The Young and Disenchanted

Posts Tagged ‘Women

Today I have my first interview for a potential post-grad job. I’m excited, a little scared – and a little thrown off cos it’s with an insurance firm (not usually the industry you see English/Poli Sci majors with a penchant for photography and obscene language going in to). I’m pulling out the power suit my sister gave me, the pearl earrings so I look extra classy with it… and of course, a pair of red pumps to represent the Red Pump Project, a media campaign that seeks to raise awareness about the impact HIV/AIDS have on women and girls.

I recently read a BBC article that said that HIV has become the number one cause of death and disease among women of reproductive age around the world. As a person who fits into this category, and especially as a sub-Saharan woman (in my part of the world 60% of people with HIV are women) who has personally seen the sorrow HIV/AIDS can cause, this fact has particular resonance with me.  Even more harrowing is the fact that 70% of women worldwide have been coerced into having unprotected sex. Grim as these statistics may be, it is important that we focus not on how women have been made victims, but how we can empower and educate one another and tackle this disease head-on, as well as the ignorance and stigmas that are attached to it. Building alliances, spreading the word… whatever small way each of us can help is in no way negligible. Many small acts combined together make for a force to be reckoned with.

I hope one day that the world will be free of HIV/AIDS . Even if I never see that in my lifetime, I hope that the work of organisations such as the Red Pump Project and the amazingly passionate people behind it will push that vision through. Check out their website here for more info: http://www.theredpumpproject.com/

K, time to get ready for my interview. Wish me and my red pumps luck!

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I’m in the middle of writing a paper for my Jazz and American culture – the last of the 5 papers that have defined my finals period (no exams, hamd’llah). I was flicking through Morrison’s novel “Jazz” for a quote to use to describe some concept I’m trying to articulate (I won’t bore you with details) but this quote stood out for me. Ponder, and enjoy. I’ll be writing more on the other side of the Atlantic:

“Black women were armed; black women were dangerous and the less money they had the deadlier the weapon they chose. Who were the unarmed ones? Those who found protection in church and the judging, angry God whose wrath in their behalf was too terrible to bear contemplation… Who else were the unarmed ones? The ones who thought they did not need folded blades, packets of lye, shards of glass taped to their hands. Those who bought houses and hoarded money as protection and the means to purchase it. Those attached to armed men. Those who did not carry pistols because they were pistols; did not carry switchblades because they were switchblades cutting through gatherings, shooting down statutes and pointing out the blood and abused flesh. Those who swelled their little unarmed strength into the reckoning one of leagues, clubs, societies, sisterhoods designed to hold or withhold, move or stay put, make a way, solicit, comfort and ease. Bail out, dress the dead, pay the rent, find new rooms, start a school, storm an office, take up collections, rout the block and keep their eyes on all the children.”

At some point during my sophomore year of college, I stumbled across the book Colonize This!, a collection of essays written by women-of-colour feminists. Each essay is written from a different perspective – Indian American, Chicana, Muslim – but many share a recurring theme: how to reconcile their cultural identity with their feminist views. One essay that struck me in particular was written by a Nigerian woman. She discussed how, as a child, the role of cook/cleaner/wife-in-training defined her position as the only girl in her family, and how she rebelled against this imposed identity as a result of her exposure to feminist literature while studying in the USA. Now, I 100% sympathise with home-girl on this tip. If I had brothers and I had to watch their lazy asses play Nintendo 64 (holla!) while I washed all the motherfucking dishes, I would have become an only child by virtue of the cutlass there would have been some problems. But even without brothers, it was definitely emphasised when I was growing up (slash still today) that I would have to ensure that my domestic skills were up to par in order for me to “make a good wife.” I used to resent this pressure and told anyone who would listen (all three of them) that I would make my husband cook when I was married. Now that I am older and wiser I see that the words of my youth were unduly rash. Why? Well, for one thing, I’ve learned how to cook. And I LOVE it. Seriously: cooking is one of the most fabulous, sexy, empowering activities that I engage in on a regular basis. I think Nigella Lawson was the catalyst for the unleashing of my inner domestic goddess: I once analysed her cookbook for an English class and fell in love somewhere between Coca-Cola Ham and Deep Fried Mars Bars (which, despite sounding absolutely revolting, hold a strange power of fascination over me). Plus, she’s a total hottie. Besides the point: I have now embraced the wonders of domestication – something I thought would be accepted with open arms and empty stomachs by all. But apparently not.

