“Tell me that thing which men can undertake alone without the help of the womenfolk.” – Madame Alimotu Palewura.
Nigeria boasts of many strong women. Women who stand (and others who have stood) resilient, determined to be “free”, yet supportive of their menfolk. Women, whom Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo aptly termed “the strong ones” in her Novel, “The Last Of The Strong Ones.”
But unlike the good prof, I don’t think strong women have fizzled out. I believe Nigerian women are still strong.
True, we didn’t pass through the horrors our maternal greats and grands passed through but we are strong – strong in our belief of our abilities to change our world.
Fortunately, unlike our ancestors, we have the power of knowledge, good careers and technology to aid our struggle for independence. Unlike our ancestors, we have supporters. Women and men who believe that everyone is equal, irrespective of gender, tribe or race. Unlike our ancestors, we have forbearers who cleared the way and made our collective voice clearer and louder.
Yes! Our ancestors were stronger than we are. They were made strong by their afflictions. For they suffered great injustices, abuses in the name of culture, at the hands of men. They withstood marital rape because they were told it was their marital obligation. They were auctioned off to the highest bidders, by loved ones, because a woman became whole in marriage. They watched as their babies were slaughtered or abandoned in evil forests, because they had committed the abomination of birthing twins. They suffered!
Still, long before Feminism seeped into Africa and gained momentum as a liberation movement, Nigerian women of old had fought (and in some cases won) the fight for equality. Fought for the right to be recognised as important facets in business and political matters. Women such as: Queen Amina of Zaria, who ruled Zazzau (now Zaria) for thirty-four years, in the sixteenth century, and whom many called “a woman as capable as a man”; The Aba women who marched, proud as peacocks, nude, from Owerri to Ibibioland in protest of heavy taxes; Madame Alimotu Palewura, the illiterate but powerful Head of Lagos Market Women Association for fifty years – a woman whose power to move crowds alarmed the colonial masters and thrilled freedom fighters such as Herbert Macaulay; Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, the undisputed champion of the rights of Nigerian women – Rights she fought for long before Western women started the Women’s Liberation Movement in 1958; And Margaret Ekpo who campaigned for the political and economic rights of women, and was rewarded with the outpouring of women voters who outnumbered men in the election exercise in 1955.
Indeed, our ancestors were equal rights fighters! Women who fought unashamedly and relentlessly for gender equality. They just didn’t call it “feminism”.
Traditionally, women held positions of authority in the society. Authority which was in no way up to those of the menfolk, but authority nonetheless. The Yorubas had the Iyalode – Mother of the Town. The Igbos had the Umuada – Group of daughters.
These women were forces to be reckoned with in their respective communities. Powerful beings who made men quake in their loin cloths, and pause in action, for fear of inciting their wrath. In-as-much-as, they were submissive to their husbands, fathers and the elders of their communities, they were equally strong in their assertion of their natural rights. Rights which enabled them right wrongs and mete out justice. Rights which had them moving in droves to accost a faithless husband who had mistreated their sister, his wife. Rights which made them genuflect in deference to the Oba or Igwe while insisting on the assertion of justice, as their right.
Yes! Nigerian women have long been in pursuit of liberation. We just didn’t know what it was called until education expounded our visions and we started clamouring louder and louder for gender equality. A theoretical state which the white woman in her wise ways termed “feminism”.
However, long before the Women’s Liberation Movement gained momentum, and “oyibo” women participated in the Women’s Strike For Equality in 1970 in New York City, carrying placards that screamed: “DON’T COOK DINNER, STARVE A RAT TODAY!!”, displeased Igbo women, customarily, denied their husbands dinner as an expression of their displeasure. It was a way of saying, “Nna anyi, you’ve wronged me, and I insist on your righting that wrong.” It always worked. For then, the man will fume in exasperation but work towards maintaining peace in his household.
So, when someone tells you feminism is a foreign concept which the oyibo woman imported into Africa, tell him (yes, him! Because its always men who frown and rant when we talk feminism) its a lie, his ancestors were feminists too.