…a feminist is any woman who tells the truth about her life. – Virginia Woolf.
I grew up in the shadow of my maternal grandmother’s life. Mercy Mgbokwo Onoh, child of Mazi Hyacinth Vincent Okoroji and Da Aviazunwa Priscilla (Okoro) Okoroji. A key part of my childhood was my mother telling me stories about her mother. Another key part was my mum always scolding my sister and I each time we acted in ways that were not feminist or to her showed a weakness of spirit. She in the typical manner of Nigerian mothers would say to both of us: ‘You will not kill me. I did not kill my mother’. She would also add to whoever could hear in sharp angry Arochukwu Igbo: ‘I Ugonma Onoh will not die the death of my mother. Did you hear me? I will not die the death of my mother in the name of raising children. If I die your father will marry another woman and that is when you shall remember that you must be organized!’.
One of the things I love about my mother is her ability to document stories through pictures. Ever since I’ve known my mum, she takes pictures at every stage of life she is in. The good, the bad and even the ugly. I have often wondered why my mum thought it okay to take pictures of my body when I was badly beaten in primary school. Wasn’t it better to just focus on documenting me at my best moments after recovery? No, not my mum. She even takes pictures of my room whenever it is dirty and threatens to post it on Instagram and Twitter for all my friends to see.
Now that I am much older in age and in experience, I understand the importance of keeping records of all parts of my journey to joy especially as a woman. Too often, as Nigerian women we are expected to tell that which is suitable to the ears of whoever is listening. We are expected to filter our words and even our pictures on Instagram to fit a reality that ends in the narrative of ‘good obeying girls’. In all we do, we must not betray our family names with our words or worse with our faces and pictures. Silence, is to then become our second name such that we only feel a little freedom when in groups with other women where no men are. Hardly ever do we even feel security in those groups because most Nigerian traditional women’s safe space groups like the Umuada and Nwunyedi* are often the first port of call to the truth that indeed miserable married women love company and are always seeking to recruit who else to vent with.
To me, the most powerful thing a Nigerian woman can do is speak her truth publicly where both women and men are. The most powerful thing you can do is talk about your life without care and fear of soiling a family name or reputation. The most powerful thing a Nigerian woman can do is publicly present the ‘dirty linen’ of her life especially in the familial space without wondering if shame should be her name. Without wondering if she is embarrassing people (read:male relatives) by transferring the shame of sexual abuse, land disinheritance, domestic violence and even the fact that she may also know women in her family who have loved women sexually.
I am one of those feminists who strongly believes that a woman doesn’t have to identify as a feminist to live a feminist life. I identify as a feminist yes beause I do not think there is any shame in the word feminist. However, the manifestation of sexism and the subsequent response to sexism doesn’t only occur in cultures where there are fixed words for feminism.
Throughout Nigerian history, women have found ways to organize around issues that primarily concern women and girls. The first step to that organization is women being able to articulate that there is a problem enough for them to seek solutions to it. This articulation is the most powerful act of feminism cause a woman must abandon and say fuck you to the age old lore of woe: ‘What will people say?’.
Today, I want to encourage Nigerian women in particular to talk and to speak without waiting for men to give us speaking rights. The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day was Choose To Challenge and I still believe that Nigerian women and girls must challenge the idea that we have to be silent, submissive creatures who wait to be given the power to own our minds and bodies by men.
May we always remember that we are the dreams of our foremothers spoken into existence.
May we always remember that we are the light prayed into being by generations of women who had no choice but to sacrifice.
May we remember to honor those sacrifices by choosing ourselves each morning.
Shalaye: To explain and give a larger context.
Umuada/Nwunyedi: Traditional Igbo women’s groups.
Angel Nduka-Nwosu is a writer, multimedia journalist, researcher and comms strategist. She’s been featured in YNaija, BBC Africa and The Avalon Daily.