Missed Part I? Read here.
On October 14, Nigerian President Buhari was caught unawares by a journalist at a press conference while on a state visit to Germany when asked about his impressions of comments by his wife on his leadership. With a chuckle, he responded, “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to, but for me she belongs in my kitchen, and my living room and the other room.”
Mere days later, outgoing American President Obama was queried in a mock job interview with late night show host Stephen Colbert: “I don’t see any promotions for the last 8 years. That’s not always good, can you explain that?” Obama replied: “Honestly there wasn’t much room for advancement in my last job. The only one with a more powerful position was my wife.”
While President Buhari’s remarks were made in an official capacity, his spokesperson – and many others – have pooh-poohed what some consider to be a blatant disregard for the Nigerian first lady as an individual and citizen. It’s a joke, they say. And maybe it is. But the glaring difference in how Aisha Buhari and Michelle Obama are presented by their husbands is one that even the most “meninst” of people cannot miss.
Which of the two scenarios would likely play out in Ghana? The first. Granted, Ghana and Nigeria probably have more in common, the real star of Buhari’s show is not cultural tendencies, religious doctrine, or even an insight into a husband-wife relationship, but rather male ego and misogyny. To borrow from Michelle Obama’s historic New Hampshire speech:
“Because let’s be very clear: strong men – men who are truly role models – don’t need to put down women to make themselves feel powerful. People who are truly strong lift others up. People who are truly powerful bring others together.”
Day in and day out, women in Ghana and elsewhere are subjected to a constant diminishing; a never ending struggle against being compressed, beaten down, balled up into the most simplistic versions of who they are. Why? Because every day a man or a boy somewhere is acting on a commandment handed down from generation to generation: women are to be seen, not heard.
The State of Women In Ghana Today
People ask me about my move back home a lot, about what the process has been like. My response has always been that it hasn’t had too much of a shock factor to it since I made the transition gradually: from the US to Tunisia to Côte d’Ivoire and finally to Ghana. It’s been a year now and one thing has stuck out to me like a sore thumb: how it feels to be a woman in Ghana. I’ve been exactly that in no less than seven countries but nowhere have I felt as typecast, defensive or victimized as here in Ghana. Allow me to elaborate.
In the US, I came into myself – did I encounter jerks? Of course. But they were one-offs. In Italy, I realized that black women are exotified and sexually objectified. Tunisia had similar layers, but took it a step further with racism and treating black people as less than human. Enter Ghana. A country which appears to be making great strides in the women and girls’ empowerment realm, but which, in reality, is trailing behind. Shocking? It shouldn’t be. Ghana is the only country I’ve lived in where on a bi-weekly or monthly basis a vocal, visible or accomplished woman is reduced to her vagina or ability to suction money and favors from men (her father included). Where the media (both traditional and social) have no qualms about bashing her and destroying her character, and so-called leaders religiously send out messages about her worth being confined to the institution of marriage or her ability to bear children.
The 2014 Child Protection Baseline report by UNICEF and Ghana’s Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection indicate Ghana’s rape and defilement statistics are so high we “rank in certain instances with countries that have a recent history of violent conflict”. Specifically, Sierra Leone, DR Congo and some Middle Eastern countries which have “a poor record on women’s rights”.
Yes, you read right. Ghana also happens to be the only country where a man has actually attempted to lay his hands on me – not once, but twice. I know more than one Ghanaian woman who has suffered some level of violence or abuse. It’s probably happening to someone you know as you read this. In the most recent episode, a taxi driver flared up at me. Why? I told him to either drop me off where we were or drive me to my destination before asking for a fare increase. The concept of a woman or girl speaking back at him, much more giving him choices, is probably foreign. His first reaction? To insult my mother. His second? To lay his hands on me. In what seemed like forever and after many passersby had stopped, listened and simply moved on – first indication of Ghana’s current state vis-à-vis women – two Nigerian guys rushed over to find out what was amiss. After extracting myself to find the taxi man exact change, I returned to find one of the guys had already paid him.
At this point, my eyes were flush with tears and anger that a man would dare lay his hands on me, nobody had intervened, and I couldn’t give him the slap he deserved. I offered to pay the Nigerian guy back, but he declined. And then: “But can I have your phone number? You’re a nice girl”. Here I was, just assaulted, and the man who supposedly “saved” me was propositioning. And there you have the second indication of the current state of wo(men) in Ghana – the very people who are supposed to be our allies are the ones who lead us to the slaughter house.
Misogyny: The Need for a Re-Socialisation of Men & Boys
Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” Every day, many Ghanaian and African men watch as their female counterparts suffer prejudice, ridicule, abuse, even outright violence. Very few stand up for these women and girls. Actually many participate in misogyny. And yet, these women and girls could be your mother, your sister, your friend, your colleague, classmate or neighbor, even your daughter. While you may take the steps to correct such ill-happenings in your immediate environment or home, keeping silent about them in the public space sends a very dangerous signal: It is okay. This is how you treat women. It’s her fault. She should have kept her mouth shut.
