* ‘We’re surrounded by a lot of broken people’
* ‘We need more women in spaces that protect women’
By Anote Ajeluorou
THEY are six women. They are passionate advocates for the empowerment of the girl-child and respect for women and their choices. They do not want glass ceiling for women; rather, they want women to aspire to their full potential without societal inhibitions. They were engaged in a lively conversation on a subject they all share affinity and unity of thought and concerns: how to free women from inhibiting social constructs that consign them to a level lower than they should operate. They argue that society forces women to operate at a higher standard and make undeserved allowances for men while women are crucified simply because they’re women. The six women were Funke Baruwa, Latasha Ngwube, Yemisi Adekunle, Adeola Kingsley-James, Anwulika Onwudinjo, with writer and spoken word performer Wanna Udobang moderating the engaging session.
Accomplished in their various spheres, these women shared one stage in a panel session, as part of the launch of Adenrele Niyi’s collection of short stories, There’s a Heaven for Bad Girls, a women-centric collection that wants women to have a chair at the negotiation table, where important decisions are being made. Titled ‘Women Supporting Women: Building Solidarity and Resilience’, the six women interrogated the progress women have made so far to shake off the yoke traditional practices and social constructs placed on girls and women and how they could advance towards the future with a lot more positivity and solidarity and continuing resilience.
Programme Officer for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Justice, Office for West Africa, Ford Foundation, Baruwa shared her thoughts on the apt title for Niyi’s collection, saying it typifies what women generally suffer in a society with rules starkly skewed against them while men enjoy unmerited privileges denied women. She cited the instance of gospel musician Osinachi, who died needlessly in a marriage that had gone wrong, but which she couldn’t quit possibly for fear of negative societal judgment which has proven so often to be the ruination of many women.
“The title’s just to spark conversation,” Baruwa said. “If I were an author, I would want a controversial title that compels people to want to open the book. Those words – ‘bad’ and ‘heaven’ – don’t go together. That’s why I said that the box society has built and places girls and women in – this is how you must look, this is how you should dress, the length of the hair to have, the courses you should take in school or the careers you should follow… And at certain stages in your marriage, you should have five children or more. Men don’t seem to have those limitation. There’s hardly any, just perhaps you should be rich as a man, and everything is fine. Even if you’re rich as a woman, there’s a coma. ‘You must be rich, but please, don’t buy a car yet; get a husband first!’ For me, it is that narrative that you have to be a certain way to be qualified as ‘good’, and that as a woman, there’s a certain way you must be and that determines your good or bad nature, which is wrong.
Latasha Ngwube (left); Funke Baruwa; Adeola Kingsley-James; author of There’s a Heaven for Bad Girls, Adenrele Niyi; Yemisi Adekunle; Anwulika Onwudinjo and moderator, Wanna Udobang after the panel session
“I want to use this sad story of Osinachi (gospel artiste, who allegedly died from serial abuse from her husband) that happened last year. Osinachi is an oxymoron for us all, because you would not naturally expect such a fate to befall a woman, who’s in the church. And that’s to say that it gets to a point when you say perhaps, ‘I don’t want the marriage anymore because of what it’s doing to me.’ But she would be called the proverbial ‘bad girl,’ and we would not be celebrating her for leaving an abusive marriage. We are happy to celebrate her that she died standing for her marriage, and that’s the society that we find ourselves. The goalposts always change for women. It’s here, and when something happens, it’s put the other way. Women are just put on the highest pedestal, higher standard… Everybody wants to legalize everything about you. What you do has to be a subject of discussion that society must rectify.”
Journalist, advocate for body positive and Creative Director at AboutThatCurvyLife, Ngwube, is less subtle in her scathing portrayal of society’s dichotomy between the sexes, saying men get undeserved adulation while women, irrespective of how good they may be, always get the vexing ‘bad girl’ tag.
According to her, “It’s very interesting that in the case of men, when a man is termed a good man, he is often martyred, but they don’t wait till he’s dead because of domestic violence. He’s martyred on earth – ‘oh, he’s such a great guy.’ When a man is also a bad guy, that is also celebrated. It’s a literal case of eating your cake and still having it. But then a woman who is still a good woman, who you know everything good should come to this woman because of her goodness, is still subjected to all the horrors that the ‘bad girl’ deserves. What a life, really!”
When social advocate and PR practitioner, Adekunle, shared her own story in a marriage gone awry, audience members could not but empathise with her and women in awful situations similar to hers.
