be to besmirch the integrity of the man all men believe themselves to be. To imply male wrongdoing would be to impeach the patriarchal fantasy of rightness, a fantasy ingeniously encoded into all facets of public life, which means to imply that a man has done wrong is to attack the state, to attack the church and to attack the family.
The historical unity—to quote Antonio Gramsci—of the ruling classes is enshrined in the state. Preserving the state means preserving society as it is, in the overwhelming favour of men forever. Against a woman he has never met, the unemployed man will defend the male politician who deprives him of work. Against a woman he has never met, the sceptic will defend the male pastor whose faith he despises. It is not simply group pride that inspires this but survival instinct, a desire to maintain the conceptual parameters of historical and contemporary human experience through which the ethics of male ascendancy are superimposed on the world. A man defends a man because he must defend capitalism and corporatism. A man defends a man because he must defend the carceral state. A man defends a man because he must defend the military-industrial complex. A man defends a man because he must defend religious fundamentalism and ethnic bigotry.
By collective effort, the tower of maleness stands impregnable. Understanding this allows us to understand the threat of feminism. To propose that the underlying assumptions behind gender relations can be dismissed is to propose that the very structure of human societies can be dismissed and a different one put in its place.
The dominant idea that the excess of men’s sexual desire leads them to abuse is fallacious. It is not desire in itself but the legitimacy of male desire in whatever form and to whatever degree it takes, even, if not especially, at the expense of others. The pleasure derived from acts of sexual abuse is not the pleasure of sex, but the pleasure of predation.
Men abuse women for the simple reason that any powerful group does anything: to exercise and demonstrate power. Power, Pierre Clastres writes, cannot be conceptualized apart from its predicate: violence. All men, myself included, are potential domestic abusers and rapists because all men are socialized to demonstrate power and to do so through violence. But there is an element of Nigerian society which further exacerbates this tendency, and that is shame.
Shame is the crux of Nigerian moral consciousness, the scale by which all actions are judged. The question of whether a deed is good or bad in itself is largely irrelevant. The important question is ‘does it bring shame?’ The phrasing here is important. Nigerians are not interested in if a thing is inherently shameful; we want to know if it attracts the contempt and mockery of others. And the answer is often determined by who performs the deed. Because the power to inflict harm so often coincides with the power to define the extent of what is normal or expected, Nigerian men do not grow up with the consciousness of shame. There is nothing a man might do in Nigeria that would, by itself, seriously threaten his social standing. And because men value status and value themselves, wealth and masculinity are the normal, those who wield them are the centre, everyone else is the margin.
What this means is that a relatively affluent man who lives in Nigeria is not only impervious to shame but can do freely those things which would be for others a source of social castigation, because his wealth and masculinity sanctify and exempt him. This is, of course, not the case with women. Every nation and every people need their pariahs. Girls in Nigeria are raised to feel shame above all else, to hone their sense of it to perfection, to be aware of constant scrutiny and to act in such a way as to remain scrutinizable. Presentable. Modest. Pliant. Subservient. To deviate from this ideal is to bring shame upon oneself, one’s family, one’s ethnic group, one’s nation, one’s God. If the condition of the shameless is visibility and the agency to act out this visibility, the condition of the shameful is hyper-visibility without the agency to deny access into her life.
The woman is never heard, but always seen. The day a girl is made to wear a longer skirt she learns that the only way to partake in her own life is by hedging herself against shame. In this way, she is a moral instruction, an example of good or bad femaleness before she is a person. In Nigeria, the standard for what a good man is, is often negligible, upheld inconsistently and with no real consequences for those who fail to meet it, but everyone knows what a good woman is, and should she fail to maintain this standard, everyone presumes to know why: what she did too much or not enough of. This is why attempts to discredit the testimony of women who have survived abuse by asking why they did not report immediately after the fact are ignorant and dangerous. When the poet, Muriel Rukeyser, writes, ‘What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open’ it is not hyperbole. In a world in which your value as a human being is so often a foregone conclusion believing that your pain and anger can and should be voiced is a feat of tremendous courage.
