Excerpted from “We Should All Be Feminists” printed 2012. Revised from her TedXEuston speech in 2011.
We do a great disservice to boys in how we raise them. We stifle the humanity of boys. We define masculinity in a very
narrow way. Masculinity is a hard, small cage and we put boys inside the cage.
We teach boys to be afraid of fear, of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves because they have to be, in Nigeria speak, a hard man.
In secondary school, a boy and a girl go out, both of them teenagers with meagre pocket money. Yet the boy is expected to pay the bills, to prove his masculinity. (And yet we wonder why boys are more likely to steal money from their parents.)
What if both boys and girls were raised not to link masculinity with money? What if the attitude was not, ‘the boy has to pay,’ but rather, ‘whoever has more should pay.’ Of course, because of the historical advantage, it is mostly men who will have more today. But if we start raising children differently, then in fifty years, in a hundred years, boys will no longer have the pressure of having to prove their masculinity by material means.
But by far the worst thing we do to males – by making them feel that they have to be hard – is that we leave them with very fragile egos. The harder a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is.
And then we do a much greater disservice to girls, because we raise them to cater to fragile egos of males.
We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller.
We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you would threaten the man. If you are the breadwinner in your relationship with a man, you have to pretend that you’re not, especially in public, otherwise you will emasculate him.”
But what if we question the premise itself? Why should a woman’s success be a threat to a man? What if we decide to simply dispose of that word, and I don’t think there is an English word I dislike more than, emasculation.
A Nigerian acquaintance once asked me if I was worried that men would be intimidated by me.
I was not worried at all – it had not occurred to me to be worried because a man who would be intimidated by me is exactly the kind of man I would have no interest in.
Still, I was struck by this. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Marriage can be a good thing, a source of joy, love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage yet we don’t teach boys to do the same?
I know a Nigerian woman who decided to sell her house because she didn’t want to intimidate a man who might want to marry her.
I know an unmarried women in Nigeria who, when she goes to conferences, wears a wedding ring, because she wants her colleagues to – according to her – ‘give her respect.’
The sadness in this is that a wedding ring will indeed automatically make her seem worthy of respect, while not wearing a wedding ring would make her easily dismissable – and this is in a modern workplace.
I know young women who are under so much pressure -from family, from friends, even from work – to get married that they are pushed to make terrible choices.
Our society teaches a woman at a certain age who is unmarried to see it as a deep personal failure. While a man at a certain age who is unmarried has not quite come around to making his pick.
It is easy to say, ‘But women can just say no to all of this.’ But the reality is more difficult and more complex. We are all social beings. We internalize ideas from our socialization.
Even the language we use illustrates this. The language of marriage is often a language of ownership, not a language of partnership. We use the word respect for something a woman shows a man, but not often something a man shows a woman.
Both men and women will say, ‘I did it for peace in my marriage.’
When men say it, it is usually about something that they should not be doing anyway. Something they say to their friends in a fondly exasperated way, something that ultimately proves their masculinity – ‘Oh, my wife said I can’t go to the clubs every night, so for peace in my marriage I do it only on weekends.’
Now, when a woman says, ‘I did it for peace in my marriage,’ she is usually talking about having given up a job, a career goal, a dream.
We teach females, that in relationships, ‘compromise’ is what a woman is more likely to do.
We raise girls to see each other as competitors, not for jobs, or for accomplishments — which I think can be a good thing — but for the attention of men.
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. If we have sons, we don’t mind knowing about their girlfriends. But our daughters’ boyfriends? God forbid. (But of course we expect them to bring home the perfect man for marriage when the time is right.)
We police girls. We praise girls for virginity but we don’t praise boys for virginity (and it’s always made me wonder how exactly this is all suppose to work out, since the loss of virginity is usually a process that involves two people of opposite genders.)
Recently a young woman was gang raped in a university in Nigeria, and the response of many young Nigerians, both male and female, was something like this: ‘Yes, rape is wrong. But what is a girl doing in a room with four boys?’
Let us, if we can, forget horrible inhumanity of that response. These Nigerians have been raised to think of women as inherently guilty. And they’ve been raised to expect so little of men that the idea of men as savage beings with no self-control is somehow acceptable.
We teach girls shame. Close your legs. Cover yourself. We make them feel as though being born female they’re already guilty of something. And so girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire. Who silence themselves. Who cannot say what they truly think. Who have turned pretense into an art form.
I know a woman who hates domestic work, but she pretends that she likes it, because she has been taught that to be ‘good wife material’, she has to be — to use that Nigerian word — very homely. And then she got married. And her husband’s family began to complain that she had changed. Actually, she had not changed. She just gotten tired of pretending to be what she was not.
The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations.