(This is the first of three reports on the interview conducted with Dr. Adeleye-Fayemi on June 27, 2021). For its entire recording, see https://fb.watch/6oxK6nvXx7/)
Dr. Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi and the Institutionalization of Feminist Power
By Toyin Falola
Contentions have always emerged whenever the concept of feminism pops up in intellectual or political discussions in Nigerian circles. These contentions, when observed, are products of an assortment of reasons. Most notable is the amorphous nature of the concept, which allows it to slip into different realizations and manifestations whenever political conversations arise. More critical is the ignorance that it imposes on people, raising questions around its legitimacy when viewed as a Western concept. The former reason is legitimately understandable, precisely because feminism, a sociopolitical movement that some claimed originated from the Western world, can obscure historical representations and realities at its fiercely high level. The movement gains substantial support from women primarily, and some men too. In many African countries, contemporary history deliberately or purposefully undercuts the roles of the pre-colonial African women in building the African society. This is again possible because the African colonial and postcolonial relationship erected by political patriarchy has shortchanged women.
In some spaces, it is stuck in this quagmire since the Western agencies and government support it. However, in some circles, feminism remains very controversial in an African sociocultural space; predominantly, the concept is often associated with Westernization, somewhat in a misleading manner, by which agenda-seeking people consider it as another attempt at recolonization. Often, feminism is erroneously equated with misandry or man-hating, and Africans also reject this. Advocating for gay rights through feminism is another luxury that some Africans cannot especially embrace, further explaining their suspicion around the concept.
For example, how does one convince a man who continuously fraternizes with the thinking that women’s involvement in social development and nation-building is unnecessary regardless of their educational attainment or social awareness, basically because they have genital and other biological characteristics different from him? How does a healthy society spring up with the collective orientation that women are meant to be confined to the kitchen regardless of the possibility of transformative contributions they could make to society? These are questions that people like the Ekiti First Lady, Erelu Adeleye-Fayemi, ask, making them situate their struggles around feminism.
In the recent Toyin Falola Interview Series held with the First Lady, which featured a cornucopia of questions from seasoned academics and well-read journalists, Adeleye-Fayemi was unambiguous with her focus and definition of feminism. She stated in plain words that feminism is a global struggle against all patriarchal establishments contrary to the generally held misconceptions. One would most likely look at this and immediately assume that in the spirit of defending the sociopolitical movement, the feminists have come with a uniquely appealing narrative to explain their positions and foreground their participation in the cause. But then, it reveals more. In the definition, to be carefully unpacked are the ideas of struggles, globality, and then institutional manoeuvering that favour the patriarchal system. One would naturally think about why women have to struggle, in the ordinary sense of the word, to preach their significance in national or international development, especially when it is a fact that almost everything would be impossible to accomplish in every human society without the presence and contributions of women. They determine electoral results either by political mobilization or the motivations of the electorates. They nurture the children and build good homes. The marginalized sociopolitical role of women is a global issue and can be addressed by harnessing women’s combined global power.
Her deep-diving insights strengthen Adeleye-Fayemi’s position that institutional legitimacy underscores the age-long women’s silence against blatant marginalization and suppression that patriarchy has cast on gender imbalance and not necessarily on the understanding that women wanted to be silent. For example, in a situation where the woman is chastised about everything, including the untamed moral delinquency of men like actions of male-perpetrated rape or domestic violence, how does the woman feel free to narrate her side of the experience? To whom would she tell her ordeals, especially when the society would say that she deserves rape because of her choice of clothes, her parents would accuse her of keeping late nights, and the authorities already believe that she has no right to challenge what men do? According to the First Lady, feminists have considered it carefully and concluded that they would continue to be exposed to danger if they do not rise to the societal challenges confronting them. Women have continuously been targeted as prey as all beneficiaries of patriarchy consider them as the underclass. It, therefore, begs the question of how a gender who is already seen from this lens could vie for positions of governance, of directors in corporations, of economic roles, or social roles.
Given this, scholars who are aware of the immeasurable gender disadvantages against which the female gender is placed, social icons who are aware of the inherent damages both emotional and psychological that would always confront the marginalized gender, public opinion shapers who are educated about the potential dangers in ordinarifying women, have risen to the challenge of calling out the beneficiaries of the patriarchal system who are already blinded by the scores of advantages unduly allocated to them, believing that it is a normal thing to flex their muscles against women. This means that the challenge goes beyond the men themselves. The challenge is to make concerted efforts to give people adequate reorientation about how society should be structured. If people have been raised to believe a woman or any gender, for that matter, deserves back-bench roles for no particular reason other than their differences in biological features, then changing such sociocultural orientation is a necessary precondition for achieving a gender-balanced society. Notably, the eventual relationship between females and males is usually shaped by their domestic experiences and social environment while growing up.
