Saturday, 27 December 2014

Loving People You Don't Like: Family!

Happy Holidays, everyone. (I generally don't enjoy using politically correct Americanisms, but I will admit to liking this one). Don't you just love Christmastime? 'Tis the season to be jolly, eat too much rice, and dust off all of your coping-with-family techniques. What fun.

Okay, okay, the sarcasm is a bit much; I don't actually dislike Christmas. In fact, I don't really think about it at all; my nuclear family never really made a fuss about it when I was growing up. However, as we've grown older and started our own families, there's been a bit more of a deliberate effort to make time to bond over the holidays. In my experience, there are few things more appealing-sounding than family bonding, and even fewer things that generally tend to go South so quickly. (So I guess what I'm saying is I don't mind Christmas; what I mind is my family at Christmas. *sigh*).

Whenever my family is in one place, it is inevitable that some sort of debate will ensue. We all have very strong opinions, and most of us don't have any issues with airing them. What makes this interesting, for me at least, is that I have a lot of ideological/political positions that my conservative third-generation Christian family doesn't understand, and relating with them around the deeply entrenched beliefs that they have can be intensely frustrating and emotionally draining.

This holiday, the topic du jour was rape. Thanks to Tyler Perry's shitstorm of a movie Temptation, a heated discussion about women's culpability in their rapes (as if there is even such a thing!) was struck up. I pointed out what I believe is the immense irresponsibility of the rape scene. Tyler Perry's films occupy an interesting niche in Hollywood, and so many people of Black and African descent (including my own family apparently), take his films seriously. He has a massive audience, and this is chiefly why I was (and continue to be) so upset over the problematic message about women's sexual agency and consent, among other issues, that this film sends.

In case you haven't seen the film, don't. In the scene I'm referring to, the lead character Judith is on her way back from a business trip to New Orleans with a client on his private jet. Said client has made it clear he is interested in her sexually, and so far she has made it clear she is very married. Still, they've been in Nola, they've danced and drunk wine, she's awed by all his money and good looks etc, so when he comes on to her on the plane, of course she consents to sleep with him, right?


Harley slides over to her side of the plane. He starts touching her. She says "no, get off of me, stop it", repeatedly. She physically pushes him off her. But Harley, as written by my dear friend Tyler, only gets more turned on by her resistance and tries harder. He eventually tells her to stop it, adding in a suitably sexy voice, "now you can say you resisted." Judith stops struggling, and we cut to the next scene where Judith is visibly distressed and disgusted with Harley. She never wants to see him again. She is crying.

This means she was raped, right?

Again, wrong.

In the Tyler universe (as illustrated by a steamy flashback), she wanted it. She calls him first. She is upset that he doesn't pay her attention. She tells him he's the best sex of her previously unglamorous life. She wanted it. She sneaks out of her house under a false pretence for the most bizarrely lit sex scene in the history of weird lighting in filmmaking. So obviously, you know, she wanted it all along.

Dear Tyler Perry, I just have one question. How did we get from "no, stop it" to literally steamy sex in the bath tub?

I find it distressing that it does not appear to be common knowledge that when a woman says no, it doesn't mean yes. It doesn't mean maybe. It doesn't mean 'I want to be able to say I resisted because I'm actually a good woman'. It means no. When the media muddies the waters of consent, they perpetuate rape culture. That scene sends the message to everyone that women don't know what they want, women can be convinced to change their minds about wanting sex regardless of what they're saying about wanting sex, 'good' women secretly want 'bad' sex but can't admit it, men need to help women deal with their guilt about wanting sex by 'reading between the lines' of their refusal and interpreting 'no' as 'yes', men's sexual desire takes precedence over women's consent... I could go on. The point is, that scene makes rape seem okay by invalidating the need for consent.

This is what I was trying to explain to my family, but because of how rampant rape culture is in Christian circles, it wasn't surprising to me that they thought I was the crazy one for thinking there was something wrong with that scene. I wasn't surprised to hear family members say things like, "what does a woman expect when she goes to a man's house late?", "women have a responsibility to protect themselves", "anyone who has been raped will not make the same mistake twice", etc. I have been raped and I blamed myself and didn't want to tell anyone - not even my family - because even at 16 I knew how most people responded to rape. I know there are people who think 'no' is an invitation depending on the context. But to hear my own family, who are aware of my personal experience, confirm to me that they do believe women have a hand in their rapes? It was devastating.

