I spend what I consider an unreasonable amount of time on social media, often in between engaging in other work-related things and I can confidently say that nothing causes an uproar in the Nigerian community more than a woman saying she doesn’t want to marry, or have kids. Oh, the outrage! Like how dare a woman choose what to do with her life? The audacity!
There’s a Nigerian style to everything. For some reason, often without trying we tend to adopt a uniqueness to reacting to situations in an overly dramatic way. The Nigerian way of cooking for instance where you sprinkle salt until you hear a whisper from your ancestors telling you when it’s enough, and if the food turns out salty—you are nothing but a disgrace to your generation. Nigerians are known to be largely influenced by cultural and traditional standards and that is evident in their approach to everything. Even the ones in the diaspora, that even though surrounded by Western culture also hold some deeply rooted archaic takes in what the modern-day family structure should look like. And that is not to say that every part of the culture is unacceptable by modern day standards. However, some cultures can and should be scrapped, new ones should be created and the old ones reformed to accommodate new theories and systems that benefit both men and women.
Recently, I came across an article on Zikoko about a woman who feels disappointed about the outcome of her current life the minute she started having children. She hates that she had to put her plans and goals on hold to embark on the journey of motherhood thrust upon her at an unexpected time. Now, it feels like nothing will ever get back to how they used to be and she’s stuck with the stay-at-home-mom title which she detests with the knowledge that she had ambitions which included getting other academic degrees and eventually becoming a lecturer. I really felt sad for her and wishes she feels better about everything.
A couple of months ago, I also read about a woman who was in an extremely emotional and physically abusive marriage where the man not only collected over 60% of her salary but also beat her up whenever she expressed her displeasure. All that time, the man consistently made choices that benefited only him, his personal interests and that of his immediate family with HER OWN MONEY. The plot twist is that her own mother was in support of his misbehaviour and threatened to never speak to her again if she didn’t return to her marriage, after she had mustered up courage to leave and start again.
I do not remember the first wedding I ever attended, but as long as I remember, whenever I heard that someone was getting married, the first thing that came to my mind was ‘so she can cook all these different types of soup’. Because even as someone who liked food and cooking, I knew that cooking was a lot of stress and required a lot of skill to throw it down like I watched my mum do. And as young as 9–10 years, I felt very uncomfortable with that ideology and perception created in my mind because I thought that since cooking was such an important factor to marriages, then I was never going to be ready for one as I wasn’t ready for to surrender myself to any human being to scrutinize the food that I have put in so much work to prepare. In a nutshell, marriage to me meant housekeeping. If you can cook and arrange the house, then you can marry, and so a part of my clumsy, awkward self, panicked. I didn’t know that I was ever going to be able to fit into that picture.
As a young girl, I had always known that I didn’t fit into the level of feminity that was expected of me. As little as 5, my mum would make us carry handbags and wear hats and groom us to be ladylike. With clothes, I never understood why I always had to carry handbags and always wear cute dresses when I wanted to wear sneakers instead. I hated braiding my hair, and I still do so that was why I cut it. I dreaded the weekend trips to the salon and the never-ending chants of ‘beauty is pain’ when I winced in pain as my head and neck were shook from side to side to make the plaits. I just didn’t get it. Beauty for whom? And why did beauty have to be painful? I pondered on these questions and I remember thinking of the purpose of beauty if the seeker of this beauty had to experience discomfort and avoidable pain to achieve a look that displeased the owner but satisfied the expectations of the beholder. Why did I have to do something I hated so much to belong? Surely, there were other less-painful ways of attaining this ‘beauty’.
Growing into adolescence, my voice became deeper than a 13-year olds’ should be. I remember getting on the phone with a mutual friend or family member after my sister to hear ‘oh wow, your voice has changed’ or ‘I thought it was maybe your dad’, and that hurt a lot, so I learned to own and accept it but whenever I met someone I liked, a part of me died because they might hear my voice over the phone during ‘night time’ calls, and make mockery of it. It took stages of self reassurance to own it and straight up make jokes about it or mention it mid-conversation that no one should expect bedroom voice from me, because my voice is loud and somewhat deep and if you’re not okay with it, that’s fine. While battling with my insecurities, another thing that puzzled me was the frequent mention of marriage with things like ‘preparing for your home,' often surrounded in conversations around home chores, cooking and cleaning up the mess that someone else made and little to no mention of the mental and emotional state of mind.