Of course, the immediate recipients of such messages are women and girls themselves, but there’s also a secondary recipient: men and boys. In the case of women and girls, this usually manifests as a belittling of self. In the case of men and boys, it’s an engorging of the ego. A shadow that keeps expanding until the basic precinct of treating women as humans is overshadowed by a hunger to protect one’s ego and pride. To embrace misogyny and embody what society tells us ought to be a man. What used to be confined to closed spaces – homes, churches, mosques, bedrooms, offices – eventually found itself onto the radio and television airwaves, and now, online. The current trend of trolling, bullying and online abuse of Ghanaian women and girls is particularly concerning because the perpetrators hide behind anonymous and nondescript accounts. The damage is done, the cycle continues, but who can be held accountable? As I mentioned in my Facebook post about Cudjoe’s gaffe, it’s time for the men who “get it” to step up.
For too long, the focus has been on socializing girls and women to be this way or that. As some predicted years back, the scales are shifting: now it’s boys and men who need empowering, a re-socialisation for all our sakes.
Why, you ask? Well for one thing, many men and boys are yet to catch up with the times. Regardless of what the patriarchy or misogyny may tell you, the makeup of our society is changing. In Ghana, nursey and primary enrollment of girls is slightly higher than that of boys. At the secondary level, where boys fared better, girls have caught up. According to UNICEF estimates, the net secondary school attendance of boys and girls in Ghana was 39.7% and 43.6% respectively between 2008 and 2012. What this means is more girls are being prepared for multifaceted lives that involve households, yes, but also the workforce. They are being socialized to not just be mothers and wives, but also to be professionals, public servants, entrepreneurs, leaders, and more. Girls and women, like it or not, are being prepared to wear multiple hats and to be adept at switching almost effortlessly between those roles.
On the flip side, most boys listen to the same ol’ record: you will be the provider, you will lead. No nuance, no consideration for whether said young man might have other ideas of how they would like to spend their limited days on God’s good earth. That’s not to say that boys and men should be irresponsible – far from it. Rather it’s a call for a rethinking of the gender roles we assign to one another. In Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, main character Okonkwo’s father Unoka is described as “lazy and improvident”. A musician, he could not farm yams, nor did he seem to have any interest in doing so. Let’s remove Unoka from the 1900s era he was written into and transplant him to today. Nigeria’s creative economy is booming, Fela is lauded, and Unoka would probably be driving the latest BMW in town or whatever the mark of men’s success is these days.
Demographics & The Future Economy
If there’s anything recent movies and advancements in technology show, it’s that the robots are coming. Once they arrive, the job functions that require brute force, what many consider to be strength and distinguishes men from women, will be mute. Regardless of how fit, a human man will not be able to lift equipment that a machine is programmed to. So what happens to the blue collar workers who have already been relegated the the backyard? They cease to exist. The future economy will be based on things that make people, well, human: decision making, critical thinking, compassion, negotiation ability, intelligence (emotional and mental), the ability to communicate and resolve conflicts. Exactly the things women and girls are learning by virtue of having to navigate and juggle the modern and traditional all at once.
But those are intangibles. As the human race we are always concerned about our longevity – our ability to endure beyond ourselves. The current imbalance between male and female upbringing in Ghana and other parts of Africa and the world will play out on the population front as well. As the needle swings from marriage and kids being women’s purported raison d’être, we will seek out men who allow and encourage us to express the full complexity of our being. As more of us women are educated and given a range of choices, we will strive to become not just career women, but the best we can be in the fullness of our individuality and the breadth of our experiences as citizens and members of a community, country, continent and world.
As our mothers and grandmothers have done before us, we will continue to juggle and embrace the spectrum of our roles in society. We have always been and will continue to be women, girls, nurturers, homemakers, professionals, wives, mothers, leaders, innovators, and so on. Sure, there are some of us who will opt to choose the traditional garbs society has handed us – and that is perfectly fine too – but at the rate things are going, the buttons will eventually pop.
In Part I of this series, I highlighted the role men have in fashioning women and girls into the social beings we are. In the same way, men have a big role to play in addressing misogyny. Until we have more men who see the females in their lives first as humans, the messaging we women and girls receive about our worth will remain the same. Until our definitions about masculinity change, the concept of femininity will remain in a straight jacket. Until men and boys are encouraged to re-imagine their own roles and expectations in our ever dynamic societies, to embrace both the modern and the traditional, we will not only have misogyny. We will have a crisis on our hands. My good friend Kobina Ankomah-Graham captured it aptly in his article for The Guardian:
“We must prepare our boys for the change that comes from having to compete with girls in school and in the workplace, then we must help them redefine manhood. It can no longer be simply about external validation (from one’s peers, income, or number of wives) but must be about internal certainty of one’s masculinity. This is a process and we must also allow ourselves the time to get it right.”
In the final part of this series, I will look at the concepts of power and submissiveness; how we frame them when it comes to relations between men and women, how it perpetrates misogyny and why that needs to change. I will also share some ideas on what exactly we can do as individuals and members of our society to ensure that in the next few decades we won’t have to launch a “She for He” campaign. Thank you for reading.
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.