For individuals like Adeleye-Fayemi, identifying with the feminist movement is what they do with their full attention. They believe women have reasonable leverage of numbers, intellect, political might, and religious rights to push the freedom agenda of women to the society that has historically and currently remained unyielding to the demand of logic. As a result of such belief, the employment of their position, be it political or economic, is very integral to the cause of freedom. In any case, women who already are equipped with the proper knowledge that their emancipation as a gender depends mainly on the commitment shown to the feminist struggles must, as a matter of necessity, give the movement a voice through what they do and represent. In other words, being undecided is not an option because the problems that women face in a patriarchal system are not individualistic; it has always been collective. In essence, they must rise to meet this challenge as needed to attract all the necessary motivations and support required from the public. It is by no coincidence that activist women in the political circle occupy the forefront of the struggle. Those who have made commendable feats in literary endeavours worldwide give their moral and ideological backing to the struggles. At the same time, those at the economic front do not refuse to offer the necessary monetary assistance to the cause of women’s freedom.
People like the First Lady tend to be associated with one form of controversy or the other given their political connection. In most cases, they avoid the feminist tag, mainly because even fighting for women’s rights has been mis-labelled to please the patriarchal establishment. Name-calling is not unexpected in such a struggle that seeks to validate women’s rights and position in society, owing to the understanding that those who have benefited from the existing structure would always find means of keeping the status quo. For this reason, they would constantly collide with individuals who have demonstrated hostility to their commitment to feminist struggles. In essence, being considered radical is necessary and should be considered a disguised encomium, especially because she appears to have been doing something right or threatens the sustainability of a status quo that represses women. Of course, she has the political platform at her disposal to use. This challenges many individuals who already feel that institutions would continue to favour egoistic males against their female counterparts who have been extensively oppressed. However challenging the jungle is, a pride of lions would not submit to defeat by a family of antelopes.
When I asked the First Lady directly about whether feminism could be converted to politics, her responses indicate that the movement is well-established and adequately planned. Above other things, Adeleye-Fayemi, in response to the consolidating question put forward by Prof. Peyi Soyinka-Airewele, who asked about the strategies employed by the First Lady to build a formidable structure that empowers and provides shelter for women, conceded that the affirmation of their own identity as a gender begins by the understanding that certain cultural and political traditions are circumscribed in the patriarchal system, which means that they further marginalize women in most cases and eclipse their significance in the social development index. While as African women, they have every moral right to defend their historical achievements as a people; however, they would not be emotionally bludgeoned to accept cultural traditions and ideas that treat them not as viable icons and symbols of the society but as marginal figures in the annals of political and cultural development. They believe that cultures evolve, and the responsibility to make them follow a helpful direction rests on them, and this can only be achieved by their ability to identify the strengths and weaknesses of these cultural economies inherited so that they would provide the appropriate means of interacting with them, and making sense of their image.
It became crystal clear that women emancipation, even when its primary motivation is drawn from the collaborative efforts to challenge cultural traditions that are gender-stratified, is achievable through a designed roadmap from themselves and society. But this must be preceded by a wave of sociological actions of uniformity and ideas. The highly celebrated intellectual work of Adeleye-Fayemi, titled “Where is your Wrapper,” gathered beautiful reactions for the way she metaphorizes the wrapper as a social and cultural phenomenon. This is what encouraged one of the questioners to ask the Ekiti First Lady pointedly what it means to throw your wrapper around women. This metaphor gives a different dimension which appears to be indigenous and laced with cultural understanding to the concept of feminism. An outsider who does not understand the symbolic importance of a wrapper to the Yoruba woman may fail to grasp the cultural peculiarities that were metaphorized by the wrapper as a Yoruba cultural index. Being well-versed in the African cultural traditions of the Yoruba identity, it is undebatable that an African woman alludes to situations and experiences using the cultural framework for the designation of their locally developed ideas and philosophies. African women who have refused the label of Western feminism on account of its radical posture have allowed their knowledge about the pre-colonial African society to determine their position. They accept the fact that the colonial imperialists trigger the recalibration of African society. The deficit of the latter intellectual interpretations of many of these African cultures misled them to misunderstand and then wrongly misjudged the epistemic logicality in the structuration of these societies.
