A Female Year To All, By Bunmi Fatoye-Matory
“May Your Road Be Rough” was Tai Solarin’s famous and alarming New Year wish. Our roads will indeed be rough and bumpy as men and women negotiate changing roles and expectations in coming decades. A world that reduces and limits the full humanity of any gender for the benefit of the other is neither healthy nor desirable… May we all have a Female Year, and a Male Year too!
“Odun a yabo” is a common Yoruba prayer at the beginning of every new year. “May it be a female year for us” is a prayer that assumes feminine attributes such as patience, harmony, abundance, compassion and empathy should predominate in our lives. Various rituals mark the beginning of the New Year in this part of the world. There are ritual droppings of objects from tall buildings, while people gather to wait for the countdown to the New Year. New York City drops a crystal ball (more like lowers) in Times Square as the countdown begins, and across the land, cities big and small do their own droppings, while people celebrate in the chilly weather. Apart from the merry “Happy New Year” rendered by strangers and loved ones, there are no other prayers or wishes heralding the New Year.
We are living in an era when gender and traditional roles are being fiercely contested, as women gain more economic and political power, and some people in the society here are even questioning the binary classification of gender, claiming to belong to a third gender. In many cultures, men work very hard to define themselves as “not women” and one of the greatest insults you could hurl at a man is to call him a woman. Boys learn very early to subscribe to a notion of masculinity that defines females as inferior and less worthy, even though they depend on their mothers for their very lives and survival. It is a twisted psychology that plagues the development of many men. Conversely, saying women have male characteristics is seen as a compliment. “Obinrin bi okunrin” (“a woman like a man”) is regarded as a great compliment in Yorubaland. During my graduate studies at the University of Ibadan decades ago, my very supportive thesis supervisor, an Igbo man, praised me for “working very hard like a man.” It was the highest compliment he knew how to give me for my efforts. Yet, women work hard all the time, but somehow this quality is claimed to be a male attribute. In the agrarian society where I grew up, many grandmothers of my youth did what modern women now call multi-tasking: farming, trading, weaving, processing food, raising grandchildren, and performing endless household and community tasks, while men who also worked hard had some time for recreation. The leisure activities I saw were usually carried out by men. They played games such as “ayo” and “draft” and sat around after their daily work with their friends, enjoying fresh palm wine and talking. I never saw women sit around playing any leisurely game. When they congregated, it was usually for a particularly social or civic purpose.
In this dawn of the 21st century, globalisation, international and rural-urban migration, and the nature of production are changing the roles and opportunities available to men and women. Women have more access to education and paid jobs. In the U.S., at almost every stratum of education, girls are performing as well as boys, if not better in some cases. In several universities, there are more female students than males, so much so that admission officers sometimes had to make room for males less qualified than female counterparts. For the working class here, jobs in manufacturing, which were the mainstay of male economic dominance over women, have disappeared, following the logic of capitalism, as factories became moved to developing countries to take advantage of cheaper labour. These days, available jobs are usually “female” jobs in the education, health and service sectors. They are not highly paid, but they bring in income for women whose husbands might not have jobs at all.
The changing times are giving women professional and financial independence, which is beginning to affect the choices they make with regards to mating, child-bearing, marriage and how they want to live their lives. Some are choosing not to marry at all, rearing their children on their own, and others are leaving their marriages, not willing to tolerate…abuse…
The rate of divorce correlates with socio-economic status in the United States, as people with healthy bank accounts are found to have more stable marriages. Women are earning their own money and supporting their families, as many men struggle to maintain their dignity and “manliness.” Recently, Tucker Carlson, the conservative Fox News commentator, who himself has a net worth of $16 million, lamented during a broadcast that men are in decline because women are earning more money. He was not speaking for men of his class. In India, the highest court of the land ruled that in the normally progressive state of Kerala, women can now enter a Sabarimala Shrine to worship, something forbidden to them for centuries because they are considered unclean. This ruling has generated violent reactions among many men who feel threatened that this validation of women’s humanity diminishes their masculinity. Many spiritual practices around the world have this warped conception of femininity. The very act of menstruating, necessary for reproduction, is construed as abnormal and impure by many religious beliefs that relegate women to second class status.
