NB: I started this post a while ago actually but coincidentally, I ended up completing it in the week where there has been plenty of discussion online about domestic violence. This year, I intend to post more about these issues on my blog.
When I was about 14, I was in a discussion with other girls in my senior class and I made a comment that they found shocking. In fact I remember this conversation so well because their reaction is strongly imprinted on my mind. You might be wondering what I said that could so scandalise my peers. Well, I’ll tell you.
The conversation was about the expectation on newly married couples to have children almost exactly 9 months after the wedding. I said that this did not appeal to me, which a lot of others agreed with for different reasons but when I went on to say that I would decide when I was ready to have kids, the universal reaction was one of shock. I still remember one of my classmates saying to me, “what do you mean you will decide? Is it not the man that decides? You have children when he wants you to have children.”
At the time (and I have only grown stronger in this belief), I responded that this made no sense to me. Since the job of actually being pregnant would fall on my shoulders, it was perfectly natural to expect that the decision would be mine also, maybe not exclusively but certainly, not under command from anybody else. I did not know it then, but without much exposure to feminist thinking or literature, I had instinctively recognised the need to exercise my autonomy as a person.
I bring up this story because many years later, it seems that the thinking amongst young Nigerian women on this topic has barely changed from what I observed that day. Last year, on a very popular news and gossip blog (linked below), a woman wrote in asking for advice because the man she is in a relationship with wants children while she does not. It is important to mention here that she already has children from a previous marriage. I note this to point out that this is not a woman unfamiliar with the process of pregnancy and child-raising. You would think that someone who’s already been through it before would know exactly what she’s talking about when she says she does not want more children but you couldn’t have guessed this from reading most of the responses to her question.
With few exceptions, commenters proceeded to scold her for being selfish and not truly loving the man. Some lectured her on the importance of keeping her man happy while others accused her of being wicked. Some even chimed in helpfully that she could just compromise and give him one child as if the story ends at the birth of the child. The questions of child care and the costs in terms of money and attention to be devoted to the child did not come up at all. I could not believe what I was reading.
Apart from the heavy dose of misogyny infecting many of the responses, what really stood out to me is the idea of having children as being something a woman does to make another person happy whether it be her spouse, extended family or society at large. Not only does this fail to consider the capacity of the mother-to-be to raise the child, it does not consider what is best for the child in any way. Children have no control over whether to be born or not, or even how they come into this world. To think that people would encourage others to make such an important decision with great consequences for everyone involved, not because their heart is really in it, but to please someone else is something I find very disturbing.
It is also a big issue because it ties into this idea of women only being valuable because of their ability to produce children and of the right gender too (i.e. boys). It essentially reduces a woman to a womb.
You see the manifestations of this type of thinking in Nigerian society in the way that single women and married women without children are treated. You see it in the hatred that is directed at any woman that dares to suggest that she is content without children. You see it when you listen to the experiences of women who are being harassed in their marriages because they haven’t produced children on demand or have committed the grave sin of only giving birth to girls. And you see it in the desperation that leads many to secretly adopt children that they pass off as their biological offspring as if the fact that those kids did not come from the woman’s birth canal somehow makes their families inferior.
One of my very first posts on this blog focused on this problematic way of thinking about women which treats them as objects, valuable only for how good they are at meeting others’ expectations of them. I will visit my main point in that post again here because I believe it to be a basic truth:
Every human being is valuable as is. A woman’s value does not depend on her marital status, her ability to produce children, her ability to perform domestic duties or her ability to satisfy the expectations of her family/church/society/whatever. A woman, like any other person, is valuable just for the mere fact of being a human being.
People everywhere need to know that women are valuable and worthy of respect just as they are. Girls and women in particular, need to know this as well because too many of us are being raised under the belief that we are less for being female.
In my life, I strongly reject any messages that teach otherwise whatever their origins may be. I think it’s about time for damaging ideas like these to be put to bed for good so I talk about this to whoever will listen, especially to other Nigerians. I think this is very important because the moment a woman fails to recognise her value and the agency she has over her life, there is no need for any outsiders be it a husband, in-laws, neighbours, church folk or society, to enslave and oppress her. The job is already complete in her own mind.