As an adult and an unmarried mother, I've started to explore and adopt a lot of -isms that my family doesn't understand, and until fairly recently I have tried to accommodate their expectations of me by watering down my beliefs, pretending to believe different things and even outrightly lying just so as to not ruffle any feathers or cause them discomfort. More and more, however, I realise that the cost to myself of doing this is far too high to be healthy. One of my friends said to me that I ought not to take their comments personally, yet I don't know how to do that. The dominant narrative about family is that it is always and forever a safe space. This is however not true. Families are made up of human beings, and every human being has the potential to be horrible. This is not to say that my family is all bad, either; I've had a vast amount of support from them at different times in my life. This holiday has just cemented to me that I need to find new ways to deal with them...

Friday, 19 December 2014

"Women, Protect Yourselves." (And We Ask, "From What?")

Over the last month I've been in the process of moving into my own place and practising for life without domestic help (my maid leaves permanently next week and it's uncertain when I will find someone else), and so I've spent a lot more time out in the 'real world' than I normally would. I was told, and it made sense to me, that living on my own would be more difficult than the life I was used to, and in some ways I had prepared myself for it. One thing I failed to factor in though, was how unsafe I would feel while just going about living my life.

While I was still living with family, I was often driven around. I also had more disposable income and so could afford to take taxis regularly, but living on your own has its way of forcing you to trim the excess, so I've started taking danfo and the BRT a lot more. I spend more time walking on busy roads and go to the market more; I'm generally in public spaces more. The upshot of all this being out in the world is that I've experienced a lot more street/sexual harassment and sexist (micro-)aggressions in the last few weeks than the entire year prior. 

Leaving the house now requires a ridiculous amount of thought. My stress levels are higher when I have to go out because, depending on whether I feel up to standing up for myself or not, I have to carefully evaluate my outfits to ward off harassment. I have to think carefully about routes, be constantly alert when it starts to get dark, try to figure out whether it's safer to ignore catcalling or respond as politely as possible and walk away quickly... In the last month I've had one man pull out his penis and waggle it at me on the street, had a group of men call out to my two-year old daughter about her bum, been followed by several men, and (of course) had sexist slurs shouted at me.

Last night I had to go out around 9pm to buy insecticide. I didn't feel like changing out of the clothes I had on (a loose shirt and mid-thigh bodycon skirt), but I suspected how things would go. I wasn't disappointed. I hadn't walked 15 metres from my street's gate before someone had tried to initiate contact and then proceeded to insult me when I ignored him. Two metres beyond him a group of men on a balcony started to call down to me. Another metre or so in front, some teenage boys walked past me, leering, and once they were behind me began to heckle me. On my way back home one man followed me very closely for over 100 metres, alternating between cajoling and threatening whispers, walking closer to me in the darker parts and drifting away where there were security lights, until I got to my street's gate and the security guard blocked him.

As I walked home I realised that if I told someone about that distressing experience, I was more likely to get a "but why did you wear that skirt?" than a "but why would someone follow a non-communicative stranger home?" Women are told and taught to do everything they can to protect ourselves, yet no one ever seems to question why there is even a need for self-protection. People say, "women, protect yourselves" and stop short of the "from men" part of that phrase. This is why no matter what women do, we continue to suffer all kinds of violence; people choose not to engage with the cause of the violence.

Telling women that we ought to limit our choices and even our lives in order to ward off violence is not and will never be effective in preventing or protecting us from violence, because women's choices, bodies and lives are not the cause of violence. The sense of entitlement, superiority and ownership that men feel over women and our bodies is. The privileging of maleness and male desires over women's safety and agency is. The dangerous man-as-hunter norm that teaches men to ignore consent and the absence of it is. The sexual objectification and commodification of women's bodies for male consumption is. And until society starts to interrogate the reasons behind all of the 'should nots' that are prescribed for women 'for their protection', we will continue to see women 'fail' at protecting themselves.