Belittling women seems to come with masculinity, even as men depend on women for support throughout their lives. Women play critical roles in many families, supporting spouses, children, siblings and parents at the expense of their own growth. They make sacrifices and shoulder the responsibility of caring for parents in old age. Some are rewarded with ingratitude and even violence. The changing times are giving women professional and financial independence, which is beginning to affect the choices they make with regards to mating, child-bearing, marriage and how they want to live their lives. Some are choosing not to marry at all, rearing their children on their own, and others are leaving their marriages, not willing to tolerate the abuse or dissatisfaction tolerated by their mothers and grandmothers.
A recent New York Times report highlighted this phenomenon in Niger, a deeply conservative Islamic country where women’s forbearance in marriage had long been the tradition. Younger Nigerienee women are lining up in court, asking local Islamic judges to release them from their marriages. They complain about a lack of financial support by their husbands, sexual dissatisfaction, and a need for personal and vocational development. In the United States, there are bitter divorce stories among Nigerian immigrants, with women leaving their marriages, even in their 50s, to the bafflement and anguish of their husbands. One of the consequences of immigration is role inversion, as some wives have better and steadier jobs than their husbands. Earning more or at equal levels affects how domestic life is conducted, who does what and who has the last say. It also gives the opportunity for women to seek self-satisfaction, contrary to the traditional template that puts male satisfaction as the priority in a marriage. Some men chaff at helping out with domestic work such as cooking, cleaning and child care, clinging to the notion of masculinity brought from home, which firmly defines house work as women’s work. It is not sustainable here because there are no house-girls to sustain this illusion, and it becomes harder when the women earn more money or enough to challenge these assumptions.
Women are becoming leaders in all fields of human endeavour. Their voices are heard in the corridors of power, not just as spouses or mistresses, but as lawmakers. How women use power will become critical. Could they transcend self-aggrandisement, tribalism, racism, environmental destruction, violence, human degradation and mindless accumulation of wealth..?
Women are becoming leaders in all fields of human endeavour. Their voices are heard in the corridors of power, not just as spouses or mistresses, but as lawmakers. How women use power will become critical. Could they transcend self-aggrandisement, tribalism, racism, environmental destruction, violence, human degradation and mindless accumulation of wealth that impoverish millions? Will power destroy the attributes regarded as female once women are used to wielding power? When I was an undergraduate, my progressive male peers in our Marxist group called me “Madam Tinubu”, a moniker to compliment my militant attitude to social justice in the male-dominated group. What we knew of her then was that she was a very wealthy and powerful Yoruba ancestor in 19th century Lagos. However, when I did some research on her recently, I found she was indeed very powerful and she was a wealthy trader in colonial Lagos. She fought with British colonial powers over who would ascend the throne in Lagos because of her trade interests. But I also found out she was a slave trader who traded slaves for arms with Portuguese and Brazilian slave traders to support the Egbas in their war with Dahomey. For her efforts, the Egbas honoured her with the highest title for women in their land, the Iyalode of Egbaland. And today, the oldest public Square in Lagos, Tinubu Square, is named after her. Would morality go out the door once women become powerful?
“May Your Road Be Rough” was Tai Solarin’s famous and alarming New Year wish. Our roads will indeed be rough and bumpy as men and women negotiate changing roles and expectations in coming decades. A world that reduces and limits the full humanity of any gender for the benefit of the other is neither healthy nor desirable. May we all have a year where the full expression of our humanity and talents is not stunted for any reason. May we all have a Female Year, and a Male Year too!
Bunmi Fatoye-Matory was educated at the Universities of Ife and Ibadan, and Harvard University. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is a writer and culture advocate. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org