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Extra Credit

You know Boo, it’s been six years since I’ve been writing about hip hop on the

womanist tip and I’m still getting asked the same questions. At work, the intelligentsia

types want to know if, “Given the undeniably high content of sexism and

misogyny in rap music, isn’t a declared commitment to both, well, incongruous?”

And my girls they just come right out, “You still wit that nigga?”

So I tell them how good you do that thing you do. Laugh and say I’m just a

slave to your rhythms. Then I wax poetic about your artistic brilliance and the

voice (albeit predominantly male) you gave an embattled, in pain, nation. And

then I assure them that I call you out on all of your sexism on the regular. That

works, until someone, usually a Sista-friend, calls me out and says that while all of

that was valid that none of it explained why I stayed in an obviously abusive relationship.

And I can’t lie Boo, that would stress me. ‘Cuz my answers would start

sounding like those battered women I write about.

Sure, I say, all defensive. It’s easy to judge-to wonder what any woman in

her right mind would be doing with that wack motherfucka if you’re entering

now, before the sweet times. But the sweetness was there in the beginning of this

on-again off-again love affair. It started almost sixteen years ago, around the time

when Tony Boyd all mocked-neck and fine gave me my first tongue kiss in the

back of I.S. 148 and the South Bronx gave birth to a culture.

Those old school deejays and M.C.’s performed community service at schoolyard

jams. Intoxicating the crowd with beats and rhymes, they were shamans sent

to provide us with temporary relief from the ghetto’s blues. As for sisters, we donned

our flare-leg Lee’s and medallions, became fly-girls, and gave up the love. Nobody

even talked about sexism in hip hop back in those days. All an M.C. wanted then

was to be the baddest in battle, have a fly-girl, and take rides in his fresh O.J. If

we were being objectified (and I guess we were), nobody cared. At the time, there

seemed to be greater sins than being called “ladies, “a s in, “All the ladies in the

house, say ‘Oww!”‘ Or “fly-girls, “a s in, “Whaty ou gonna do?” Perhaps it was

because we were being acknowledged as a complementary part of a whole.

But girlfriends got a point, Boo. We haven’t been fly-girls for a very long

time. And all the love in the world does not erase the stinging impact of the new

invectives and brutal imagery-ugly imprints left on cheeks that have turned the

other way too many times. The abuse is undeniable. Dre, Short, Snoop, Scarface-

I give them all their due, but the new school’s increasing use of violence,

straight-up selfish individualism, and woman-hating (half of them act like it

wasn’t a woman who clothed and fed their black asses-and I don’t care if mama was Crackhead Annie, then there was probably a grandmother who kept them

alive) masks even from my own eyes the essence of what I fell in love with.

Things were easier when your only enemies were white racism and middleclass

black folk who didn’t want all that jungle music reminding them they had

kinky roots. Now your anger is turned inward. And I’ve spent too much time in

the crossfire, trying to explain why you find it necessary to hurt even those who

look like you. Not to mention a habit called commercialism and multiple performance

failures and I got to tell you, at times I’ve found myself scrounging or reasons

to stay. Something more than sixteen years being a long-ass time, and not

quite knowing how to walk away from a nigga’ whose growth process has helped

define your existence.

So here I am, Boo, lovin’ you, myself, my sistas, my brothers, with loyalties

that are as fierce as they are divided. One thing I know for certain is that if you

really are who I believe you to be, the voice of a nation, in pain and insane, then

any thinking black woman’s relationship with you is going to be as complicated as

her love for black men. Whether I like it or not, you play a critical part in defining

my feminism. Only you can give me the answer to the question so many of us

are afraid to ask, “How did we go from fly-girls to bitches and hoes in our brothers’


You are my key to the locker room. And while it’s true that your music holds

some of fifteen- to thirty-year-old black men’s ugliest thoughts about me it is the

only place where I can challenge them. You are also the mirror in which we can see

ourselves. And there’s nothing like spending time in the locker room to bring sisters

face to face with the ways we straight up play ourselves. Those are flesh and blood

women who put their titties on the glass. Real life ones who make their livings by

waiting backstage and slingin’ price tags on the punanny. And if our feminism is

ever going to mean anything, theirs are the lives you can help us to save. As for

the abuse, the process is painful, yes, but wars are not won by soldiers who are

afraid to go the battleground.

So, Boo, I’vefinally got an answer to everybody that wants to talk about the

incongruity of our relationship. Hip hop and my feminism are not at war, but my

community is. And you are critical to our survival.

I’m yours Boo. From cradle to the grave.1

Since definitions of feminism tend to be as disparate as the women who

use them, let me define mine. My feminism places the welfare of black

women and the black community on its list of priorities. It also maintains

that black-on-black love is essential to the survival of both.

We have come to a point in our history, however, when black-on black

love-a love that’s survived slavery, lynching, segregation, poverty,

and racism-is in serious danger. The statistics usher in this reality like

taps before the death march: in the last thirty years the number of black

two-parent households has decreased from 70 percent to 38 percent. The

leading cause of death among black men ages fifteen to twenty-four is

homicide. The majority of them will die at the hands of other black men.

