“The jury is still out on whether Archbishop Duncan Williams is a misogynist or simply a shepherd who wants the best for this flock of female followers.”
So goes the introduction of an article I started writing on October 30, 2014, but never finished. Almost two years later, that sentence is still valid. Actually, scratch that. Between Kennedy Agyapong, the Montie 3, and more recently, Franklin Cudjoe, that sentence on misogyny should be expanded: the jury is still out on whether the majority of Ghanaian men are misogynists or simply lost boys who don’t know any better. We have a looming ‘gender’ crisis, and it’s not the one we think.
A few years ago, fresh out of college, I had the opportunity to interview Norway’s Minister for Gender: young, gender aware, and very male. Audun Lysbakken talked about his country’s quota systems, about how it is bad economics to ignore gender development, and why paternity leave is important. He explained why the path to gender equality is by no means a one-day venture or restricted to specific societies, and how getting there is both a mental and cultural upheaval as it is a policy transformation. Our discussion took place at a time when the terms “women and girls empowerment” and “gender equality” were being touted by Washington DC’s policy pundits and development practitioners; the question of “boys empowerment” was raised largely as an after thought, if at all.
As a girl, I never quite grasped the notion that “girls don’t do that”. I was a tomboy through and through and if anything, telling me I couldn’t do something was a sure bet that I would try. It wasn’t until I got to JSS that the societal roles and expectations of girls crept up on me. It was a festive day, my aunt’s wedding, and my sister and myself were quipping with some of our relatives:
Relative: One day this is going to be you
My sister and I, excitedly: Really?
Relative: Yes, one day you will leave your father’s house and move somewhere else.
My sister and I looked at each other, grimacing.
Relative: Yes, everything you are working for? It won’t matter. Your brother will take charge of it all because you will leave and if you need something, you’ll have to ask him.
The furrows on our brows creased even further.
I couldn’t have been more than 12 years at the time, but I already knew I didn’t like what I was hearing. Why would I have to work hard only for my brother (who by the way is younger) to take everything and have to ask his permission if I needed my stuff back. Why would I have to define myself, my identity as so-so and so’s sister? Neither my sister nor I liked the thought of it, and we expressed our displeasure accordingly. Our relative? He laughed it off and called us “childish”.
If this exchange had happened today, many people would likely blame my “American education” for such thinking. But it wasn’t. At 12 years old, I was yet to be “corrupted” by Anglo-Saxon ideologies on the worth of men and women. It wouldn’t be another seven years until my feet would touch American soil, and another 10 until I would capture those societal expectations in a spoken word poem titled ‘Woman’. So what could have been responsible for my lofty ideas about what a girl – or woman – could or couldn’t do? About my identity in relation to humans of the male genre? It’s simple, really: My father.
The Role of Father-Daughter Relationships
British author and playwright once wrote: “A father is always making his baby into a little woman. And when she is a woman he turns her back again.” That’s as real as it gets about father-daughter relationships. The woman I am today? We all have Dr. Abdulai to thank for that.
My father encouraged my sisters, my brother and I to express ourselves and to share what we were thinking. We didn’t just talk about things, we debated them. Both my parents made sure we did our research. If we wanted something – a book, to attend a party – we would have to come correct, state our case and present a compelling argument. We learned to work for what we wanted, to never rely on our female wiles, “connections” or feel entitled just because social constructs tell us to. My parents also taught us compassion, to give up our bed (literally) for visiting family. And even though we didn’t particularly like the thought of some of their suggestions, today I can appreciate it for what it’s worth.
Before “women and girls in ICT” became cause worthy, my father championed it. I started using computers at the age of four. A student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, my father kept an Apple desktop computer in the one-bedroom student flat we lived in. One of my earliest memories of time spent with my father was sitting on his lap playing a snake jigsaw puzzle on his computer. Mind you, this was in the 1990s. Computers were expensive, especially for students and I was a psychologist-certified hyperactive child – trouble was my middle-name – and yet he let me play with it.
