I am going to start this article with a bold claim: being born a woman in Nigeria is a grave crime; therefore, every Nigerian woman is considered and treated like a criminal. The first crime the Nigerian woman commits is to be born in the first place and society never lets her forget that. As a result, Nigerian women are faced with multitudes of micro and macro aggressions that they must navigate on a daily basis. From cradle to the grave, her life is one of immense pain with few bursts of happiness in between. Women walk around with battered bodies and traumatized spirits hoping to find succor, but the only escape happens in death. Sometimes, even in death, they are not free because their punishments continue.
The first crime a Nigerian woman commits is daring to posses a vagina as she announces her presence to the world with her cries while exiting her mother’s birth canal. Perceptive people may realize that the baby’s wails may more accurately be described as dread at the thought of what awaits her in Nigeria. The punishment begins when the doctor announces, “It’s a girl.” The severity of her crime and punishment is dependent on what position she occupies in the birthing order. If she is first, heads are shaken in despair at the audacity of her crime. The crime here is twofold: usurping the place of the rightful male heir and not securing her mother’s place more firmly in “her husband’s house” by coming out with a penis. Sometimes, people do not mind the girl-child as first because she is in the best position to be maid, cook, laundromat, etc. for her forthcoming younger brothers. Now, if she is, say, fifth in a long line of girl-children, then her crime is even worse because she has dashed her parents’ hopes to the ground. In these cases, the mother may refuse to hold or breastfeed her because she cannot bring herself to behold the face of her enemy or nourish the thing that has more firmly condemned her to intense ridicule. The father may call the hospital with one question: “what is the sex of the baby?” When the answer is not satisfactory, he will not darken the hospital doorstep with his presence. Hospital bills? Mother’s welfare? Child’s welfare? Not his business; he does not waste money on girl children. This issue is so pervasive in our society that no one blinks when a woman has four sons, but if she has four daughters, everyone regards her with pity, seeing as she only has criminals for children. In many parts of Igbo land, a cow or goat is killed for a woman who has three sons in succession, but not even a lizard is killed for the woman who has three daughters in succession.
The next crime the Nigerian woman commits is growing up and trying to determine her own life or explore her sexuality. This is one of the most heinous crimes a woman can commit: exploring and owning her sexuality. It is bad enough that she has committed the crime of owning a vagina, but pouring sand into society’s eyes by claiming ownership of that vagina is sacrilege for which she must be punished. That is why names like whore, slut, damaged goods, used tire, etc are reserved for her while names like THE man, alpha male, champ, guy man, master key, etc are reserved for guys who engage in similar kind of behavior. For the crime of owning a vagina, her punishment is to keep it intact for her future husband (a guy she has never met and who may be living his life to the fullest wherever he is). If she mistakenly compounds the crime of exploring her sexuality by giving birth out of wedlock, she is written off by society: no husband in her future. Wait, I take that back. She has a husband in her future; a very specific kind of husband (the rejects of society): an already married childless man, the local village efulefu that spends his days smoking igbo and drinking akpuru achia, the dead son that failed to give his family heirs before dying, and all other riffraffs you can imagine. You see, a criminal guilty of the crime of, gasp, sex and having a child outside wedlock does not deserve “tear rubber” husband.
While we are on the subject of husbands, a Nigerian woman’s other crime is not marrying when society has decided she is “ripe” to be plucked. She cannot come and be disgracing her ancestors. Society starts reminding her of her approaching criminal status in her mid-twenties and once she clocks thirty without that coveted ring on her fourth finger, all hell break loose and the punishment is always swift and severe. If she reprimands her secretary, Emeka, for improper behaviour, he will snidely comment that she is frustrated as a result of her lack of husband and is taking it out on him. If she gently asks her junior colleague Ngozi to go back and re-do shoddy work, she will exclaim that because boss-madam does not have a husband and children to fend for, she has no idea how much effort it takes to do the required work. In fact, she may be accused of trying to break Ngozi’s home by giving her too much work all because of jealousy. One of the most grievous criminal offenses for a Nigerian woman is to remain unmarried past the age of thirty because then, everyone will regard her with a mixture of pity and disappointment. Insinuations will fly left, right, and center: “are the gods punishing her for previous crimes? Has she finished sleeping with other women’s husbands and is now finding it hard to find a husband herself? Did she trade marriage for her success in her career? On and on it goes.” However, no one blinks an eyelid when the situation is reversed and it is a thirty years old man that is unmarried.
