Prof. Molara Ogundipe is one of Africa’s foremost gender advocates, who has combined it a robust literary activism, creativity and scholarship. Her views on the subject are pertinent in addressing age-old stereotypes about women. But her gender advocacy goes beyond the sterile type associated with the West; it is based on Africa’s cultural values and ethos culminating in her coinage STIWANISM, meaning Social Transformation in Africa Including Women. In this online interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU from her base in Ghana, Ogundipe, who recently turned 70, spoke on various issues both at home and abroad
You have been a passionate advocate of gender democracy all your life. What is the place of such politics in the light of the critical roles women have begun to play in developments all over Africa?
You may say an advocate all my life as my mother was also an activist from the 1930s and during the nationalist struggle for independence and thereafter. During their time though, my mother, Chief Grace Tayo Ogundipe, who retired as an English and Math teacher from St. Luke’s Teacher Training College, Ibadan, spoke of emancipating women and “improving” their conditions and statuses, especially through education. The politics of gender democracy is still very relevant and necessary today because there are still many challenges for women. Gender democracy has not been attained in any country in the world, either in Africa or the more industrialized countries of Europe, America or Asia.
Women may now play very critical roles in politics in some countries and in Nigeria but they are very few and far between here and all over the world; for this reason the struggle for women’s participation at all levels of society still needs to continue. Consider Nigeria; women may be more in the news but how many are in significant positions of political power such as ministers of state and not junior ministers in a ministry; how many are vice-chancellors in the country; how many are in the military as senior officers as in other countries? How many women are heads of local government councils or even just members, mayors of cities or simply participants, if not heads, in many of the institutions in the areas where they live? So negligible is the number of women in the last elections that a group of women in Lagos has now started a movement called “The More Women Movement” to have more women in government.
How many women are in traditional structures of social organizations if those traditions of including women have not been wiped out by so-called modernity? How many women are kings or queens instead of just regents, temporary stop-gaps, in Yoruba land? People may laugh or wish to laugh at this idea but think of the changes that have occurred with royalty even in the Japanese royal family. We tend to think in Africa and Nigeria that culture is cast in stone and unchangeable in our failure to realize that culture is created by human beings. Culture is human-made (please do not change this to man-made as I am using the phrase, human-made deliberately, meaning by men and women) and can be changed at any time. Moreover, culture evolves over time in response to the needs of people who use the culture. Culture is not only inherited; and presented at festivals; it is created every day.
Regarding our gender cultures, an example of changeability in culture occurred recently in the North of Ghana, among a highly Islamic and formerly masculinist people who have now adopted the culture of queens to participate in indigenous administration from seeing the roles of queens in the South among the matrilineal cultures of the Akans. Culture is made by us every day and can be changed.
You started campaigning for gender equality way back in the 1980s in your writing. What trends have emerged over the last three decades? Has there been a progression or a regression? How much ground have women gained so far in bridging the inequality gap?
I actually started working for gender equality in the 60s in my writing when I published an essay on Tutuola’s Palm Wine Drinkard in 1969 and made an analysis of his wife as a typical Yoruba woman partner in marriage. She behaves in the novel like many African women when they are wives: resourceful, supportive, of the husband and the family; also intelligent, and willing to play roles assigned to men when necessary and life-saving for the total African family, not only the nuclear family.
Many positive and negative trends have emerged over the last four decades. Women’s movements blossomed all over the continent since our AAWORD (Association of African Women for Research and Development) in 1977 of which I am now the continental Chairman of the Scientific Committee. It is a continent-wide association with national chapters;. We have 24 countries as members so we have to organize ourselves regionally along the official language lines of the continent: Anglophone, Francophone, Lusophone and Arabic Africa. Our continental secretariat is in Dakar and I am now travelling there as I write to a conference on equality for women for development, organized by the president of Senegal, Hon. Abdulaye Wade. He is funding a vast conference including market women and other national non-elitist stakeholders to consider how parity can be made a tool of development. This is to say that in every institution in the country and especially politics, women’s membership should always be 50%. The Beijing UN conference suggested something less and I do not think Nigeria is taking kindly to the idea of 30% participation for women, not so speak of 50%. So Senegal, a highly Islamized country is taking the lead for the rest of Africa in this regard.
We also had WIN (Women in Nigeria) in Nigeria in the 80s of which I was a founding member and a state representative among many other associations, national and international in which we struggled and published a lot of material as well as institute various modalities for reaching, teaching, mentoring and developing the capacities of women at all levels of development – children, girls, adolescents, young and grown women.
