Why you should care
Because it’s also a woman’s world.
It’s November 2017, and I’m sitting in an open-air bar under a mango tree, sharing drinks with a few writer colleagues on the fourth evening of the Ake Arts and Book Festival in Abeokuta, Nigeria. We’re parsing the book chats, panels and guests so far, and their takes on the year’s weighty theme, “This F-Word.” F as in “feminism.” Abeokuta, which translates to “beneath a rock” in Yoruba, is a perfect metaphor for the festival: We have arrived armed with the collective will to pull feminism out from beneath its rock, where it’s buried under the weight of conservatism and social acceptance in our highly traditionalist African societies.
The bar’s waiters supply beers and suya, taking orders as we sling arguments, one against another, basking in the sedate ambience of an Abeokuta night. Until, that is, I order a Radler.
I like my alcohol light, see, so the half-beer, half-fruit-juice concoction is a personal favorite. Alas, over time, I’ve learned that the Radler, as with many things socially defined as “too girlie for a man” or “too manly for a woman,” arrives with persecution strapped to its back. So, of course I’m not surprised when my waiter, a slim dark boy with a scar on his nose, does a double take.
“Sah? You say Star Radler?”
He’s quiet for a second. “As in, not Star Beer?”
I peer into his face. “What’s your name, man?”
“Farouk, will you get me a Radler or not?”
The table has fallen silent. Farouk seeks validation in the eyes of his audience, but doesn’t find it. Our collective breaths are held, the still night air prickly with tension. We’re waiting for him to give voice to his thoughts: Sah, na only women dey drink this thing.
But he turns and walks away instead. The energy with which we return to our discussion paints this as a triumph of sorts, but I fall silent for the rest of the night, thinking about Farouk and how this episode will probably fade from his memory after a few hours busing tables. I’m thinking about how it is for people like Farouk that, next door at the June 12 Cultural Centre, literary enthusiasts from all over the world have congregated to discuss how women must be given space to make their way in a world of men, by men, for men. How, despite the fires lit by these conversations, we still struggle to see by its light, still struggle to peel the layers of internalized patriarchy and toxic masculinity off our skins.
[T]he silence of men in the maltreatment of women means consent.
On the fifth night of the festival, we see three short films. Using Bariga Sugar, Through Her Eyes and Faces of Defiance, three brilliant women explore methods that ancient and modern societies alike have employed to place women at the bottom rung of their ladders — from sex work to suicide bombings to female genital mutilation. Young African girls feature heavily in the films, and few eyes in the room remain dry. A quote at the end of Through Her Eyes, which features a teenage girl who’s a suicide bomber, piques my interest:
Children are not born terrorists;
we must address the root causes.
I keep thinking:
Farouks are not born sexist;
we must address the root causes.
I spin that line over and over in my head, realizing that feminism is less the fight against individuals like Farouk or the perpetrators of oppression in the films, and more against the social systems that breed them. It becomes clearer to me that there is indeed a war to be fought, and every single one of us must become soldiers. It becomes clearer that if this war is to be won, every single one of us must wear that F-word on our chests, wielding it as sword and shield.
For the rest of the festival, we dissect, we poke, we rummage. We lend ears to the #MeToo stories, let them own their pain in the ways they desire. We talk about how the Latin root word femina does not imply that feminists must be females alone, and how the silence of men in the maltreatment of women means consent. We ask ourselves how we can create not only spaces but also a whole world that the Trumps and Weinsteins and Cosbys will find uncomfortable to inhabit. We agree on why the F-word must remain for all time, all ages, all genders, all peoples.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in We Should All Be Feminists, says, “To be a feminist is to be an angry woman who men don’t like.” One week in Abeokuta teaches us that, however the patriarchal apologists choose to define it, we’ll always remember that to be feminist is to be human — man or woman, white or POC, religious or not, queer or not. To be feminist is to live for what is right and equal, to fight for women and everyone trampled under the boots of gendered oppression.
So, buckle up. The F-word is not going away soon, and you’re going to have to deal with it.
Suyi Davies Okungbowa is a storyteller who writes from Lagos, Nigeria.