For clarification, a wrapper is traditional African clothing used to cover women’s nudity and announce their beautiful outlook. While the first attributed character of the wrapper serves different cultural purposes, the latter fulfils an aesthetic essence. Therefore, to throw a wrapper around a woman by another woman is suggestive of solidarity, affection, and sisterhood. The Yoruba believe that a woman who does this has demonstrated her capacity to identify with her counterpart’s existential challenges and has shown that her development, freedom, respect, and social strength can only be achieved when others are not threatened. In essence, the ultimate signal of oneness and solidarity is to showcase that the welfare of each woman remains a collective assignment of the woman folk so that they would jointly enjoy a collective treatment of respect, equity, and justice within the socio-economic terrain of their culture. Such a situation implies that the society would not be built in a culturally lopsided manner where the interest of one gender would be sacrificed for the ego of the other.
For Adeleye-Fayemi, feminism has become a necessary tactic of engagement to enhance a balanced society where values and virtues are deployed for making political statements that are not necessarily demonstrated through verbal means. She accepted that attaining the political and economic relevance that the feminist activists want begins with their exhibition of a receptive and warm relationship with other women irrespective of their economic condition. Women must identify with other women’s struggles to send a strong and honest message to society that they cannot be individually molested because activities of disrespect and dishonour bring shame to the female folks. When such is condoned, the possibility of seeking cultural, economic, and political relevance or expansion by the women will be entirely difficult. Thus, to throw a wrapper around another woman is to clothe them in the garment of honour and respect. It signals the unalloyed support they could get from their counterparts in the course of their general emancipation.
All these demonstrate the power women have as an identity and as a social group with a difference. The message is unambiguously clear that if women could support one another in matters where they experience disrespect, society would be forced to modify the system that oppresses and suppresses them. But then, the pursuance of a liberatory mission comes with a level of responsibility that sometimes could impede the dispirited movement members. This is usually because the energy to pursue an interest is usually more intensive than the one required to verbally air them, explaining why some ideas and motivations are dead on arrival. Individuals who believe they are workable and achievable do not necessarily make themselves available to offer the energy needed to crystallize their agenda into workable philosophy and measurable results. However, you would notice the inextinguishable flame of the Ekiti First Lady when you see how determined she is, not only to promote feminist aspirations and dreams through renditions alone but also in following her words with corresponding actions that would help to transform the system and bring observable results to the people. This would thus shatter the age-long myth in the political and cultural circles that the womenfolk are inherently weak and incapable of contributing to the advancement of collaborative development. Showing the battle-ready mindset gives a great impression about their conviction around the sustenance of a culture that factors women into its development trajectory. Different and ideally diverse engagements of the concept have been thrown to this iron lady, but she took them in her stride despite their aggressive nature.
Part of the responsibilities surrounding the advocacy for such rapid reorientation of the people about the need for a gender-balanced system is accepting extraneous duties for necessary actions to be taken. A feminist activist who continuously dodges responsibility would have no measure of respect in themselves and would lose the potential respect that the community of observers could give them. However, the sterner stuff with which the First Lady is made comes to bear when she was asked about the possibility of offering her intellectual services for the crystallization of the feminist agenda into the academic sphere where students would be provided with intellectual materials authored by her that would equip them with the appropriate skillset with which they can tactically and methodically approach female emancipation issues. Adeleye- Fayemi agreed to undertake the responsibility for different reasons. The people at the forefront of a movement need to give beyond words and make themselves available when issues that concern their freedom arise. Until one gets to know how busy and influential the people in her political circle could be, it may not be easy to understand the difference that her participation in such a community development project would make. Being the wife of the governor of a state in Nigeria automatically exposes her to a backlog of responsibility, especially with relation to the affairs of women within the political terrain of the state. Accepting the offer to render intellectual services to enhance a gender-balanced society means additional responsibility, and this is a telltale sign of the First Lady’s firm commitment.
Anyone familiar with the trend of feminist activists in the African media industry and the Nigerian media network particularly could not notice yet the emergence of another generation of feminists among the millennials in Nigerian space. Still clearly undefined in public conversation, “millennial feminists” are presented as ideologically different from their immediate past generations on the grounds of greater radicalism. Time changes: the radical of today may be described tomorrow as a conservative! Perhaps, this was what Bamidele Ademola-Olateju noted that informed her question about a correlation between the millennial feminists and the older generations, especially with their mandate of emancipation for the women folks. Responding to this, Adeleye-Fayemi carefully and analytically educated the audience, especially on the reason for the preference of a radical approach against the gentle one used by the previous generations. And this is where we get more of her intelligence and sagacity.