What has been the progression? Positively we have increased awareness of women’s rights and gender equality, made the issues household discussion material. We have influenced society using even faith organizations, indigenous, Islamic and Christian. All levels of society are more aware even I f they do not support the empowerment of women. We have identified women theologians and an association of African women theologians with a website. You will remember that at one time, even soldiers’ wives made the nation hop with ideas of women’s empowerment. We have made women speak out and made many rebel against injustices such as widowhood rites, female circumcision, IVVF, deprivation of voter rights, education and human rights that touch on issues such as violence against women, forced marriage, family law, forced labour etc. Institutions have been set up such as the African Women’s Protocol, the African Women’s Lobby and many more through the United Nations and the Africa Union. The last, the AU has set up an African Decade for Women starting 2010, a fact and event that need to be more publicized and supported with funds firstly by the declaring organization itself and all concerned.
We have popularized the idea that women can be in politics from senator to governor and president, even though we have not succeeded to have women as presidents in many African nations and Nigeria. Culturally our nations still prefer women as deputies, and regents of kings, if at all.
Regarding gender equality in government, we have only a small percentage; no worse than many European countries too. It seems that patriarchy is very strong and dominant world-wide, not because it is natural but because societies have been constructed that way due to human will. It is not however only biological; and we do not have to always have a biological basis for constructing society. For example, in some societies in which women are fewer that men, polyandry has been instituted and goes on in some countries today, few countries, yes, but the point is that culture is constructed by humans to meet needs, perceived needs and problems of existence that the society wishes to solve. As said earlier, cultures are built by human beings and everything can be changed if we wish to. Rwanda has the highest percentage of women in government – 52%, higher than anywhere in Europe. In Scandinavian countries that had and still have a relatively high percentage of women, however, some of the women have said that they found they had been given parliaments as talking shops with no power in their hands, which reminds one of South Africa where the Africans only have, in my opinion, the theatre of parliament backed by little economic, social or military power. Nigeria allegedly had just 6% of women in government before the recent election and I gather that she has even less now, to the point that some women just formed “the More Women Movement”.
We have worked successfully on the peace movement and created bodies of knowledge in Africa while women have theorized feminisms, womanism and other i-sms. Academically we have established women’s and gender studies departments, degrees and courses as we graduated students. I have done this in several countries in Africa especially in South Africa in addition to Canada, the U. K. and the United States. NGO of all kinds on gender and women organized by men and women flood our societies today in Nigeria and the world by those committed to women’s empowerment and those just exploiting it because gender is a lucrative industry now in town and gown. I can tell you more about our achievements in the media and in the creative world in literature, film, the visual and the plastic arts but it is more important that we hasten to the negatives because we need to continue to work on them.
Withholding education from the girl child used to be one of the ways through which women were denied rights. But that has changed. How much has women seized upon this tool to change their lot?
This is a very good question regarding the plight of the girl-child but the way the question is framed demands a gender discourse to foreground my answer. You speak of women seizing on this tool to change their lot. Now, do you mean the girl-child changing her lot? That she cannot do for she does not have the power in the family or society to do that. She is only a child. Her fate lies in the hands of her parents or guardians who may or may not be able to send her to school or attend to her girlhood needs. Moreover, women as mothers do not have children by themselves. Girl-children have to be taken care of by their families which make them the responsibility of father and mother, men and women. This is why we need to keep before us and promote the fact that feminism and gender work, the promotion of women’s conditions are and not the purview and concern of women only. Men in society also need to get actively involved with gender issues if they want to see a happier society and more stable families. From this preamble therefore, it is not only women who have to “seize the tool” of providing education for the girl-child but both men and women in society.
How far have we gone with the use of this tool of using the provision of education for the girl-child to provide human rights for the girl-child? Farther than we were in the 60s, 70s and 80s but not far enough for many girl-children especially in the poorer classes in the cities and rural areas are still denied education. Boys are still preferred for education and the cultural attitude that educating a girl means investing in another man’s family still exists in the minds of many men and women, especially the men, fathers, brothers, uncles who want to keep their wealth and well-being in their own families, not in the marital families of their daughters and female relatives. Much consciousness-raising still needs to be done among our men and I believe now that we need to turn our attention to winning men over, conscientizing them and talking to them. Women cannot keep on talking to each other alone about gender; we have done enough of that. We need to now focus on Men’s Studies too and Masculinities – what makes men who they are, how do we raise them, how do we give them the positive and negative values they hold and how do we change the negative?
Ironically women raise boys to hold those values for women internalize the values of the patriarchate and strive to do well there, to be found pious women and approved by men. We fight to circumcise our girls because we want them to find husbands in the culture, for instance; we do not wish men to reject them for being un-prepared biologically by the biologically ignorant and male sexist ideas and values of the circumcising culture. Women persecute other women for not following the values of cultures that serve the interests of men so that they, the persecutors, are praised and honored as virtuous women. Both men and women need to get together now to determine and approve what is best for both sexes and not simply carry inherited cultural attitudes that are neither scientific nor coincident with the human rights of men, women and children. The girl child has sometimes similar problems to the boy child such as forced marriage, forced labour, overwork, deprivation of education in situations of poverty, rape and sexual abuse (yes, for boys too), issues that we keep covered up in families and fail to talk about or confront in society. Several NGOs and educational outfits have been doing much for girl-children in Nigeria. It can also be justifiably said that since independence, most middle-class and well-to-do Nigerians have focused on educating their daughters either to the highest levels or to the best of their ability, perhaps as a preventive measure. Whatever the reasons, this has beeb a very positive development.
