LOUD WHISPERS: In Conversation

On June 27th, I took part in the Toyin Falola Live Interview Series. It was such a huge honour to have been invited to be a part of this exciting program run by Professor Toyin Falola, Professor of African Studies at University of Texas at Austin. He was one of my revered lecturers when I was a History student at the Obafemi Awolowo University. I was interviewed by Professor Peyi Soyinka-Airewele (Professor of International and African Politics, Ithaca College, New York) Mr Segun Adeniyi (Chairman, This Day Editorial Board) Mrs Bamidele Ademola-Olateju (Columnist) and Ms Idaniloju Sotunsa (JSS2 Student). This is a very abridged summary of the two-and-a-half-hour conversation. Thank you, Professor Falola, for being such a wonderful teacher and mentor.

Erelu, you boldly use the language “feminism” at a time when many African women in leadership hesitate to do so or reject it altogether because of its often-controversial meanings and debates. In your work, you constantly reference the feminist movement, feminist theory and activism, and the struggle against patriarchal oppression, domination, and gender-based violence. I feel you are too radical for the conservatives and too conservative for the radicals. Do you find yourself at odds with various sectors of the women’s movement?

I learnt early on, the importance of naming in feminist politics. I grew up with the different debates around feminist naming, and the so-called baggage it comes with. To me, Feminism is a global struggle against all forms of patriarchal oppression. I believe that by naming myself a Feminist I am taking a clear position on my understanding of Patriarchy and how this affects women’s lives throughout their life cycle and focus on the tasks every feminist has a) To understand what Patriarchy means b) Question, reform or transform Patriarchal structures to unleash the personhood of women c) Demand for a world in which women will matter in every sense of the word.

My current work on Gender Based Violence is an example of challenging years of oppression and impunity and what that entails. That might come across as too radical in some places.  I have however learnt that this is not work that can be done in isolation of those who control the levers of power at political or community level. I have had to learn how to speak that language in order to get my message across. This then comes across as being ‘Too conservative for the radicals’. There was a debate once on one of our feminist platforms about kneeling down for male political leaders, and I made the point that I have done so many times to secure political support. However, I too by virtue of my political and social status have experienced men old enough to be my father prostrating for me. Gendered power relations in many African communities are complex and nuanced and we need to have an understanding of that. Context and how they aid or restrict platforms has been something I have always had to consider over the years.

You are one of the few women leaders who genuinely deal with intersectionality in engaging women’s struggles. There is the rarefied air of women elites, the cloister of academic feminists and the clan of impatient and irate activists. How have you done it?

Perhaps because I know what it is like to traverse those identities. I am a Feminist who is Middle-aged, Black, African, Nigerian, Yoruba, Wife, Mother, High Chief, Political Spouse, Politician, etc. Intersectionality is the understanding of how our overlapping identities shape the way we experience oppression and discrimination. Every step of the way I have tried to figure out which of my identities grants me access and which ones inhibit my agency. I do not apologise for my privilege as a so-called elite woman, but I am aware that it comes with a responsibility to respond to what life is like for the vast majority of women. As a political mobiliser, I also know that the priorities of women in our communities are shaped around their immediate, practical needs such as peace, shelter, food, healthcare, education for their children and livelihoods. This means I have to find ways of translating resistance to patriarchy into something that is relevant to the lives of women in our communities.

What is the value framework that informs how you work across the many lines that divide women’s lives and experiences, including our ethnic, generational, religious, class divides?

Two concepts have always been important to me, Voice and Space. As feminists we use our voices to raise issue of concern, make ourselves visible, refuse to be silenced and tell our own stories. The spaces we have created either in the academia, community or online are used for learning, solidarity, mobilisation and common action. In this context, as far as I am concerned, every woman is entitled to a voice and space across all the lines that usually divide us.

