“…I am infuriated by the assumption that to be youngish and female means you are unable to earn your own living without a man” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A humid night two years ago, sitting beside a male friend in his car, and I roll down my window to tip a young man, one of the thousands of unemployed young men in Lagos who hang around, humorous and resourceful, and help you park your car with the expectation of a tip. I brought the money from my bag. He took it with a grateful smile. Then he looked at my friend and said, “Thank you, sir!”
The Nigerian writer, 33, won major literary awards in 2005 and 2007
This is what it is to be youngish (early thirties) and female in urban Nigeria. You are driving and a policeman stops you and either he is leering and saying “fine aunty, I will marry you,” or he is sneering, with a taunt in his demeanour and the question so heavy in the air that it need not be asked: “which man bought this car for you and what did you have to do to get him to?” You are reduced to two options; to play angry and tough and to thereby offend his masculinity and have him keep you parked by the roadside, demanding document after document. Or to play the Young Simpering Female and massage his masculinity, a masculinity already fragile from poor pay and various other indignities of the Nigerian state. I am infuriated by these options. I am infuriated by the assumption that to be youngish and female means you are unable to earn your own living without a man. And yet. Sometimes I have taken on the simpering and smiling, because I am late or I am hot or I am simply not dedicated enough to my feminist principle.
I have a friend who is, on the surface, a cliché. An aspirational cliché. She has a beautiful face, two degrees from an American Ivy League college, a handsome husband with a similar educational pedigree and two children who started to read at the age of two; she is always at the top of Nigerian women achievers lists in magazines; has worked, in the past 10 years, in consulting, hedge funds and non-governmental organisations; mentors young girls on how to succeed in a male-dominated world; recites statistics about anything from trade deficits to export revenue. And yet.
One day she told me she had stopped giving interviews because her husband did not like her photo in the newspaper, and she had also decided to take her husband’s surname because it upset him that she continued to use hers professionally. Expressions such as “honour him” and “for peace in my marriage” tumbled out of her mouth, forming what I thought of as a smouldering log of self-conquest.
Another friend is very attractive, very educated, sits on boards of companies and does the sort of management work that is Greek to me. She is single. She is a few years older than I am but looks much younger. The first board meeting she attended, a man asked her, after being introduced, “So whose wife or daughter are you?” Because to him, it was the only way she would be on that board. She was, it turned out, a chief executive. And yet. She lives in a city where her friends dream not of becoming the CEO but of marrying the CEO, a city where her singleness is seen as an affront, where marriage carries more social and political cachet than it should.
Another friend is a talented writer, a forthright woman who makes people nervous when she speaks bluntly about sex, a woman who describes herself as a feminist, and who talks a lot about gender equality and changing the system. And yet. She earns more than her husband does but once told me that he had to pay the rent, always, because it was the man’s duty to do so. “Even if he is broke and I have money, he will have to go and borrow and pay the rent.” She paused, rolling this contradiction around her tongue, and then she added, “Maybe it is because of our culture. It is what they taught us.”
There is, of course, always that “they”. Two years ago, we were slumped on sofas in his Lagos living room, my brother-in-law and I, talking about politics as we usually did.
“I think I’ll run for governor in a few years,” I said in the musing manner of a person who only half-means what they say.
“You would never be governor,” he said promptly. “You could be a senator but not governor. They won’t let a woman be governor.”
What he meant was that a governor had too much power, and was in control of too much money, none of which could be left to a woman by that invisible “they”. And yet. I realise that 15 years ago he would not have said, “you could be a senator.” Civilian rule brought greater participation of women in politics and the most popular and most effective ministers in the past 10 years have been women. In the next decade, my brother-in-law could be proved wrong. In the next three decades, he will certainly be proved wrong. But she would have to be married, the woman who would be governor.
My first novel is on the West African secondary school curriculum. My second novel is taught in universities. One question I am almost always certain of getting during media interviews is a variation of this: we appreciate the work you are doing and your novels are important but when are you getting married? I refuse to accept that the institution of marriage is what gives me my true value, and I refuse to come across as silly or coy or both. The balance is a precarious one.
“Would you ask that question to a male writer my age?” I once asked a journalist in Lagos.
“No,” he said, looking at me as though I were foolish. “But you are not a man.”