“Having an opinion on issues in the men’s realm is regarded as being intrusive. But they forget that man is begotten by woman and so at the end of the day, his issues are strongly linked to hers.” – Woman
After JSS, my father enrolled me in a CISCO networking course he was helping facilitate – the first of its kind in Ghana and West Africa. Here I was, 15 years old, learning about the foundations of the internet and computer connectivity and networks. Here I was, sitting in a class of about 20 people, the majority in their mid-twenties or older. The only girl. But that didn’t stop me from keeping up with my classmates and excelling. Why? “ICT is the future and young girls like yourself need to understand it”. My father’s words. He believed I could, and so I did.
When I was accepted into both Mount Holyoke College and Ashesi University, my father left the decision to me, despite the fact that Ashesi was considerably cheaper and he had vowed numerous times that my first degree would be in Ghana. My interests lent to me to the world and so my father let me go. At the time, we had a tense relationship. He could have easily held that against me and denied me the opportunity to study abroad. He didn’t. Instead, he withdrew the last cent from his dollar account, handed it to me at the airport and said, “You know that this is all the savings I have. Make it worthwhile. Don’t forget why you left”.
Beyond wanting to maintain a good GPA to secure my scholarships, beyond the healthy competition that classmates, comrades and colleagues have, it was those words that kept me working through school failures, let downs, breakups, identity crises, homesickness, frosty fingers and toes, the freshman turned sophomore 20, all of it. By demonstrating his belief in me, my father nurtured my sense of self and self-worth. His love, his compassion, his investments, became my cause. His confidence in me gave me all the permission I needed to excel. He was my biggest advocate and his every act of love and confidence in me became my raison d’être; they helped stitch together the person I would become.
He for She (Against Misogyny)
Many of us think mothers determine the women their girls will become. To a degree, that is true. Our mothers provide a framework for shaping our identities as young ladies and women; they show us the ropes and transmit the non-tangible elements of being a woman to us, they guide us through the confusing transition into womanhood. But despite the fact that half the global population is female, it’s still a man’s world. And so, when it comes down to it, men and boys are very much a point of reference for the women we girls become. It’s they who determine our sense of worth, our views and expectations of society. Where mothers influence our identities as individuals, fathers shape our identities as social beings. They determine the relationships we build, keep, destroy, nurture, inspire. No (wo)man is an island, we are forever interfacing, exchanging – and it’s our fathers who set the tone for the majority of those interactions as women and girls.
He for She. A solidarity campaign for gender equality spearheaded by UN Women. A call to men and boys – the defacto allies of women and girls – to assume their rightful place at the table. A valiant cause, but also, a screen behind which many so-called conscientious men and allies hide to do the worst. Now we can debate what constitutes “equality” – that’s for another time – but I think the majority of us can agree that every human being deserves to be treated with respect and dignity for the simple fact that we are human.
And so, men and boys don’t necessarily have to sign a HeforShe petition to stand with women and girls, to demonstrate the worth of what Simone De Beauvoir termed as “The Second Sex”. No, we demonstrate our allegiance and empathy for one another by how we treat each other.
These days, talk is cheap, but it can also be expensive as Cudjoe found out last week after making disparaging comments about two women. Cudjoe has since apologized for his gaffe, but for me, this was a wake up call: even the “enlightened”, “conscientious” and “educated” in our societies are victim and/or proponents of misogyny – unwilling or otherwise. And so, two years later, I’m finally writing about this. The discussion must be had, especially when misogynistic statements come from folks who have garnered enough social capital – online and/or offline – and can actually influence not just people’s thinking, doing, and being, but also government policies and action. Responsibility is key.
I share these stories about my father to highlight an equally important point: There are men – and boys – who respect, invest in and stand by women and girls. That said, they seem to be the minority, the exception to the rule. That’s what needs to change: the fact that men, boys, and yes even women, can go online or on the radio and TV and reduce a statement or argument by a woman or girl to her sexuality; to dismiss the hard work and successes of an entire nation of women and girls. Paint it however you want, we have a problem with misogyny and it’s becoming worse.
In Part 2 of this series, I’ll share some of my thoughts on the status of women in Ghana today, the bullying and silencing of women and girls, particularly in digital spaces, why it’s important for men to stand up for women, and some thoughts on what we can consider to prevent what could be the greatest gender or population crisis of our time: the lost boys. Because the conversation must begin.
Read Part II.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.