Second, a feminist agenda has to envisage workable solutions, at least as far as African Feminists are concerned. We have done a great job of developing a body of thought and knowledge and how we experience multiple layers of oppression as African feminists. This knowledge we have built though will not serve its purpose if it is not applied to workable solutions that will lift the burden off the backs of the vast majority of women, for example through addressing the need for peace and security, feminization of poverty, lack of access to decision-making, freedom from violence and abuse and so on. This is why I am so invested in Policy Advocacy.  I can also be impatient and irate, as a matter of fact I believe my age and years of work give me permission to do so. I also know that social change is painfully slow, and we have to leverage on the agency of everyone, sometimes whether we agree with them or not.

Third, context matters but I believe that women’s rights are inalienable and universal. Culture, tradition or religion cannot be used as an excuse to perpetuate discrimination against women.

Anger is a legitimate response to the oppression women have been subjected to for millennia. These days, the angry feminist isn’t just a trope, in Nigeria many young feminists are very angry. What do you think is the basis for this anger?

Feminists old and young are very angry these days. Older feminists are angry with institutional systems of oppression which remain impervious to change, or which consistently readapt once feminist gains have been made. Younger feminists are angry because of the expectation that they too should conform with the systems of oppression their mothers and grandmothers had to endure. If our societies are seeking development and progress, it is unbelievable that people will expect power relations to remain the same. I think the Anger is a good thing. It propels action and change. Negative anger of course brings disastrous results so I am not advocating for that, but I am certainly a fan of having a fire in my belly about injustice that wakes me up in the morning and keeps me going till I have accomplished something.

Young feminists in Nigeria appear to hate anything and everything about men. Is feminism linked with misandry?

Feminism is not the same as misandry, they should not be conflated. A Misandrist is not necessarily a Feminist and a Feminist is not a Misandrist. Feminism to me is a struggle against all forms of patriarchal oppression. Misandry is a dislike of or contempt for men. It serves a purpose for those who consider individual men to be the cause of patriarchal oppression. Individual men exercise dominance and control through their affinity with these institutions and structures I have mentioned, and for this control to be successful, they also coopt women and at the same time silence men who do not agree with them. Feminism as a movement is more interested in challenging the powers and privileges that accrue to men through their control of these structures as opposed to wars with men as individuals. Feminism serves a purpose – to contest patriarchy. Misandry does not serve a purpose because hating individual men does not solve any problems.

In your experience, do you think women do politics differently?

Yes and no. As leaders, women bring skills to the table that are usually undervalued as ‘soft skills’, such as listening, consensus building, mediation and a desire for inclusion. These are attributes we are socialized into having as mothers, wives and in-laws, and they become useful to us when we are in leadership positions. We are however socialized into these skills; we are not born with them. We do not come into the world with spoons in our hands to cook or brooms in our hands to sweep. Men too do not come into the world with guns in their hands or pens to write laws and public policy with. We all learn how to use these things and to appropriate the power or powerlessness that comes with them. When women find themselves in situations where their experiences or voices will not make a difference, if they fear they will not be taken seriously, or in order to fight back against exclusion, they are quite capable of pushing back.

 Following your lifelong career and what you have done in Ekiti, do you think equality of opportunity can be achieved without the support of men?

No, it can’t. I have enjoyed significant support from men – policy makers, legislators, traditional rulers, religious leaders, and male heads of institutions.

From Amina Mohammed to Chimamanda Adichie to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigerian women are recognized for their talent globally but not at home. What is responsible and how can we change this narrative?

Even though we have a number of women in political and public life in Nigeria, their numbers are still quite negligible compared that of men, and their achievements tend to be under-rated. Male leadership is considered to be the norm, the leadership of women is gradually becoming more acceptable than in the past, but there is still a lot of suspicion around women in certain roles. They get asked questions men do not – how did she get there, who is she sleeping with, can she keep a family, etc. Education, training and promotion opportunities are harder for women in this society than for men, so women have to work twice as hard to prove themselves. Many promising women have their dreams cut short by teachers who undermine their aspirations, parents, boyfriends and husbands. We need to develop a mindset that says no society can progress if they continue to under-utilise critical assets, be they women or young people. When marginalised people find themselves in societies where institutional and cultural barriers are removed, they thrive.

Why do you think political arrangements are skewed against women when majority of those who vote are women?

