I gave a talk at a forum organised recently to address women’s rights issues in Nigeria. Afterwards, a woman walked up to me to thank me for my presentation, which she said she enjoyed, and then said, “Listening to you, one would think that you were a feminist.” I stared at her in confusion. I managed to muster a response after a few seconds, “I am a feminist” I told her. Now it was her turn to look confused, even shocked.
Soon after, I was at another programme for professional women. All the participants present were women across generations, many of whom had done a fine job of carving a niche for themselves in the brutal worlds of business and politics. The compere for the day was providing some context for the event, and then she said, “We are not talking about feminism, we are talking about women’s rights.” I almost fell off my chair.
I fully understand why most people are afraid, mystified, misinformed or uninformed about the word ‘feminism.’ I am sick and tired of the demonisation of feminism and feminists by people who ought to know better or those who know nothing at all and don’t know that they don’t know. I am not going to turn this into an academic essay about the global history of feminism, the various ‘schools’ and ‘waves,’ and its place in the firmament of social change ideologies. Remember, it is Feminism 101. What I am going to do is name a couple of myths that people have bandied about over the years about feminism and feminists.
1. Feminists hate men
No, they do not. Feminism is a global struggle against all forms of patriarchal oppression. Anyone who believes this is a feminist. Patriarchy derives its power from the control of all economic, political, social, cultural and religious systems. These systems and structures are controlled by men with some women drafted in to ensure that the systems are sustainable. Feminists hate these systems, not individual men. There are men who also do not agree that women should be oppressed and they too join hands with women in solidarity.
2. Feminists do not marry or cannot stay married
Another lie. Feminists do marry and stay married. They, however, will not stay married to men who are afraid of powerful, ambitious women, men who are threatened by a woman’s success and a man who needs to establish his manhood through physical and emotional abuse. When feminists marry, they seek relationships grounded in love, mutual respect and shared values. We want every woman to be respected for the choices she makes. A woman can choose to marry, divorce, if she has to, remarry, if she wants to, or be single. There should be no judgement for the choices that women make, even if sometimes the choices might be considered poor ones. The operative word here is ‘choice.’
3. Feminism is alien to Africa
This is a myth based on ignorance of our history and the lives of our female ancestors. In almost every African community, there is a history of resistance to patriarchal power and control. It might have been one woman or a group of women, but we always had women who said ‘no.’ No to the abuse of women. No to being married off to a brother of her late husband. No to the circumcision of her daughter or her granddaughter. No to the kings and nobles who were always preying on the poor and vulnerable. We had women like Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Margaret Ekpo and Gambo Sawaba. These women were not called feminists, but we know that what they stood for was the desire to see an end to the marginalisation of women. And that is what feminism is about.
4. Feminists are anti-religion
Another popular myth. Feminists are not anti-religion. Feminists are against the distortion of the word of God in all the world’s major religions, which create a universe in which women are perpetual second-class citizens. There are feminists who are women of faith, and who have insisted on more progressive interpretations of religious doctrines in ways that are spiritually empowering for women.
5. Feminists are elite, educated women fighting for themselves
This is a very convenient argument that is used to divide and rule women. The big picture agenda of the feminist movement is to create a world in which all women (and men) can be productive, resourceful citizens. Majority of women live in rural areas, with minimal access to basic resources. The feminist movement has been responsible for placing gender, development and women’s human rights on global and local agendas. Feminists are keenly aware of the diversities we have as women – age, class, location, physical ability, education, marital status and so on. What we all have in common is the need for personhood. If feminists advocate a bill to protect women from violence, all women benefit. If feminists hold governments accountable for women’s reproductive health and rights, all women who might have been victims of maternal mortality will be saved.
6. Feminists want to control the world like men do
A famous myth that is gaining currency, with the incremental gains that women are making in all areas. Feminists know what it is like to be marginalised by patriarchy, so we have no interest in a matriarchy, which would simply mean women replacing men as oppressors. Feminists are mothers of sons, daughters of men, and they have brothers. They do not want to see the men in their lives reduced to second-class citizens. Feminists want a world that is equitable, where there is equality of opportunity, and where roles and responsibilities are negotiated and shared based on context and circumstance. Feminists know that healthy relationships are the bedrock of any community. Most of the dysfunction we are experiencing now is as a result of the need for power and dominance by one gender over the other, with little consideration for our changing social dynamics.
7. Feminists are rude and arrogant
When a woman has an alternative viewpoint, she is considered rude and arrogant. When men have divergent views, they are ‘good thinkers’ or ‘reflective.’ We, however, do have some women who can be mean and nasty, but this does not make them feminists.
8. Feminism has nothing to do with women’s empowerment
This does not make sense. Many people argue that, of course, women should be empowered. Yet they do not want to engage with feminism, which is about dealing with the root causes of women’s disempowerment. Conference after conference, we outline all the reasons why women are marginalised and we come up with the same old answers, dealing only with symptoms of the disease. People argue that what they want to do is empower women, it has nothing to do with feminism. I have news for you. You cannot empower women without a feminist analysis of why the two genders have discordant powers, control and access. It is like wanting to take a shower without getting wet.
9. Feminists are against culture and tradition
Feminism is against all cultures and traditions, which are dehumanising and no longer serve any purpose other than to hurt women and girls. Practices such as female genital mutilation, degrading widowhood rites, child marriage, denying women inheritance, these are relics from the past that have to go. Can someone remind me why we no longer kill twins? Perhaps it is because both male and female babies were being thrown away. If it had been just female babies, we probably would still be killing twins.
10. Feminists are a bunch of crazy, confused women
I don’t know the feminists you know. The feminists I know are smart, brilliant, innovators, trailblazers, role models, entrepreneurs, political leaders mothers, wives, grandmothers, the list goes on. We don’t all have to agree on everything, and we might contradict one another occasionally, however, I don’t see anyone insisting that all men should espouse the same ideological beliefs. For those who are wondering how they can learn more about feminism, you can try and read as much feminist material as possible, a lot is available online.
I am a feminist, no ‘Ifs’ no ‘Buts’. If you have a problem with that, feel free to drink a cup of tea.
• Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a gender specialist, social entrepreneur and writer. She is the founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at [email protected]