Our willingness to consider the severity of sexual assault against a woman is determined largely by whether that woman is partnered with a man or not. If she is not, she is the orchestrator of her own rape, if indeed it happened at all, and it probably didn’t. If she is, her testimony is lent some credibility; it is considered admissible. The woman by herself is an aggressively contrary, delusional, promiscuous, venal creature whose experience of her own life is dubious. But if she is partnered with a man one might consider the possibility that she is conscious and capable of expressing this consciousness.
The reason why the image of a woman by herself is so deeply and singularly unsettling is because a woman by herself is both carrier and vector of shame. She is inherently, irrevocably and abundantly shameful. When we see a woman by herself in public it is like staring at a too bright light. It offends the eye. We ask, ‘What is she doing out here alone?’ which is our way of asking ‘Does she have no one to cover her shame?’ And, of course, there is only one established way by which a woman might cover her shame: proximity to men. Brothers, fathers and, especially, husbands sanctify or, at least, make manageable the shame of the women in their lives. Women grow to desire the protective film of male association in order to attain respectability in the eyes that are always watching. At the beginning of every interaction, she makes sure to address herself as a Mrs, less a signifier of marital status and more of chattel brand as if to say ‘I have been claimed. Someone whose humanity you recognize is responsible for me, by this influence I have attained some measure of humanity. I sometimes think, too, and feel. You may now treat me accordingly’.
Women who appear to have unlearned shame are immediately suspect and implicitly threatening. They inspire terror and envy because they should not exist, and yet they do. Young women in Nigeria are recognizing, embracing and popularizing this alternative. Not only are these women demanding redress in the balance of power, they are interrogating the very foundations of that power. As a result, men are, increasingly, forced to confront the bizarre possibility of consequences. Culpability and complicity now seem like words which might affect the course of men’s lives. And because this is possible, so many other things seem possible. All that has been handed down to us as incontrovertible fact, all we were taught about the world, about ourselves and about each other, as a society, is becoming negotiable. What we accept as culture may now only be the point of departure, and what we accept as tradition may now be judged on its capacity to uphold positive behaviour. This is the transformative power at work in the feminist imaginary: we are given the licence and the language to choose differently and, more importantly, the licence and language to refuse. The power and exercise of refusal is one greatly needed in African societies, many of which are still trapped in colonial legacies and lured into new forms of cultural and economic imperialism.
If Africa is to do more than survive, its new generations must learn to re-name and re-make themselves, to cast off the holds of external influence, and exist on terms dictated by no one. They must learn to question their realities and the authorities by which those realities are imposed. They must learn unruliness, indiscipline and disobedience. They must, out of a desire to seek and create their own destinies, adopt a politics of waywardness. As conceptualized by Saidiya Hartman, waywardness is a fundamental irreverence to constraints, a distrust of easy definition, a commitment to self-possibility. It is the idea that we can reimagine what it means to be African as surely as we can reimagine what it means to be male or female; that we can invent and reinvent these constructs continuously or do away with them altogether. It is, she writes, a practice of ‘black locomotion’, and ‘the everyday struggle to live free. The attempt to elude capture by never settling’. Many women across Nigeria, Africa and its diasporas show no intention of settling in their pursuit of rights over their bodies and their lives, and by their example we can deepen our commitment to social justice.
However, while it is necessary to see the connection between the feminist movement within Nigeria and the country’s larger struggles for self-determination in world affairs, we cannot think that the work of unravelling patriarchal power is a feminist burden to bear. It must and should be an inside job. One which requires as a starting point that men look more closely at what they say and think and believe about women. The stories we tell about others are rooted in the stories we tell about ourselves, and in order to successfully deprive women of complexity men first deprive themselves of complexity; we become bullish, dispassionate single-minded strongmen whose only responses to the wonders and tragedies of being a person are force and incuriosity. In this way, we restrict and dampen our experience of the world. In this way, we insult human faculty and do discredit to the rich and motile nature of human passion.
To allow for healthier and more sustainable interpretations of masculinity there must be a willingness to self-reflect, a willingness to be uncomfortable and a willingness to not assume right-of-way. For our own sake and for the sake of all those we harm by our cruelty and indifference, whose lives are disrupted everyday by our merely standing in the same place as them, we are called to question all that we take for granted; to try to apprehend the vastness of all that exceeds us, our desires, experiences and imaginations. Only then can our society begin to reflect more of what is best about us⎈