 Right now, we are playing the political game as if we are all peers with men, starting a race from the same point on the field. That is an illusion. The men are always mid-field by the time a political race starts. We need to have a stronger voice in the key political parties, we need strong women’s wings and we need a critical mass of women voters who can ask the right questions and make those the basis of their demands. We also need the backing of laws and policies because we cannot continue to rely on the goodwill and discretion of our political leaders.

Theoretically women should have an upper hand in electoral politics because of their numbers, but the reality is not the case. We have tried for years to take the conventional approach of demanding for inclusion of women in party politics or in appointive positions. We are still less than 5% in the NASS. Our fortunes keep declining with each electoral cycle as political stakes get higher. I think it is time for us to consider special measures which will increase the number of women such as Affirmative Action, Quotas and creation of special seats for women, youth and those living with disabilities as they have in countries like South Africa, Uganda, Namibia and Kenya. It is through these special measures that we can redress age-old barriers and institutional obstacles.

How can we tackle the raging rape pandemic in Nigeria?  

Sexual and Gender Based Violence continues because of a sense of entitlement to the bodies of women and girls.  The culture of silence and stigma re-enforces impunity which creates a vicious cycle – rape-shame-silence-rape again-shame again, and so on. We will continue to see increased levels of SGBV if we do not have the laws, political will and institutions to tackle impunity.

Transactional sex in institutions of higher learning – are the authorities doing enough?

No, they are not. Education authorities need:

  • A zero-tolerance culture for sexual harassment and violence
  • Mandatory Anti-Sexual Harassment/SGBV Policies
  • A transparent grievance procedure that does not victimise victims
  • Appropriate accommodation for students as well as security
  • Anti-GBV clubs in every tertiary institution
  • School-related GBV directives for primary and secondary schools
  • Safe spaces for support and counselling
  • Sanctions for schools that engage in conspiracy to cover up sexual assaults
  • Scapegoats

How can our society change cultures that not only reinforce patriarchy but criminalise victims?

The narrative can be changed through:

  • New ways of socializing girls and boys
  • Legal and Policy Frameworks
  • Strong networks mobilizing for change
  • Knowledge building and learning
  • Inter-generational engagements
  • Change champions in communities
  • Political Will

Among some of the girls of my generation we find out there is a lot of dependency and unnecessary obsession with boys, as a well-known feminist activist, ma what do you have to say about this trend and how young girls can develop better self-esteem and self-confidence?

It is not unusual for girls to have crushes on boys at your age and vice versa. It is absolutely normal. However, a crush does not have to become an obsession with dependency issues, that is dangerous and a serious distraction. Young girls need self-esteem. You need to know you are beautiful, inside and out and no one should tell you otherwise. You don’t need to grovel at the feet of any boys or when you grow up, at the feet of any man. Stand in front of the mirror every morning or night and tell yourself: I am worthy. I am valuable. I will be great.

Whenever we look around, in most places we find ourselves in, we find out most youths spend their time on social media which takes up their time and can end up affecting their future what advice can you give to such youths?

Social media is great, with all the opportunities it brings for connecting with people and sharing ideas, information and knowledge. It can also be a cesspit. People of all ages, but particularly young people, need to be very careful and use social media wisely. You do not have to live your lives for public consumption. The whole world does not need to know when you wake up, brush your teeth, eat breakfast, and go to the bathroom.

 People will follow you and give you the likes you crave, but they do not care about you. If you are not careful about the information you share on social media, one day it might come back to haunt you – a future employment, promotion, or reference, might hinge on what story you have told about yourself on Twitter, Instagram, Tok Tok, Facebook, etc. Social media can also compromise your safety and security as well as your mental health. So, beware!

Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She is the First Lady of Ekiti State, and she can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com

Source: Above Whispers

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2 Responses to LOUD WHISPERS: In Conversation

  1. Femi Diipo July 8, 2021 at 5:45 pm

    The precision of thought and incredible wisdom here are just always incredible. You’re a great leader ma’am

    Reply
  2. DSEED July 13, 2021 at 8:30 am

    You nailed the interview. You’re amazing

    Reply

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