One of the most common reasons why the contemporary Nigerian women took to the use of the radical approach is the symbolic silence of the beneficiaries of patriarchy, which, in one way or the other, encourages the unscrupulous males in the society to usually violate the fundamental rights of the female folks under the impression that it would die and pass. There are two critical issues here to note. First is the collaboration of the institutions of patriarchy, which helps in the enabling of the gender-based violence and hostilities that compound the woes of the women. The second is the implied message that the females get when the necessary platforms and institutions that should have stood up for their rights are criminally silent, passing across the message that it is men’s world. The woman is raped, but rather than prosecute the rapist, society builds a narrative to blame the victim for indecent dressing. Another woman is violently attacked by her husband, suffering domestic abuse. Instead of social institutions to confront the abuser and inflict maximum punitive measures on him, they create an impression that the woman must have enraged the uncultured man. An innocent girl is denied the opportunity to receive education by her parents and even the system because they believe that females’ education has minimal positive effects on the family or society. The list goes on.
Meanwhile, all these social attitudes to women have been so ingrained in the system that many women have now accepted them as a natural incident. It is argued in private domains that some women have been so accustomed to abuse and disrespect that they view fair treatment with suspicion. It is expressed that the women who are the victims of a patriarchal structure usually think that an act of generosity towards them is aimed at an end. That is to say, when they get the proper treatment from their male counterparts, they immediately assume that it is done for some ulterior reasons. Erelu Adeleye-Fayemi stresses that the reaction responds to the age-long imbalance and unfairness of the system against the women. Not being used to the proper treatment mentally disorients them and reflects their day-to-day relationships with both the male and female gender. When you see a woman defending domestic abuse perpetrated by a man against another woman, for example, it is because she has been convinced that they are subordinate to the male folks and had to accept whatever treatment they get from them. Whereas this remains the common experience among the past generations of feminists, millennial feminists appear to be tired of using that method. They are determined to get radical, and if need be, rascal, so that they would draw the necessary attention and make the appropriate marks.
In the words of Adeleye-Fayemi, we get to understand that there is a world of difference between a feminist and a misandrist. The two are not comparable and identical precisely because they have a different focus. Within the mandate of a feminist, patriarchal institutions are destroyed or transformed into something beneficial that will recognize the equal rights of men and women and would not be silent about the importance of women. This means that the feminist is out for a complete social and political redefinition. The people would have access to equal opportunities that would be useful in changing their personal life for societal good. If the male is made to realize that the female is not just complementary but a complete human in her own right and not a subordinate figure whom he must muscle down, such will configure him to put up friendly attitudes and behaviour towards the female in such a way that their social and economic relationship would yield positive outcomes for the people and then the society. Feminists therefore are willing to work with friendly male allies to achieve their objectives. But a misandrist, from its basic dictionary meaning, means a man-hater. Here, we see the personal urge to concentrate one’s annoyance or anger on the males, perhaps because of the personal experiences that the females have had or purely from a hateful mindset. This does not make a feminist a misandrist.
Changing the topic of conversation, Adeleye-Fayemi was asked about what she means by being comfortable with grey areas, as in one of her essays, especially in relation to Nigerian politics. This question was given to consolidating the argument that emphasizes the possibility of harnessing the political spectrum to power the agitations of women, knowing that women constitute a significant fraction of political membership in Nigeria. Responding to this, the First Lady reiterated that logical mathematical calculations are one of the most unproductive methods of getting solutions in the political system. This is mainly because, in politics, you deal with humans, whereas in mathematics, you deal with figures. Knowing that man is complex by nature, even otherwise assured responses from political animals can change at the most sensitive hour. All these make it challenging to have a straightforward deal in the political domain. Irrespective of this condition, however, women in Nigerian politics can always influence the system to promote their feminist agenda. They can wield the necessary power and use it to their advantage. After all, there are results of women’s extraordinary performance during their management of political offices all across the world. This means that the African woman will not be different when tested. Therefore, the women can get themselves in the process and find a way to use their power to transform the country socioculturally and socioeconomically.
Finally, the fact that the African women are awake to the understanding that they wield significant power in shaping and making society, and they use it accordingly, points to the understanding that they have arrived at a renaissance of intellectual and pragmatic brilliance. They have realized, among other things, that unless they rise to the challenges of marginalization, there will continue to be challenges of unimaginable proportion confronting them. They have come a very long way, maturing and evolving into something greater regardless of the challenges they have faced collectively. They have representation in different departments and political levels where they continue to push for better treatment for themselves and society. Bearing in mind that they have these opportunities better than they have ever recorded, especially from the beginning of colonial history to its aftermath, has inspired them to use their voices and positions to promote their collective goals and aspirations. The culture continues with brilliant minds like Dr. Adeleye-Fayemi. She has continued to showcase the collective interest of women at that forum and to change the narratives as to how women can be useful in the formulation of a great society.