“I will like to share my own experience,” she informed. “Funke was talking about the goalpost always shifting. So, I was in a very abusive marriage, and of course, I’m physically challenged, and for so many years, whenever I tried to leave, it was always like ‘oh, you can’t leave’. One day, I told myself that if I don’t leave today, I might actually not live to see the next day, because he actually said he was going to strangle me and he would tell my family that I had a heart attack. So I left. And of course, everyone that could talk to me about it said, ‘how dare you leave such a marriage? Don’t you know that physically challenged women find it difficult to get married?’ The goalpost always shifting, as Funke said earlier. You got someone to marry you, so you should die there rather than leave! For a woman, they will always give you a reason to stay and die, rather than make a decision about your life, and what you need to do to make yourself better.”
Transformation Therapist and Certified Hypnotherapist and founder of Owning My Greatness (OMG) Ltd, Kingsley-James, lent her therapeutic expertise and experience to the engaging conversation, as she advised women to be discerning in all they do, so they don fall into wrong company.
“As a therapist, I speak to a lot of women, and just recently I was talking to a lady, and she said to me that she had been in her marriage for 21 years, but she wanted to leave. And I asked her: ‘when was the last time you were happy in the marriage?’ And she said she couldn’t remember. I asked her again, ‘so why did you stay?’ She said her mother who had been married for 48 years reminded her that she had been unhappy for 48 years. So, is it just the men that bring this out of women? I think women also do it to ourselves. I’m always careful of the things that I say, because of the things I’ve heard. People are happy to stay in certain situations because it’s familiar to them; that’s all they know. I also understand that our upbringing and the way we have been programmed from childhood, from ages 0-7, have made us say and do things that we wouldn’t have done, but we don’t know better; so, we can’t do better.”
It’s exactly the ‘bad girl’ tag that the Generation Z don’t want to hear or have. They want the rules rewritten, with girls and women at the centre or core and stand ready to stare society down and damn its anti-female rules. That was what Creative enthusiast, GenZ socialpreneur and public relations analyst at AFEX, Onwudinjo pointed at when she highlighted the challenges young women contend with as they navigate their way into adulthood. She said since society hardly has good words for young women, young girls were bracing up for the challenges thrown at them, and they no longer take society’s hollow moral strictures seriously. Rather, they go ahead regardless of what society says to do exactly what they want, where they want it and how they want it.
“Speaking to the dichotomy of ‘good girl’ and ‘bad girl’, I just want to give a case study of something that happened recently,” Onwudinjo said. “I’ve been hearing news about Justina (University of Port Harcourt student) and how her boyfriend killed her and chopped her to pieces, and it was very interesting and enraging, when you go to social media. Justina represents what we understand as ‘good girl’ – faced her books, entered the university young, etc. However, when this happened to her, people were saying that ‘oh, young girls like to look for certain types of men, young girls like to look for ‘yahoo’ boys, so she deserved it!’ This is someone, who by all standards is a good girl. At what point do we say ‘good girl’ this, ‘bad girl’ that?
“And we say that this social construct means absolutely nothing except put girls in very harmful situations, and I think that’s why I’m proud of my generation, how they say outright that ‘good girl no dey pay!,’ because at the end of the day, you stick to society’s idea of who you need to be and what you need to do, and you don’t get support when things happen to you. I saw a tweet somewhere that says ‘when bad things happen to men, they get empathy’, but when bad things happen to women, it’s a moral lesson!’ It’s very unfortunate this cycle that we’ve been caught up in.”
Udobang brought the conversation to a head when she invited her panel members to offer solutions to the challenges confronting women. Having highlighted the social imbalance that women suffer, how could they build solidarity when every woman is basically fighting for their own lives?
“I had a lot of challenges especially in my younger years when I eventually married someone who is a widower,” Kingsley-James offered. “It has been a long battle for me, because I’m a stepmother, and you come with that stigma of being a wicked stepmother. Hollywood created whole films about it, and every Nollywood film has Patience Ozokwor acting wicked. I’ve gone through a huge phase but what I say to people is, ‘look, the biggest parties are miserable pity-parties.’ We like to say, ‘your own is small; let me tell you mine!’
“Some people ask me, ‘who are the kinds of therapists they shouldn’t see,’ and I ask them to avoid any who says to you: ‘you’re the best thing after toast bread and everyone around you is an idiot.’ Run from them. Every time you speak with people, you should ask, ‘who are they talking to?’ Because if you have four foolish friends, you’re the fifth foolish one. Who do you spend your time with? Who do you talk to? Are you going to meet people who will tell you how much they are going through and how they have suffered and smiled? If you’re mixing with such people, then you’re going to take in all the things you’re running away from.