A recent offer to make a sick male friend some soothing ginger cola was met with the reply that he did not want to “domesticate an educated woman” by subjecting me to the indignities of the kitchen. Now, I know that this came from a place of kindness. However, my outer inner proud African woman felt somewhat affronted (inner dialogue: “What, you don’t think I can make it?? My ginger cola-making skills aren’t good enough for you??? What in the hell do you mean by this????” – P.S. I never said my inner proud African woman, despite her wonderfulness, was altogether rational). On the one hand, it was lovely to have a man not want to take advantage of my cooking skills (ahem, African men I attend college with). On the other, I’d never thought that doing something domestic would be somehow be seen as compromising my status as an educated woman. My mother, who holds two degrees, doesn’t play with her skills in the kitchen (and especially her cake – mmmmm, I hope she’s making cakes for Christmas this year so that I can grow fat and merry :)). Both her domestic nature and her intellect work together to make her the wonderful woman that she is – one doesn’t necessarily contradict the other. First of all, cooking isn’t easy – there are plenty of women who can hold their own in a philosophical debate who cannot cook for shit. Anyone who can wield a knife, whisk and chicken breast without causing grievous bodily harm to themselves or others is a real OG. Chuuuuuuch. Secondly, I’m not certain that domestication is such a bad thing. I mean, if a motherfucker can’t cook, how are you going to eat? What if you’re chilling in a warzone in East Africa with your mercenary army, AK-47 in hand, no Chinese takeout spot in sight and just some goats at hand? (I’ve thought this out a little too well…) I mean, don’t get it twisted – this applies to women and men. Even though I will cook for my future husband, he had damn well take some classes at the Culinary Institute and be prepared to get busy with the Magic Mixer. Motherfucker, what if I come home late from work?? What are you gonna do, stare at the cooker in hope? Pause. I’m not with it.

I’m also not sure how I feel about the idea of domestication being an imposable concept. I think that there is plenty of power in being able to cook and clean: just imagine if your mother decided to not cook any more. My mother did something like this once. It was not a good look. Being a position of serving others does not necessarily equate to being subservient, I’m slowly realising. Not only is it an expression of love, like my girl Bimala says, it’s also a way of showing strength. Take it from someone who is making a regular gig of cooking dinner for 10 people just because – that shit takes MIGHT.

All I’m saying is: I don’t believe that my strong African womanhood is depleted by my puff-puff making skills (shout out to the Burundi meatballs) – rather, I believe they enhance it in all of its intellectual, political and slightly crazy glory.

Let me know how you feel in the comments.

P.S. Went back to my girl Jilly from Philly for the title – LOVES this song.

A few weeks ago I was sitting smoking hookah in my room with a male acquaintance. Above my desk, I have photographs of my family, including a solo picture of my mother which, as the topic of family came up in conversation, I showed to him. He took a look and commented, “Wow, she looks like a strong African woman – I see where you get it from.”

Now, any other African woman would probably either not have given this a second thought, or would have taken it as a compliment. I, however, was steaming. Not because I have a problem with being told I resemble my mother – she’s absolutely beautiful – but because I thought I detected beneath the seemingly kind remark the lurking, negative undertone of “scary black girl” which the former term often seems to be a euphemism for.