I was always known to be caught around the house cleaning something or cooking because I loved food so I was pretty much almost always up to something in the kitchen, and as expected, I received lots of praises from my parents and my aunties when they visited. It was okay, to me. I enjoyed doing these things but I remember a part of me doing all these chores with the consolation that I would make a good wife for one boy that I liked while in junior secondary school. Yes, you heard that right. Picturing myself as a future wife was my incentive to do some chores that ordinarily I would’ve found exhausting. As a result of these conversations, it meant that my entire worth as a married woman was tied to my ability to do chores and ‘keep’ the home and all of that and so I did an analysis. I compared all the stories I had heard from married people, the most popular being that a couple coming home from work at the same time, but the expectation is that the woman is to fix something for both of them to eat, even as much as make fresh food late in the night. I asked myself if that was the future I visualized in a marriage, and the answer was no.
The entire life span of an average Nigerian woman is divided into two stages of her life: single and married, and you are expected to pattern your life accordingly in order to meet the expectations of the people around you, either family or society at these various stages. As a single woman, from childhood, you are groomed to be the perfect bride, sit up right, cross your legs, cleanup after your siblings, never complain and at any little attempt at self-expression like a new piercing, a tattoo or a change in clothing or, you are asked ‘who will marry you’? It is the twenty-first century and education is free for all, but the minute you are done with your undergraduate program, the next question on everybody’s lips is ‘when will you marry,' ‘you’re up to age now and ripe’. Suddenly, your parents whom you could’ve sworn made sure the word ‘boyfriend’ was a taboo in your house would start asking random questions about the man in your life. The same people who flogged you with a bamboo cane when they saw you holding hands with a boy at 13, seized your phone for weeks when they overheard you speaking to a boy at 18, but now you’re 23 and they wonder why they don’t see you with any man. Who would’ve thought that day would come? No one asks of your wellbeing and how you are feeling at the moment and the only time they ask of your aspirations or career is when they want to measure your value as a future wife. This is very popular in the Igbo culture as it is said that the bride price of a woman is determined by how educated she is, so the family of a woman that has a masters degree would receive a higher bride price than the one with an undergraduate degree. So, even a woman’s education and achievement is somehow still tired to the roots of the marriage institution, and I wonder, when will the success of women finally be attributed to them alone and not used to score a point in the debate on her marital worth?
As a single woman in Nigeria, you’re also denied certain jobs because of some unwritten requirements like having a family. You also do not get good housing as the landlords do not want single women because according to them, they are often ‘wayward,' come back late at night and frequently invite men over. It has become such a huge concern that women have to pretend to be married and have a spouse who isn’t in the country to rent homes, and I wonder what kind of system makes it okay for the marital status of an adult woman to be questioned when she has the resources to rent a house, not like it’s free or is being given to her out of pity but because an adult man (or woman) believes that an adult woman can only be responsible enough to rent his home when she has a man attached to her. Also, for some reason a grown man brings it upon himself to monitor the activities of an adult women, such that he knows when she returns late or whom she invites over. The system has allowed this issue to go on for so long, that women now have to play along to get crumbs off the table that they are qualified to seat on. Living alone as a single woman means that your space is constantly invaded and you’re not allowed to be busy because look around you, you have no husband or kids. It also means that people make assumptions about your finances and assume that you have no pressing needs, and satisfying your desire to own a car, house or even little things like a washing machine or ordering food are considered a waste of resources. You should wait until your husband comes, so you could build a home together. I mean, what if your husband doesn’t like the colour of the car you bought, with your own money. That would be a disaster, I can imagine.