It was never about women protecting ourselves. It has always been about the men we need to protect ourselves from. 

Sunday, 14 December 2014

When Grief Has Been Lurking

My mother died two years ago.

I still never consider that fact full on. Even now, typing the words, I'm still looking at the event out of the corner of my mind's eye. I don't know if there will ever be a day when I can say those words out loud and not internally look away from the fact of them, falsely flippant, skipping along without considering their real meaning: my mother died two years ago.

Today my older sister and I cleared out her old bedroom. The clothes didn't smell like her at all; they'd been hanging there, untouched, since 2012. Still, I could see her in them, smiling, coming into my bedroom unannounced to ask what I thought of her outfit.
"No one in church even fanned me.'
She used to say 'fan' to mean 'pay a compliment'. Or, more often,
"Ah, Timehin, they really fanned me today o. Emi gan, mo wo'ra mi, mo ri pe mo fine gan!"
She was so beautiful. And she made me laugh. Lord, how she made me laugh...

I found a picture of her when she was pregnant with me, and I almost, almost, came out of my mental hiding to confront the fact that I was clearing out her things from her old bedroom because she didn't live in it anymore. Her little notes on the mirror haven't been touched in over two years. No one has crossed that threshold at 9pm to ask why she's lying in the dark, worrying, in over two years. She hasn't asked me to help her figure out 'this new thing that they've done with my email!' in over two years.
But when you have to keep breathing after all your air is gone, you can't really take the time to consider how you're doing it. You just do it.

"Mummy. I have all this grief. All this confusion and wondering and growing-up-without-you that you left me with. My hands are full of it and my arms ache from it and Lord knows my heart is tired of the exertion of keeping on keeping on.
Tell me what to do with it, ma'ami. I need to lay it down. I need to lay down and rest and have you remind me that I will be okay.
I miss you so much that it almost forces me to stop and ask myself why.
But I can't.
That would mean having to deal with the reason you only ever smile back at me from pictures.
The reason why I haven't listened eagerly for your footsteps down the hall in forever.
The reason I'm crying right now.
The fact that you're gone, permanently, forever.
I have so many questions, ma'ami..."

It's been two years and I still don't know how to deal with it. So I won't. Not tonight. But my heart is heavy with the longing for the memory of her smell on those clothes, her arms in those jackets, holding me or preening for me or trying on my overlarge sunglasses and laughing at her reflection with me...

I just keep breathing. Maybe one day.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

An Untitled Piece of Fiction

I watched the heavy plastic bauble slip through her fingers. The sound of it hitting the floor was too loud in the darkness, but I picked it up and put it back again and again, each dull thud heavier than the last. Going, going, gone. I wondered crazily how many times I would have to put it back in her lifeless grip before her body would stiffen and force me to face the knowledge that my baby sister was dead, before I would have to find another insane thing to do to help me keep the knowing inside. Stupid jokes swirled in my head, jokes I knew she would have found wildly funny, her eyes streaming with the effort of laughing quietly. The knowing was a furious, chaotic thing in my chest, a thing I could not look at or allow. There was no room for grief here. 

The hair-grip started its gradual descent again, and suddenly it was too hot, too damp, too dirty. There had been many things in my life too hard to swallow, but this one was worse than all of them. Worse than twelve filthy soldiers hitting the back of my throat, my father’s averted eyes as the aid worker counted out five, ten, twenty dollars ‘for the pair of them’, the fury-shame-despair that had filled my insides because even though we had been on our best behaviour, he had really only kept us the two nights he had bargained for. The knowledge that I would have done anything, taken anything, to stay longer. My chest was tight. Sofia was dead. That chaotic thing in my chest felt like it wanted to take me too, but I didn’t know how to let it.

I was going to take her outside somehow, but when I touched her feet they felt like a disease and I hadn’t known it, but that too was too hard to take and all of a sudden I was running even though I didn’t remember standing up. And I was loud. I could hear myself crashing through brush, breathing, crying. There was a sound following me and I knew it was my wailing but it had been so long since I had been anything but small and silent and so very careful; I didn’t know how to put it back. That thing in my chest was furious and violent and there was no more room for it inside me. Death was hard - I had seen the fear and pain in Sofia’s eyes - but surviving would kill you harder. 

