Feminism in Africa
Nigerian girls in a school in Jos, way back in the ’60s.

Our mothers and feminism

Hi, I’m Tired.

I refuse to have discussions relating to feminism any longer. It’s not that I’m not still wholly and entirely feminist, it’s more that I no longer see a reason to explain (often argue) my right to exist as a whole individual to anyone.

I guess I find it stupid — this refusal of some people to accept that 50% of the population is just as important, capable and as human as the rest. I want nothing to do with such arguments. Maybe I’m ‘lucky’ – to be born in a time and place where I get to choose to be around people who do not always require this discussion to be had; many women didn’t/don’t have that privilege.

painting by Ndidi Emefielie via okayafrica

Growing up in Africa around such mindsets can have strange impacts on a woman’s psyche. In a typical African home, as a girl child, you notice some things. Feelings, moments that slip through the cracks of bravado and perfection your parents almost always try to paint. Heartbreaking unfairness and imbalance and you swear that this will never be you. Our mothers were very strong women, and I learnt a lot from mine. But they knew a different kind of strength. Strength on behalf of others; at the expense of themselves –they gave and gave.

…and gave.

How do you explain to the person whose silent strength and endurance groomed you, that you have learnt to want more, and that what they had is not enough for you? Is this selfishness?

My explanation might go like this:

Dear mothers,

We see your strength

We are the same as you

But not in the ways that you expect

Maybe strength for you meant:

Silence, endurance, forgiveness, tolerance

But for us it is different

Our strength lies in speaking up,

Refusing anything short

Of what you taught us we deserve

We’re strong women

We’ll be fine

But is that even enough?

I remember four or five years ago, my baby brother came home from school with his end of term report sheet. He had come second position over all, instead of his usual first and my mother wanted to know why. After much (aggressive) persuasion, he finally admitted that a new pupil who happened to be a girl had come first this time, and I cannot forget the response my mother gave:

So you are letting a girl take your position? A girl?

I was distressed. I knew little about feminism then but something definitely wasn’t right. I couldn’t help thinking. This same woman had always encouraged me to do my best in school. I was a brilliant kid and I’d taken first position several times, too. (No, I’m serious)

How could you teach your daughters to be capable of everything and then teach your sons that a woman’s everything will never be as good as theirs?

What does that even mean? I was so confused; and perhaps I didn’t speak up like I should have. I later made it a point to start an argument whenever she made such statements that offended my senses. Recently, we were having one of such confrontations and she said to me: Yes, a lot of these things are unfair. But that’s the way it is and we can’t do anything so we just have to accept it.

Or something along those lines. And I was so mad. Who made it like that? Accept what? Never!

Since then, I’ve had time to think about it from her point of view, and I realize that much of my anger came from a realization that there is some truth in her advice. A lot is yet undone. A great deal! Feminism has come a long way, but there is an even longer way to go. And it makes me so angry that most of the problems I would like to see changed will probably not be fully rectified in my lifetime; like rape culture and sexual policing, or how society encourages women to enter and stay in unhappy marriages because they are nothing without a man. Hopefully our own daughters (and sons) reap the benefits of our agitation.

If the only choices I have are to accept my ‘place’ in a world (that has no real place for me as who I am, but as what I am expected to be) or to refuse and be labeled some sort of outlier, then I choose the latter. I am done explaining my decision to anyone who asks why.




feature image via Tumblr/Nigeria Nostalgia Project

Ada Okoli

Sometimes I write. Sometimes I think about writing.

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