On the flip-side, being a married woman in Nigeria is supposed to guarantee automatic happiness and satisfaction. You may never complain of the complexities and clash of identity because what identity do you speak of, you’re now one with your husband. So, every idea and thought at not taking your husband’s last name is deemed rebellious, disrespectful and the few that take this decision are scorned and called out for emasculating their partners and disregarding the institution of marriage. You are not allowed to think about whom you are or represent because everyone is too busy transferring the reins of ownership from your father to your husband and at every point in your life, you must be reminded that a man owns you. Thus, every choice that he makes automatically becomes the gospel and hence, you are not allowed to have a contrary opinion because he always knows better. To outsiders or friends, you may never speak of your confusion or disappointment when your marital expectations were not met. Sharing your stories or experience of unhappiness or depression, even though unrelated is also considered ‘family business’, because why should strangers know how you overcame a mental health challenge when you have a husband, why couldn’t you talk to him? The image of marriage is painted to be such a sanctified and sacred thing that when women eventually embark on this journey, they are met with discrepancies that build up to disappointment and disdain. As a married woman in Nigeria, by proxy you are associated with dignity and respect as the wife of a man, so what this means is that single and unmarried woman are met with disregard and mockery, constantly reminded that no matter what they achieve, they’re still one step down the ladder and incomplete because no man chose them. They are said to be badly behaved, promiscuous and lived ‘in the world’ and that is why at a certain age, no man chose them or perhaps, they must be doing something wrong. For those who have hit the ‘thirty years’ mark, their family members pressure them into settling for men who do not match their standards in anyway, and this is where you see women who are educated and sophisticated being paired with backward men who still view women as objects to satisfy their selfish needs, and massage their ego, such that important things that uplifts the woman like a promotion at work is seen as an attempt at reducing his control over her. And so, you see women being manipulated to make sacrifices ‘for the family’ at the expense of her happiness or identity. Why must her identity be either tied to her husband, her kids or the expectations of the extended family? When would women start living for themselves alone?
On social media, the increase in divorce rates has been likened to women who refuse ‘to be submissive’ and attributed to the influence of ‘all these feminists’. Ever thought that it’s because women have figured out that the system doesn’t favour them, that accepting the child of their cheating husband who was brought home one night doesn’t sit right her anymore or she’s tired of making decisions that massage their partners ego, being physically and emotional abused or exhausted from doing free unpaid labour disguised as ‘pampering your husband’.
The Nigerian system is one that is deeply rooted in patriarchy that even the lawmakers are guilty of humiliating and abusing women at the slightest opportunity. Last year, Senator Elisha Abbo slapped and beat a nursing mother on camera, and was given an award a couple of months later, the charges were also dropped. Another Nigerian politician and ex-lawmaker, Godswill Akpabio, made reference to the marriages of a woman when he was probed on charges of fraud and unlawful dismissal, describing her as having ‘questionable character,' he said ‘I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with her, but I’m saying there’s something wrong with her temperament. Remember she had about four other husbands that she married.’ It is only a system that relegates women to the background that even allows such a conversation to begin, to start with. The character and integrity of a powerful woman who was appointed on your recommendation is being questioned not because she committed fraud or carried out an unlawful act, but because she has been married four times. So, her entire worth has been reduced to the number of men in her past who no longer ‘own’ her, now he sounds aggrieved that he has nothing to manipulate her with. Not her husband or anyone and so he settled for mockery. She is now a woman who is on her own with no man to ‘control’ or ‘tame’ her.
Marriage is not as big an achievement as it is made out to be here in Nigeria, considering the way it is used to manipulate the decisions of women. It is a choice, not a compulsion or an immediate obligation bestowed on women upon birth. It is not a standard or yardstick to measure one’s growth or success. It is not a reward for being a good girl, so you better live your best life. Don’t give unsolicited advice to your unmarried friend, as no one asked you. Do not make risky sacrifices and drastic changes that could eternally cost you your happiness. Shaming women into marriage either as a joke or banter should not be a thing. A woman has a life outside of being a wife. Stop celebrating cultures that marginalize women, and speak up if and when you feel disappointed, it’s okay if express how you feel and work towards addressing that doubt. Your purpose transcends your marital status.
Nigerian women deserve to live their best lives and should be stakeholders when it comes to paramount decision making in their homes, with no interferences from family members promoting fragile theories and ideas that begin with ‘what will people say?’ Well, guess what? People say what they want and what they must, but it shouldn’t be your concern as long as you choose your happiness and peace of mind. Women have suffered years of oppression to come this far and still bend to the pressure of society and compromise on their well being. Be unapologetic about your choices, because only you can choose you. Think of you.