It doesn’t surprise me that your sister-in-law says you should be a ‘traditional’ mother and stay home, that Chudi can afford not to have a ‘double income’ family.
People will selectively use ‘tradition’ to justify anything. Tell her that a double-income family is actually the true Igbo tradition because in pre-colonial times, mothers farmed and traded. And then please ignore her; there are more important things to think about.
Did I ever tell you about going to a US mall with a seven-year-old Nigerian girl and her mother? She saw a toy helicopter, one of those things that fly by wireless remote control, and she was fascinated and asked for one. “No,” her mother said. “You have your dolls.” And she responded, “Mummy, is it only doll I will play with?”
I have never forgotten that. Her mother meant well, obviously. She was well-versed in the ideas of gender roles – that girls play with dolls and boys with cars. I wonder now, wistfully, if the little girl would have turned out to be a revolutionary engineer, had she been given a chance to explore that helicopter.
Here are some examples of Feminism Lite:
A woman should be ambitious, but not too much. A woman can be successful but she should also do her domestic duties and cook for her husband. A woman should have her own but she should not forget her true role as home keeper. Of course a woman should have a job but the man is still head of the family.
Feminism Lite uses the language of ‘allowing.’ Theresa May is the British Prime Minister and here is how a progressive British newspaper described her husband: ‘Philip May is known in politics as a man who has taken a back seat and allowed his wife, Theresa, to shine.’
Now let us reverse it. Theresa May has allowed her husband to shine. Does it make sense? If Philip May were Prime Minister, perhaps we might hear that his wife has ‘supported’ him from the background, or that she is ‘behind’ him, but we would never hear that she had ‘allowed’ him to shine.
Allow is a troubling word. Allow is about power. Members of the society of Feminism Lite will often say, “Leave the woman alone to do what she wants as long as her husband allows.”
A husband is not a headmaster. A wife is not a schoolgirl. Permission and being allowed, when used one sided – and it is nearly only used that way – should never be the language of an equal marriage.
Another egregious example of Feminism Lite: men who say ‘Of course a wife does not always have to do the domestic work, I did domestic work when my wife travelled.’
Like Ikenga who once said ‘even though the general idea is that my father is in charge at our home, it’s my mother who is really in charge behind the scenes.’ He thought he was refuting sexism, but he was making my case. Why ‘behind the scenes?’ If a woman has power then why do we need to disguise that she has power?
But here is a sad truth – our world is full of men and women who do not like powerful women. We have been so conditioned to think of power as male, that a powerful woman is an aberration. And so she is policed. We ask of powerful women – is she humble? Does she smile? Is she grateful enough? Does she have a domestic side? We judge powerful women more harshly than we judge powerful men. And Feminism Lite enables this.
5. Fifth Suggestion: Teach Chizalum to read. Teach her to love books. The best way is by casual example. If she sees you reading, she will understand that reading is valuable. If she were not to go to school, and merely just read books, she would arguably become more knowledgeable than a conventionally educated child. Books will help her understand and question the world, help her express herself, and help her in whatever she wants to become – a chef, a scientist, a singer all benefit from the skills that reading brings. I do not mean school books. I mean books that have nothing to do with school, autobiographies and novels and histories. If all else fails, pay her to read. Reward her. I know of this incredible Nigerian woman who was raising her child in the US; her child did not take to reading so she decided to pay her 5 cents per page. An expensive endeavor, she later joked, but a worthy investment.
Teach her to question men who can have empathy for women only if they see them as relational rather than as individual equal humans. Men who, when discussing rape, will always say something like ‘if it were my daughter or wife or sister.’ Yet such men do not need to imagine a male victim of crime ‘as a brother or son’ in order to feel empathy. Teach her, too, to question the idea of women as a special species. The American House Speaker Paul Ryan who was recently reacting to the Republican presidential nominee’s boast about assaulting women, said, “Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified.”
Tell Chizalum that women actually don’t need to be championed and revered; they just need to be treated as equal human beings. There is a patronizing undertone to the idea of women needing to be ‘championed and revered’ because they are women. It makes me think of chivalry, and the premise of chivalry is female weakness.
Hillary Clinton will be the next president of the United States. On her Twitter account, the first descriptor is ‘Wife.’ The first descriptor on her husband Bill Clinton’s Twitter account is not ‘Husband.’ (Because of this, I have an unreasonable respect for the very few men who use ‘husband’ as their first descriptor)
My sense is that this is not a reflection on Hillary Clinton personally but on the world in which we live, a world that still largely values a woman’s marital and maternal roles more than anything else.
I remember how some members of the Society of Ill-Willed Nigerian Commenters insisted on calling me Mrs. Husband’s Name even after I had made clear that it was not my name. Many more women than men did this, by the way. And there was a smoldering hostility from women in particular. I wondered about that, and thought that perhaps for many of them, my choice represented a challenge to their largely-unquestioned idea of what is the norm. Even some friends made statements like ‘you are successful and so it is okay to keep your name.’
Which made me wonder – why does a woman have to be successful at work in order to justify keeping her name?
So instead of teaching Chizalum to be likeable, teach her to be honest. And kind.
And brave. Encourage her to speak her mind, to say what she really thinks, to speak truthfully. And then praise her when she does. Praise her especially when she takes a stand that is difficult or unpopular because it happens to be her honest position. Tell her that kindness matters. Praise her when she is kind to other people. But teach her that her kindness must never be taken for granted. Tell her that she too deserves the kindness of others. Teach her to stand for what is hers. If another child takes her toy without her permission, ask her to take it back. Tell her that if anything ever makes her uncomfortable, to speak up, to say, to shout.
Here’s this bit from the New York Times, about a security agent who was there on the night that gunshots were fired at the White House.
So with her hair, I suggest that you redefine ‘neat.’ Part of the reason that hair is about pain for so many girls is that adults are determined to conform to a version of ‘neat’ that means Too Tight and Scalp-Destroying and Headache-Infusing.
We need to stop. I’ve seen girls in school in Nigeria being terribly harassed for their hair not being ‘neat,’ merely because some of their God-given hair had curled up in glorious tight little balls at their temples. Make Chizalum’s hair loose. And make that your definition of neat. Go to her school and talk to the administration if you have to. It takes one person to make change happen. Also, her hair doesn’t have to ‘last’ – another reason we give for painful hairstyles. I suggest that you make loose plaits and big cornrows and don’t use a tiny-teethed comb that wasn’t made with our hair texture in mind.
I’m writing this assuming she is heterosexual – she might not be, obviously. But I am assuming that because it is what I feel best equipped to talk about.
Make sure you are aware of the romance in her life. And the only way you can do that is to start very early to give her the language with which to talk to you. I don’t mean you should be her ‘friend,’ I mean you should be her mother to whom she can talk about everything.
You like palm oil but some people don’t like palm oil – you say to her.
Why – she says to you.
I don’t know. It’s just the way the world is – you say to her.
With love, oyi gi,