If providence is kind and a woman escapes the unmarried-by-thirty crime, the next deadly crime is not bearing children: this is one of her primary roles and any deficit in this department is solely her fault. When a woman gets married, but she and her husband are not proficient in producing children immediately, everyone looking will automatically assume that it is the woman’s fault. Nine months after the wedding, people are already watching for the woman to be waddling about with a very pregnant belly or to be invited to the naming ceremony of the newborn child. When this fails to occur, the woman automatically becomes a criminal and, again, insinuations begin to fly: “did she damage her womb while getting abortions in her single days? Is her spirit husband refusing to let her have children?” Rarely do people assume that the problem is with the man. Even if the woman manages to escape this crime and gets pregnant early on, she is not out of the woods yet: the results of those pregnancies must not be just girls. In this criminal act, not even science can be used to vindicate the woman. No one cares that the woman’s chromosomes are fixed and it is only the man that determines the sex of the children. No, women must be punished for this crime and with that, we come full circle to the first crime a Nigerian woman is guilty of: being born a woman.
Furthermore, tragedy does not absolve Nigerian woman of her criminal status because if she is widowed before society deems it okay, she is punished severely for it. To prove that she is innocent of any perceived crime, she will be forced to undergo several dehumanizing trials to show that she did not kill her husband. She will be asked to sleep with the dead husband’s corpse, drink the water that was used to bathe the corpse, shave her hair (possibly with a blunt instrument so as to inflict maximum pain and injury), wear black for months, and perform a public cry. This is all done in a bid to show that she is innocent of killing her husband in order to enjoy his wealth. The man may only have a pot to piss in and the wealth may have been accumulated through the woman’s effort and hard labour, but nobody cares about that. On the other hand, a man is not expected to do all these in order to prove his innocence if he is widowed. A wife’s death is a tragedy while a husband’s death is a crime.
If the woman manages to convince society of her innocence, but dares to smile in the general vicinity of another man after the death of her husband, she becomes guilty of yet another crime. At the death of her husband, a woman is supposed to become an “eunuch (or whatever the female version of eunuch is),” not employing her vagina for much. If she commits the crime of breaking this mold, people will look at her with derision and conclude that she killed her husband in order to carry on with her lover. At this point, the man’s people will come to wrestle their son’s property from the greedy, immoral widow. The fact that she worked with her husband to acquire those properties becomes null and void because she has just admitted to her guilt of killing her husband by daring to move on with her life years after his death. However, a widower is asked to move on as quickly as possible. You know, it is not good for a man to be alone.
Looking at all these crimes that women are already guilty of before they are born, some people may conclude that there is no way to get out of any of it. THAT IS WRONG. There is a way to be born free; there is always a way. We must reject the narrative of martyrdom. Martyrs do not kill themselves; they are killed by the evil forces working against them. Something I read on Bassey Ikpi’s Twitter has always stuck with me: “Joan of Arc did not set herself on fire.” Women must refuse to martyr themselves for a society that is hellbent on subjugating them. When girl-children come into the world, no matter what position they occupy, we must enthusiastically herald their arrival. Young women must stop martyring themselves on the altar of marriage by refusing to marry before they feel they are ready no matter their age. Young ladies should be encouraged to explore their sexuality and not martyr their journey of self-discovery for a man somewhere in their future. Widows should not martyr their lives on their husbands’ grave. Their lives must go on.
WOMEN MUST BE ENCOURAGED TO LIVE THEIR FULLEST LIVES, FULL OF VORACIOUS APPETITES, HEARTY LAUGHS, AND VIVID COLORS. OUR EXISTENCE IS NOT A CRIME.