In this latest issue in the VSM(Voice & Soul of Millennials) series on culture, I spoke with Ireti Oluwagbemi on the varying structures and institutions that affect what it is to be female in Nigeria. Since the hash tag #beingfemaleinNigeria went viral world wide, I have been very much interested in the dynamics governing how female identities are created and policed in the supposed giant of Africa- Nigeria. Being a fellow native, it hit close to home.
It’s not everyday that one gets to connect online with a forward thinking Nigerian millennial, so during my last trip to Lagos, I met up with Ireti at the concept store and cafe in Lekki known as Stranger.
Enjoy the magic that ensued!
S: Please introduce yourself to the readers.
I: My name is Ireti Oluwagbemi.. Gosh, how does one do this without sounding narcissistic?(we both laugh). My name is Ireti Oluwagbemi, I’m 24, live and work in Lagos, Nigeria. My day job is presenting at an online station; and my true love is writing.
S: When you hear the word culture, what resonates with you?
I: Most times when I hear the word culture, it pisses me off. I think most of the time, the context I’ve heard that word in, it has been used as an excuse that the people even saying it know that it shouldn’t be. It’s like the final card, like an all purpose last resort used to justify stuff people know is wrong or don’t think about, or are too lazy to consider because it doesn’t concern them.
S: So in terms of Nigerian culture, are there any aspects you really like or enjoy?
I: Yes. I like the things that deeply speak about our history as a people without marginalising anyone. For example, naming ceremonies by the Yoruba people before religion(which is culture’s older enforcer brother) took over, I was taught in school that they would put a pinch of salt in the baby’s mouth and say this baby’s life would have meaning the way you need salt in food to make it savoury, they use palm oil as well and different things like that. So I really like those because they are interesting and unique. I’m Yoruba and I think the language is very rich and there’s so much context to it. So I do actually like that aspect of culture. Funnily enough, I also don’t mind kneeling down to greet, like if I go somewhere with my mum it’s fine although my knees may not exactly touch the floor(laughs).
What I really like is the stuff we’re not doing anymore. However, we’re holding on to the ones that help us to enforce all these silly old laws. Like it’s not cool to speak Yoruba anymore in elite Lagos. There’s lots of pretentiousness in Lagos in my opinion. For example, you’ll see someone that has an idea, then they just throw in a native name to give this illusion of being connected to the culture which I think a lot of the time is for the benefit of the outside world because Africa is still viewed as this very exotic but misunderstood place, so sometimes people tap into that.
S: Are you religious?
I: I’m very fluid. I’m Agnostic, Christian and Agnostic Christian.
S: Lol, what does that even mean?!
I: First of all, I like to play devil’s advocate and it’s also because I’m indecisive. I basically had to renounce everything that I knew and learned in church and I’m sort of picking the things that I want in my own terms and deciding what I believe in. So I probably am not as religious as my mother would like, but I do go to church(laughs). I’ve learnt not to swallow things wholly just because it came from someone standing on a podium. For example, I attend the church that I do because it’s the closest one I can easily walk to. However, I have to cover my hair, but I do not believe that my hair is a sin to the God that made me.
S: You previously mentioned religion which I believe is intertwined with culture. What are your thoughts on how it allows or prevents us from doing certain things?
I: I believe religion and culture are a pair of enforcer brothers; and the most effective pair ever. There’s a story I wrote about one day in church, during an interactive session where there was an educated woman from an upper class(the kind everyone wants to talk to and associate with in church) who was asked about surviving marriage; and the things she was saying, I honestly could feel my face getting hot. I was livid. Like what is this shit! And she said: “women too can get to make decisions in the home. So when your husband comes home, you’ll run him a bath, you cook his favourite meal, then rub his head and say- dear, I think we should do things this way”
I: And this is the one that bursts my head, someone then asked, if he says you’re stupid, can I say it back at him? And she said “Don’t say that to him o, don’t talk to him like that o, because if he slaps you, don’t tell Pastor that he slapped you o.”