The conditions of girl-children in all classes is still so wanting, however, that the CSW (Commission on the Status of Women) at the UN, as recently as March this year, at their annual meeting, identified the following as the most pressing issues for women now: women and girls’ access and participation in education, training and education in science and technology, the promotion of women’s equal access to full employment and decent work. We might say this formulation speaks to middle-class women only as rural women work all the time. Nonetheless, we have to pay attention to how much reward and compensation rural women get from what they do including how much control they have over their own labour and its yields.
Some may argue that feminism has lost its edge since women now have a greater say in most socio-political circles. What roles do feminists like you now serve? Do you see your role being whittled down as a feminist campaigner?
We may ask those who would argue that what they mean by feminism. If feminism means the protection of women’s interests in society, their empowerment and the struggle to give women rights and conditions that permit them to live lives in which they can express their full potential, if feminism means the power to choose, to choose dignity and control of one’s life to be a worker or a homemaker, to work where and how you wish or not, to decide your rights to life and choose to be what you want to be without menace, abuse, force or injustice, how can we say feminism is no longer relevant? Have all these rights and choices been won in society? Is the woman able to act as a free citizen now in all situations? Women have a say, what does that mean? In socio-political circles, what form does that say take? In our political parties, how much participation do women have at the decision-making level and how much self-determined agency do they have? Are they in the inner circles of power in their own political parties for that matter, on their own mettle and not by being someone’s wife, girlfriend, female adoptee or pawn in a game among men? This interview thus far is showing how vast the realms of action are and need to be for us, so how can we say that feminism is no longer relevant? The total interview maps out the various roles that feminists, male and female, can still play.
Men can be feminists too and there are many that I know. Anyone who supports the worldview delineated in this interview and cares to improve the lives and conditions of women in society and at home can be a feminist, man or woman. Samora Machel of Mozambique was a feminist and so was Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso. Coming closer home, I know that Prof. Biodun Jeyifo who writes for the Guardian on Sundays is a feminist as is Professor Niyi Osundare, Professor Adebayo Olukosi formerly of Codesria now at IDEP, Senegal, Professor Ropo Sekoni and several others of my male colleagues and friends.
What new perception of women should we see emerging, and how can women position themselves effectively for it?
The new perceptions have been stated in my foregoing answers. Women need to see themselves firstly as citizens in themselves with rights and not only the mothers, wives, daughters, concubines, girlfriends, and relatives of male citizens through whom they have to enjoy rights. African men have to see women in that way too. As soon as you speak of women, many men begin to think of their wives and speak of women in relation to men only. Women are not only wives and always mothers of citizens in which role and conception men give a great deal of love and adoration, we know; but women are not only that. They are firstly just people who later get married or not (the right to choose), human beings with rights independent of their relationship to any man, citizens of their countries and nations with rights that accrue to the individual woman who may or may not choose to be a mother or be blessed with biological children. Fortunately African can be mothers in many other ways. However, let us always remember that a woman does not have or derive value only in relation to a man. She stands on her own too as a citizen with her own human rights.
Actually both men and women in Nigeria and Africa need to know about their human rights. Both groups would suffer less in their families, workplace and society, particularly from our politicians and other power brokers if we knew our political and human rights.
Politics; Patriarchy, and Property. What is the interplay amongst these three themes as they relate to gender politics? Do they still affect women the way they did, say three decades ago? How can women navigate through them to be better served in society?
What a fine combination of issues! All three are related, even intertwined. First of all, they belong to areas of our lives that are dominated by men or male power or social power organized through the concept of male supremacy. Let me pause to quickly explain that patriarchy does not mean all men versus all women; it mean the systemic organization of society through men and women in lineages, families and the organization of society politically, socially and economically to ensure the supremacy of and the upholding of male power in many outcomes. Socially, media and culture are used to uphold patriarchy. For instance girl children are told stories to teach them not to be jealous, preparing them for polygamy. Institutions exist to frighten and control women and children such as the Oro in Yoruba land. We had media in Africa, and very effective ones too, before our colonial encounter and the imprints have lasted over centuries, till today too, for some of the imprints are standing in our way to development while other imprints are beautiful as they keep us in our relatively more loving, generous and hospitable cultures and societies.
