The first time I questioned gender norms, was watching Dame Julie Andrews as she switched roles in 'Victor, Victoria'. I must have been about 8 years old, and more than the movie itself, what I remember was having my heart in my mouth, and hoping, for her sake, she wouldn’t get found out.
Today feminism is in its fourth global wave, and its #metoo iteration is the most powerful social agenda of our time. Its leading voices in the West have won landmark victories against sexual harassment and violence against women. What does this mean for women in non-Western cultures, like all over Africa, or in Nigeria?
For them, placard feminism is often seen as a western agenda without a practical application for male-dominated black cultures. But, is there a way both black women, and men, can challenge some toxic precepts within the traditional roles we have been raised to play?
For the conversation to begin, we should agree that historically, men have arrogated power and women have been at a disadvantage. Even worse, women have been, and continue to be abused: and since they are half of the human race, it means we are all only half as optimal as we are ever going to be. As we think about that, here are 5 words that are often used in reference to women. Each one sounds casually harmless, but they all conceal built-in historical baggage, and reinforce unfair stereotypes, and artificial constructs about the roles of women, and men.
Word #1: “Virgin”
This word is like perfume, but cheap perfume. It gives off a scent that has many layers, but the first note that hits your nose is the sexual meaning. So, you think a virgin is a woman who hasn't had sex before. Now and then, it's may be used to describe men...but we culturally overlook the ‘bodycount’ of men. It's women who must not have sex.
Beyond sex or no sex, the word “virgin” also has moral connotations. Being a virgin is good, and being a non-virgin is bad. This idea may have developed in a time when women were the property of men, and their chief value was to have children, who could be used for labor. Therefore, men and societies needed to brand, control and restrict the use of their property, and religions and cultures were built to institutionalize women as prizes to be kept, bought and sold. If they were damaged (aka not virgins), their value was reduced, and economic losses were incurred.
But, being a virgin, in terms of sexual inexperience, sometimes comes with sex-phobia. And, sexually repressed and non-experienced women are the bane of imbalanced marriages. On the other hand, there’s a non-mutual sex narrative where women feel they are doing men a favour, when they “give” themselves to him. So, instead of the word virgin, maybe we can use words that describe specific qualities: e.g., "not-sexual", platonic, not interested, no strings attached, etc.?
Word #2: “Barren”
This word connotes traditional ideas about fertility, or the lack thereof. But it is not merely reproductive vocab. It also has moral implications. It confers shame on the ones affected, and some blame for not being 'like others'. Thus, it burdens women, and their families, with pressure to be rid of "barrenness".
This pressure itself, is known scientifically to work in reverse, by suppressing the hormones that lead to successful pregnancy, through a psychological feedback pathway. That may be one reason why “barren” women find it even harder to conceive.
Calling women who have not had babies "barren" is also judgmental. People who use such words often search for causes, and common ideas include a history of frequent abortions, which may have damaged the woman's reproductive organs. Such connotations are all about the woman's fault, and conveniently leave out the fact that frequent abortions are the result of men, as well as women.
Also, saying a woman is "barren" apportions a mystical quality to childlessness, as if we can't understand where it comes from. Meanwhile, most if not all causes are well known to medical science. Even the word "childless" is mathematical: it literally means 'minus child', which means a childless woman is “less than” complete.
What words are better than "barren" or "childless"? For example, "infertile", and "subfertile". These two words focus more on the reproductive causes. They are also applicable to both men and women. Indeed, research shows that causes of infertility are equally attributable to both men and women, and are either curable, treatable or remediable.
Word #3: "Widow"
A woman whose husband is dead. Depending on culture and religion, the word could also connote blame, shame, victimhood and devaluation. This may be true where men are expected to be breadwinners, and women can do little to nothing without a man. So it means a woman who loses a man has lost everything. In some cultures, the word "widow" may also adduce suspicion. Some families may believe that the woman has killed the man, probably to have access to his wealth, or prevent him from marrying a second wife, or she’s just a witch. Obviously, these ideas can only be possible in cultures where people marry for complicated and unequal purposes beyond love and attraction, or where superstition is rife.
Where men and women are equal, and people can choose to marry freely, for attraction and companionship, and men are not richer or more powerful than women, widowhood may be just the end of a phase in life’s relationships, and people whose partners die, can continue to be whole in other ways, or to remarry, if they so choose.
Word #4: “Divorcee”
A … woman? person? …who is unmarried? Which came to your mind first? In our male-driven narrative, “divorcee” more likely connotes a female image. Generally, words like "widow" and "divorcee" carry similar negative connotations about “something is wrong” or “there’s something you don’t have”. But, a man could be divorced too...without the social baggage that an unmarried female has to bear. Often, an unmarried (widowed, divorced) man can remarry more easily than an unmarried woman, without being perceived as used goods. Issues of wealth, power, class, morality, destiny, shame and stigma are conflated when words such as "widow" and "divorcee" are used to refer to women. What could we say instead? For example, "she is not married", "her husband died in an accident"...and so on, are more specific and clearer, and without all the innuendos and subconscious baggage.
Word #5: "Bossy"
This word is used to describe women who demonstrate that they clearly know what they want, and pay little attention to stereotypical hierarchies like 'a man is the head...'
But, what if in an alternative universe, a man acted bossy? Would that necessarily be a bad thing? Or just his expected role, especially in a business environment? Men are never bossy. They are just the boss. Why can't women be the boss too? What if she has CEO skills?
Other words used to disparage more assertive females are "pushy", "hysterical", "overbearing", "nagging", and so on.
It is true that some women do too much, but they are often overcompensating for being dismissively minimized.
These stereotypical words would be used less if we raised both men and women to play whatever roles they were temperamentally suited for. See? I just used 'temperamental', and it didn't even sound like an insult. You get?
The other thing is that we tend to socialize our daughters in such a repressive way that they sometimes need to lash out before they are heard or taken seriously. That wouldn't be the case if men would check their egos, chuck their sense of entitlement, and both boys and girls were socialized as equally as practicable from the get-go.
Maybe I’ll close with an anecdote?
So, this other day I was walking in the park, in abroad country. Where everything is nice. So, these parents came along, followed by their little girl. She was dressed in a pink bom-fo (do they still say that?), flowery and frilly, with rose petals in her hair. She skipped gaily along until she got to the swings in the middle of the park. As soon as she saw tall swings and other playthings, she squealed with excitement and ran up to them, climbing and conquering each object, one after the other.
From afar, I could hear her mother squealing. The woman ran and ran, breathlessly to the swings, and ordered her little princess to come down for the sake of her delicate dress and her newly done hairstyle.
Moral of the story? That girl will never be an astronaut or a big-time CEO. Maybe end up in the kitchen, or other non-competitive workplace, as an adorable Disney princess for life, in a social role where her value depends on the man in her life.
Talking about men, a few minutes after the mother got her baby girl to climb down, another couple came along. They had a little boy with them. He was dressed in a short-sleeved t-shirt and football shorts. When he saw the swings in the park, he did the same thing the little girl had just done. He rushed there, and climbed up as fast as he could.
But the parents did nothing. They didn’t even seem to notice. They just walked on.
And the skies were blue. And the birds chirped. And the soft wind caressed everything in sight.
And we all live(d) happily ever after.
Ayọ̀ Adénẹ́ is a Public Health expert, writer and regular contributor to our magazine. He has also recently joined the Board of ZAM.