S: Isn’t that encouraging abusive relationships?
I: Yeah and insinuating that sometimes you even deserve it for saying something that someone else just said to you. I don’t know if I’ve explained it well, but that’s a microcosm of everything that is wrong because most of these people are lower class or lower middle class and a lot of them look up to people like her. So when someone in a position of influence like her is saying things that they’ve been taught by their culture and is at the pulpit with the reinforcement of religion(and religion is the opium of the people. Nigeria is a frustrating place, so people depend on religion), she has all the cards. How do you begin to combat that?
So those 2 things- religion and culture, are the most powerful things to indoctrinate people and they are saying the same thing. They are the two greatest things stopping us from evolving as a society in my opinion.
S: Wow, that was really profound. Will you say in our generation, being millennials, things are beginning to shift and people are thinking outside the box, and like yourself, exploring religion and culture for themselves?
I: Definitely. I know quite a number of people that think the way that I do. But then, the people that I know and the people that they know are probably like 20% of the youths in Nigeria. So for every me or every you, there are 4 other people who don’t even know that they need to unlearn things or question what they know. Someone once said to me that the purpose of school is to teach you how much you don’t know. A dear friend of mine who’s a doctor was telling me how when he finished the final year, at the school they said- congratulations, you’re now qualified to begin to learn the practice of medicine.
So yes, there are people evolving, but what of those who aren’t? They are the majority, so I can’t celebrate that there are a few more people that think the way I do. The change hasn’t reached where it should and we’re not doing enough to try to get there.
If I walk along Yaba market, despite all that I think I know, or how enlightened I’ve told myself that I am, if I’m wearing something that the guy in the market think is for prostitutes(for example), or that I’m asking for it(that’s the common sentiment), he can grab and pull me.
S: I remember reading one of your blog post where you said that and was enraged. I couldn’t believe it.
I: Yes! That’s my reality everyday. I have to arm myself with something in my bag I can swing at anyone who tries to physically abuse me. It’s like why do you think that you have a right to touch me? So even if I’m enlightened, a street guy can still pull me and say ashawo(prostitute) which is very humiliating. So for all you think that you know, it’s not going to help you at that point. So I don’t revel in the fact that more people are enlightened. No, it’s not at where it should be.
Also, these people are the ones that need it the most. For example, the woman who is pregnant and has a horrible condition, rather than go to the hospital is going to the church and they’re praying for her or are flogging her to get the demons out of her. So, yeah it’s changing but meh..
S: What is it to be a female in Nigeria?
I: Hell! Now, I don’t think that Nigeria has it the worst. We have it really bad, but there are countries that are worse. But still, it’s very challenging and a struggle everyday. You’re lucky if you live a whole day without an incident that makes you so enraged because it’s so endemic.
It’s a constant struggle to reassert yourself and have boundaries. You can’t walk down the street without someone catcalling, it seethes me the fact that people you don’t know feel that they have the right to violate your physical space and autonomy over your body. And lots of times, people are genuinely puzzled when I get upset about it. They say- but he’s just playing with you. They honestly do not see anything wrong.
How do you even start to combat that? Where do you start from? They say “Ah you’re doing shakara(acting fly)…. you’re not even fine” And I think- ok, let my ugly ass walk down in peace then!
The magnitude and how deep it is, is disheartening. So I’ll say, being a woman in Nigeria is a constant struggle to reassert yourself- on the streets, in the office, at home, at a restaurant..
Things like this even happen with the elite. I feel that there’s a lot of pretentiousness to enlightenment in Nigeria. It’s another ostentatious thing. So a lot of it is not genuine. You’re an African woman after all some people will still tell you…
You’re in a hurry to go back huh?
S: Laughs… no. What you get on a visit is definitely different to the everyday reality. It’s definitely an eye opener if I’m to return.
Why are we as women who experience these struggles not rearing our children, especially the males, to know and do better?