“Be quiet, Safi!” The first time I had heard myself say it, my mother’s voice was what came out of my mouth. “Be quiet, Safi.”  Help us survive. My ears filled with the noise I was making, struggling to stay alive longer than that thing in my chest. There was no room for grief anywhere, not even inside me. “Be quiet, Safi.”  It hadn’t helped her. Had it helped any of us? There was a sound following me now, a sound bigger than my wailing. “Stop! STOP!” I wanted to stop and explain that I wasn’t running away from them or their camp - I was running away from this thing that wanted to kill me - but that was them too, wasn’t it? Sofia had died anyway, as silent as ever, and that had been them too, hadn’t it? I heard myself explode, and I flew.

The earth I landed on had no give to it, and it forced everything in my lungs out. It was too bright, too raucous, too cold. There was a ringing in my body that felt like pain, but all I could think of was that I had forgotten to take Sofia’s hair grip with me, and she would be upset. I could hear them coming, loud, angry, not enough of a menace anymore. There was blood in my mouth, leaking out of me with everything else, warm. It was as sticky as Safi’s forehead had been, less wet than it should have been. I wanted to laugh. My eyes were streaming, just like hers used to. Look, Safi. I’m coming. They didn’t get us, Safi. Death is a hard thing to swallow, the thing inside my chest wanted to kill me, and I found a way back to you Safi. Look. I’m coming. We will have to remember how to laugh loudly, now. You will remind me, won’t you? Laugh, Safi. I’m coming.

Monday, 1 December 2014

#RedefiningBeauty (and the Value of Sisterhood)

Yesterday started off on a heartbreaking note, with a disappointment I was in no way shored up to handle. I've had a hard couple of months, and it felt like the last, ultimate, final straw; I wanted to just curl up in the dark and listen to Lianne La Havas while weeping. Then I remembered that I'd promised Wana I'd attend Glory Edozien's Redefining Beauty event, and in the spirit of choosing happiness, I decided to just go. And I'm grateful I did.

I know from my #AWW14 experience that when women have a safe, affirming space to share their stories, it can be a powerful thing. Yesterday was no different. It was incredibly uplifting to hear women who I admire and respect speak about struggles and triumphs that resonated deeply with me. There was laughter and crying, and the warmth and openness felt like a long drink of water when you didn't even realise how thirsty you were.

The discussions touched on overcompensating for the lack of beauty (or the presence of it in excess, as exemplified by Lola Maja's moving story), the confusing transition from girlish innocence to womanly responsibility - responsibility for your own body as well as for men's responses to it, weight, the 'natural' intrusiveness of Nigerian society when it comes to women and their appearance, the messages sent by the media about perfection and unattainable standards of beauty (you know Lupita came up), and most importantly for me, the struggle to protect or at least insulate our children from the powerful influences that shape popular perceptions of beauty and almost invariably leave them feeling inadequate.

Hosted by Glory, with Wana Udobang (OAP), Jadesola Osiberu (Director and Producer), Lola Maja (make-up guru) and Oreka Godis (OAP) on the panel, the event also included spoken word by Titilope Shonuga (she gets my life. Lord. That woman gets my whole entire life!) and an acoustic session by Omolara. It was the most uplifting experience I'd had in a very long time (and I'd just been to church that morning, smh). I'm so glad I got off my butt and went. I met some amazing new women, reconnected with old friends I hadn't seen in years, and laughed about pregnancy, motherhood, the ridiculous cost of living in Lagos, the price of small chops, the new trend of wedding guests paying for professional makeovers (I didn't even know this was a thing!)... It was amazing.

Yesterday started off on the shittiest of shitty notes, but there's nothing like sisterhood to take all of the blues away. And (like I told Glory after the event), you can bet I'm going to turn up at the next one with like six of my girlfriends, going 'yaaaaaaassss! Get your life, girl!'