Women are however part of the power of patriarchy, we must remember, depending on their place in the organization of families and the sociology of the society. A woman chief could support the higher classes for instance while most women strive to uphold and support patriarchy for instance in their constant condemnation of other women and the support of male interests and institutions. Women have different roles and statuses and should not be thought of only and always as wives for women can be subordinate through marriage while they are not in their birth families where they could be powerful in their birth families.
The misfortune in our understanding of the roles and positions of women in Africa is that we tend not to think and speak of women and see them in the multiplicity of their statuses and roles in indigenous society some of which have carried over into modern life and are transformed into the positive and powerful roles and statuses of women such as market women. The inbred assertive attitudes of our women may also be due to our cultural heritage.
Regarding politics, patriarchy and property, men usually own property while inheritance is passed through them even in matrilineal societies. In Ghanaian Akan patriarchy, the mother’s brother, the uncle is the bearer of the line of property. One inherits through one’s mother’s brother so despite the matrilinearity, the inheritance order and authority still pass through the male. Most property, especially land, in most patrilineal societies passes through men or are owned and distributed by men who can sometimes give the land to their daughters and female relatives. Since women mostly do not inherit in their father’s lines or in their husbands, they end up losing on both sides though they frequently can work on land but cannot own it. A great deal of family, social and governmental politics encase land and other property where women’s rights are absent or abused. So, your speaking of property in the triad of politics and patriarchy is very insightful. We have done some research as scholars and NGO activists on the issue of property especially land and regularly make recommendations to governments, other forces, stakeholders and relevant agencies such as the UN and Africa Union etc. concerning the issue of land, agriculture and inheritance in general.
As a creative writer, what new work (s) have you produced in recent years, perhaps in apparent response to possible changes in gender relations around you? How was it (were they) received?
I have written much poetry about living abroad in South Africa, Canada, the Unites States and England including traveling in other countries in Asia and Latin America. I have done work on indigenous gender concepts and always work intellectually from African perspectives so that we can better understand the background against which stand as modern Nigerians or Africans while we seek to choose modernity as we should, change and yet continue our cultures, now adapted of course, for the betterment of our lives at the present time. If we are mature and self-respecting nationals, it should be our responsibility to choose, to choose the identity we wish to give ourselves globally.
For this, history and the knowledge of our past, achievements and culture, errors and all, so we can be self-critical and intelligent in our choices. Many of us do not know, for instance that Christianity was in East Africa/Ethiopia, nearer the time of Christ and well before Christianity reached Europe. Now, sadly, from poor history, we see Christianity as “the white man’s religion.” I think very fervently that the study of history, African and history relevant to Africa needs to be re-introduced into our schools and colleges. We, in the middle-classes, need to fight for this nationally as Brazil is doing. I have had in class Nigerian undergraduates who do not know about the Biafran War or the struggle for independence in Nigeria alone, not to speak of all over Africa. Incredible.
My work on gender in our indigenous cultures also includes my campaign that we need to speak tour languages to our children in the first ten years of life at home so they know the languages and cultures else the languages will die out. It is ridiculous that we do not speak our languages in our own countries. Ironically, many Nigerian parents and older generations, particularly southerners find they cannot speak their own languages anymore or speak it for two minutes before they change into English, because they have been so busy speaking English to their children that they themselves cannot maintain a conversation in their own languages anymore We do not notice, as a warning, how foreigners in Nigeria and everywhere else, quickly set up their own national schools for their children wherever they go. We are the people with the dispensable cultures, alas! The first seven years of education should be also be in the local languages when you learn the culture and history of the surrounding culture wherever you are in school. This is the kind of experience my generation had, in education systems planned by our less copycat parents who respected African culture while they also wanted modernity. Now we throw everything out of the window in order to seem westernized, but at what price today?
A highly circulated work of mine is a short story I published in an anthology of short stories, edited by Ama Ata Aidoo entitled African Love Stories. My short story is entitled “Give me that Spade”. It is about a girl, born out of wedlock, who decides to go to the funeral of her father in the company of her unmarried mother. We cannot say she is illegitimate because any child claimed by its parents in Nigeria is considered legitimate, a very humane attitude or law. As I stated in my book, Recreating Ourselves: African Women and Critical Transformations, (1994). I am of the firm view that children are not responsible for what adults and their parents do for which reason they should not be punished for their actions. This story therefore focuses on our men’s sense of responsibility to the children they father freely in our society where masculinism encourages the idea that a man is free to follow his libido wherever it leads him. With whatever the consequences.
The story has been very well-received especially by a group of male Nigerian intellectuals and activists in their fifties and over in Philadelphia, who welcomed the story as speaking to issues that need to be addressed. The most violent reaction came from a Yoruba chief and university graduate who said: what was that girl doing at the funeral at all and near the grave? She should have been pushed into the grave there and then! I thought “Waow!” What a mercilessly violent reaction!