I: Let me tell you, women are very culpable. Patriarchy is an all gender club, the purpose is still the exaltation of the penis but, it’s an all gender club. There are women who have grown up experiencing these struggles but either the indoctrination is so bad that it never occurs to them that they can question things(you cannot under-estimate the influence of culture and the power of religion. And very often, these two have the same goal, and it’s almost indestructible). So first of all, they do not know to question things or they know it is wrong and don’t feel it can be changed because this is the “culture”. The worst anyone can say is “this is our culture” or conversely, if you do something that goes against old notions, “that isn’t our culture” or “our people don’t do this”
Also, one of the common misconception about feminism is that it’s women hating men or women wanting to be like men. It’s not really about the men, it’s a fight against the system. It’s not individuals that you’re fighting, it’s actually something much greater- an ideology, a way of life for a lot of people. So it’s not about petty stuff, there’s really more serious socio-economic implications to this. Personally, it’s more about that than who does this or those that in a home. Of course, sometimes those things come up because in a relationship there’s always going to be a dynamic. However, a lot of people think it’s just an excuse for women getting what they want or wanting to get special treatment.
S: Since my return, I’ve noticed a sort of dynamic in the different ways women are treated if they are married as opposed to being single. Tell us about it.
I: There are these memes that were floating around on Twitter where there’s an old picture of someone and then a new one that say’s upgrade. In Nigeria, the old is when a woman is single and the upgrade is when she’s married. So a married woman is more respectable and it’s what ladies should aspire to. The truth is that for all terms and purposes, for a lot of people, a woman is infact a property. “Which is why as a married woman, you’re supposed to be more respectable.”
For example, you go to a wedding and then you’re being prayed for by well meaning people that pray your turn is just around the corner. How about you ask me before all these prayers? How about you pray that 5 million is gonna be in my account? (laughs).
So as much as you’d like, it’s not something you can tear yourself away from. It’s never quite easy. You’re fighting against everything else and for some people, they just succumb and follow things as they are because it’s a lot of work, and no one want to always have to exert their energy.
S: Do you have an idea of what may bring about solutions or change people’s attitude towards these issues?
I: It’s an enormous problem that I’m not really sure of how we begin to combat it, but I think something like a nationwide campaign and it has to come from influential people we look up to. And things like implementing legislation. For example there’s a legislation about rape but only 18 people have been convicted of rape and let’s not even talk about statutory rape which is what happens when people marry under age girls.
So ideally, it has to come from voices many of us look up to. If there can be some avenue for actual important discourse with these people that hold the real power, like the Imams(Islamic leaders), the Obas(Yoruba kings), the Igwes(Igbo kings), the Emirs(Muslim ruler), and Sultans(kings of Muslim state), if there can actually be a pan-cultural or pan-ethnic or pan- religious conversation, it’s not the government or the policeman that can be bribed with your 100 Naira(30 pence). Honestly, these powerful people can reach more people and we cannot bypass our opponent’s greatest weapons and influencers and hope to win the war. And this isn’t going to be easy because a lot of them believe in these things or want things to remain as they are because it benefits them.
In a country where lots of our religious leaders are preaching these same things, it’s not going to be easy because a lot of them just go with the status quo and it benefits them.
This has been the most profound VSM conversation I’ve had so far. Ireti has been able to candidly share her views on religion, culture and womanhood; and how these complex ideologies interconnect to affect and shape women’s identities and what it is to be female in Nigeria.
Having these type of conversations with enlightened people was the inspiration behind the VSM( Voice & Soul of Millennials). It’s great that thanks to the internet, we can now all share ideas and experiences across geographical borders and landscapes. So if you ever feel alone in your thoughts or beliefs, know that there’s someone else like you out there. The mission of this series is to bridge that gap, connect like minded people and inspire others.
What are your thoughts on the views shared in this conversation? I’d like to hear from you, leave your comments below.
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