I realise now that I reacted like a crazy person. But let me explain myself: first of all, in that photograph my mother looks, to quote another friend, like an O.G – but the kind that would have Frank Lucas running scared. In other words, like an intimidating figure – aka, the “scary black girl,” or woman. The moniker “scary black girl” has followed me around since I was nine years old, since when my family moved to England. Being tall, loud-voiced and opinionated hasn’t done much to make me come across as the sensitive, sweet and warm-hearted person that I am deep deep deep down (no, really, I am). But in a world where being an African woman doesn’t exactly endow you with all of the best opportunities the world has to offer, I don’t feel like I have a choice but to be tough. When I moved to England, my younger sister, another Nigerian and I were the only people of colour at my school. Hearing a white girl ask why our skin was the colour of poop, I felt like I had two options: cry, or punch her in the face (metaphorically speaking, of course). I chose the (metaphoric) latter option, and it became my way of dealing with all the adverse situations and general bullshit life has thrown my way. Fuck lemonade, I make kamikazes with my lemons.

So I fully understand why certain people, when they see me making my unsmiling, keffiyeh-ed up way across campus, may want to run in the opposite direction, or peg me as unfriendly or find me unapproachable. Shoot, I probably wouldn’t want to talk to me either sometimes, especially if I haven’t slept. But there’s more to this one image than meets the eye.

I told a male friend of mine about the comment that got me thinking about the phrase “strong African woman” to begin with. As I ranted on in self-righteous fury, he looked at me sideways and asked, “What is it about being called strong that you don’t like?” I paused. “Well,” I responded, “I think it comes with a particular stereotypical connotation when followed by “African woman.” It isn’t a bad thing on its own, but I don’t like people assuming I’m an emasculating, bossy person when they don’t know me.  I feel like that’s what people think of when they say that phrase.” He replied with something that made me stop and think: “I don’t think so. When I hear the words “strong African woman” I think of a person who is strong despite the limitations that come with being a woman and being an African.”

I’d never thought of myself that way. For me, my strong African womanhood was armour, something I used to protect myself from the world. It didn’t occur to me that it could also be a source of vulnerability. In many ways, I was buying into the very “stereotype” that I was offended by – because I believed that being vulnerable was a weakness I couldn’t afford, and one that my African mother hadn’t worked so hard for me to indulge in. My boy was suggesting something totally radical to me: that by letting your guard down, by not always being the tough one or the caretaker, you could still show strength.

Thinking back to my reaction that evening, and about the strong African women I know, his point totally makes sense. My very gangster mother, despite her fierceness, can also be very vulnerable. I’ve watched her sob, totally despondent over the loss of a relative with the kind of helplessness I associate with a small child. I’ve also watched her get herself up, wash her face and go on to make dinner for my father, putting her personal sadness aside for the wellbeing of those she loves. And that right there is the key – it’s the ability to be both “weak” and “strong,” to comfort and to be comforted in turn, that defines this strong African womanhood.

I asked Rational Chaos, and he too associates the phrase “strong African woman” with sacrifice as well as with taking no nonsense. It was interesting, though, because he also suggested that there was an antithesis to this woman, the “submissive African woman” for lack of a better term – one he imagined carrying a water bucket on her head, bowed by the weight of poverty and lack of opportunity. Interesting, because I’d never put the word submissive next to my idea of an African woman. Tradition and condition may require some of us to be poor dutiful wives, but even this requires a great deal of strength – to put aside your personal desires for someone else or for your culture. This is something I admire – and something I probably need to work on as I grow older.

As I type this I’m looking at the photograph of my mother that started this whole discourse. She’s wearing her Gucci shades, a red and silver gele (headtie) with matching wrapper, and striding purposefully forward, her eye catching something to her left. She’s powerful, she’s stunning – yet something about that sideways glance reminds me of the times I’ve seen her otherwise – mocking my niece’s dancing in her nightgown, tired from surgery, stressed out from work. But this image – the strong, beautiful African woman image – is what stays with me. I know I have her smile and her height… only time will tell if I have her strength too.

Thoughts in the comments section please.

P.S. The title is from Raheem DeVaughn’s “Woman” – love this track.

P.P.S. This piece is for two African men: the one who gently reminded me about writing on this blog, and the one who made me see how wonderful it is to be an African woman. I love you guys 🙂