“I listen to people who give me advice, but I throw most of it in the dustbin, because I know it doesn’t empower me in any way. Down to even my mother – if she gives me certain advice, I say to her, ‘thank you, mum, but that’s your fear, not mine.’ Let me empower myself, and I have to do a lot of work. So if the advice is coming from a place of wholesomeness, coming from someone who has gone through challenges and has succeeded at it, that’s fine. Not that they have suffered and stayed suffering in it, and then you now go to that same person. Of course, you’re going to stay broken, because we’re surrounded by a lot of broken people, whether we like it or not.”
Ngwube does not think there’s too much pressure being put on women when it comes to solidarity and women supporting women, saying, “Ultimately, it starts with you. I don’t expect someone from a different gender who was raised completely different to do it. By brother could have had six sisters (not that he has six sisters), but he could never have been raised as a girl. He was raised as a boy. His experience was unique. He went to a boys’ school and I went to a girls’ school. There’s this show called Law and Order, and sometimes when I watch it I wonder if the woman Captain Benson is doing too much. The moment I thought about it, I’d say ‘no’. If this ‘too much’ is what saves one person, gives one woman justice, one woman is listened to and is heard, and she wins against an oppressor, then Captain Benson can never do too much.
“We need more women in spaces that protect women. When last did we have a female commissioner of police, one that is vibrant and active? If we did, how much more the police force, even in Lagos, would take domestic cases? The police would make such cases a priority, and even change the way the police talk to women who show up at the police station. Could you imagine how much of a difference that could possibly make? If each police station should have a trained staff who talks to such women as soon as they set foot in, and that would bring people a lot of safety or relief that they are being listened to. I think that would be so powerful.
Guests at the launch of There’s a Heaven for Bad Girls in Lagos PHOTOS: NIYI LUMI
“So no, we can never put too much pressure on women, and it’s not right to use the word ‘pressure’. Unfortunately, there are so many factors that come into play. I mean, we still can’t even agree on the definition of feminism. You see women shouting, ‘abeg, I’m not a feminist; no involve me with that word; nothing concern me and feminism.’ Some will even tell you that the feminism you’re practising on Twitter (now X) has ruined it for everybody. It’s a human issues, not just a Nigeria women or Twitter feminist issue. We have a long way to go. Women can never be too much on the matter.”
When Udobang prodded her fellow women on the best strategies women should deploy to support each other, Baruwa said, “Every woman I come in contact with is, first of all, a sister, because she comes with a lot of burden that she might not be able to share with a brother or a male friend. So everywhere I go, there’s always a woman to look out for as a friend, or just become an ally to that woman. It might not be structured. Women need to not allow this sentiment of feminism issue get in the way. Forget about all this feminist thing; see a daughter in every woman. I have a daughter who feels more like a friend than a daughter, because we share a bond that is more than a daughter-to-a-mother thing. I see her pain and I know what she’s trying to fight for, and I don’t want to be the one to stop her. So, she can be anything, and that is the encouragement I bring to my team members, who are younger than me. You can aspire to be anything. Don’t let anybody put you in a cage or box or anything less deserving of who you are. We should be rooting for each other and cheer each other on. Just root for that woman to be the best she wants to be.”
And for Kingsley-James, it’s about helping others shine their light, as it amplifies your own light, saying, “Sometimes, we think that when we help other people shine, it dims our light. And I dare say that when you help other people shine, it also puts a light on you as well. For me, I used to dim my light thinking it would make people stay around me or like me more, and a lot of women have found themselves doing that, forgetting that when you shine, you shine that same light on other people. A friend of mine brought up the idea of creating a community for women which can be a safe space for one another, give support to one another and tell each other the truth, because we lie to ourselves a lot. Two weeks into it, she came to me and said, ‘my husband and my lawyer asked me a question.’ I asked what the question was, and she said, ‘what if people liked you more than they liked me?’
“I was happy she said that to me at that point, and she’s not a bad person. It showed me the level where her mind was, and I told her to take the project and run with it. I’m a well that can never run dry. People would like you for something, and like me for something else, but it doesn’t stop them from liking you. As women we need to understand that we are not in competition, though we were taught from childhood to be the first and the best. You can be one of the best. You don’t have to be the best. We will all be stars in our individual spaces, not trying to pull someone down to make ourselves look good. For me, it starts with you. How do you think about yourself, who are you and how do you carry yourself?”