As the following South Bronx tales reveal, women are the unsung

victims of black-on-black crime. Last month a friend of mine, a single

mother of a newborn (her “babyfather”-a brother-abdicated responsibility before their child was born), was attacked by a pitbull while walking

her dog in the park. The owner (a brother) trained the animal to prey on

other dogs and the flesh of his fellow community members.

A few weeks ago, my mother called upset to tell me about the murder

of a family friend. She was a troubled young woman with a history of substance

abuse, aggravated by her son’s murder two years ago. She was

found beaten and burned beyond recognition. Her murderers were not

“skinheads,” “the man,” or “the racist white power structure.” More likely

than not, they were brown men whose faces resembled her own. Clearly,

we are having a very difficult time loving each other.

Any feminism that fails to acknowledge how black folks in 1990s

America are living and trying to love in a war zone is useless to black

women and to men. Rap music is essential to the struggle against sexism

because it takes us straight to the battlefield.

My decision to expose myself to the sexism of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube,

Snoop Doggy Dog, or the Notorious B.I.G. is really my plea to my brothers

to tell me who they are. I need to know why they are so angry at me.

Why is disrespecting me one of the few things that will make them feel like

men? What are they going through on the daily that’s got them acting so

fucked up?

As a black woman and a feminist I listen to the music with a willingness

to see past the machismo in order to be clear about what I’m really

dealing with. What I hear frightens me. Booming track after booming

track, I hear brothers talking about spending each day high as hell on

malt liquor and chronic. Don’t sleep. What passes for “40 and a blunt”

good times in most of hip hop is really alcoholism, substance abuse, and

chemical dependency. When brothers can talk so cavalierly about killing

each other and then reveal that they have no expectation to see their

twenty-first birthday, that is straight-up depression masquerading as


Anyone who is truly curious about the processes and pathologies that

form the psyche of the young, black, and criminal-minded should check

out the Notorious B.I.G.’s platinum album, Ready to Die. The album chronicles the life and times of the urban “soldier”-a blues-laden soul

train that takes us on Biggie’s life journey. We board with the story of his

birth, strategically stopping to view his dysfunctional, warring family, his

first robbery, his first stint in jail, murder, drug-dealing, getting paid, partying,

sexin’, rappin’, mayhem, and death. Biggie’s player persona may

momentarily convince the listener that he’s livin’ fat without a care in the

world, but other moments divulge his inner hell. The chorus of “Everyday

Struggle”-I don’t wanna live no more / Sometimes I see death knockin’ at my

front door / I’m living every day a hustle / Another drug to juggle / Another day

another struggle-reveal that “Big Poppa” is also plagued with guilt, regret, and depression. The album ultimately ends with his suicide and the following

chilling words:

All my life I’ve been considered as the worst

Lying to my mother even stealing out her purse

Crime after crime from drugs to extortion

Made my mother wish she had a fuckin’ abortion

She don’t even love me like she did when I was younger

Suckin’ on her chest just to stop my fuckin’ hunger

I wonder if I died would tears come to her eyes

Forgive me for my disrespect

Forgive me for my lies.

The seemingly impenetrable wall of sexism and machismo in rap music is

really the mask worn both to hide and to express the pain. Hip hop is the

only forum in which young black men, no matter how surreptitiously, are

allowed to express their pain at all.

When it comes to the struggle against sexism and our intimate relationships

with black men, some of the most on-point feminist advice I’ve

received comes from sisters like my mother, who wouldn’t dream of using

the f-word. During our battle to resolve our complicated relationships

with my equally wonderful and errant father, she presented me with the

following gems of wisdom: “One of the most important lessons you will

ever learn in life and love is that you’ve got to love people for what they

are-not for who you would like them to be.”

This becomes crystal clear to me when I am listening to hip hop. As

black women, we are hurt when we hear brothers calling us bitches and

hoes. We feel that the real crime being committed isn’t the name-calling

but their failure to love us-to be our brothers in the way that we commit

ourselves to being their sistas. But what we’ve got to realize is that a man

who doesn’t truly love himself is incapable of loving us in the healthy way

we want and need to be loved. It’s telling that men who can only see us as

bitches and hoes refer to themselves only as niggers.

In the interest of our emotional health and overall sanity, black

women have got to learn to love brothers realistically, and that means

being honest with ourselves about where they are. Black men are

engaged in a war in which the real enemies, racism and the white power

structure, are masters of camouflage that have conditioned our men to

believe the enemy is brown. The effects of this have been as wicked as

they have been debilitating. Being in battle with an enemy that looks just

like you makes it hard to believe in the basics of life every human being

needs. For too many black men there is no trust, no community, no family.

Just self.

Since hip hop is the mirror in which so many brothers see themselves, it is significant that one of the music’s most prevalent mythologies

is that black boys rarely grow into men. They remain perpetually post adolescent

or they die. For all the machismo and testosterone in the

music, it’s frighteningly clear that many brothers see themselves as powerless

when it comes to facing the evils of the larger society.

As black women, we’ve got to do what any rational, survivalist minded

person would do after finding herself in a relationship with someone

whose pain makes him abusive. We must continue to give up the love

but from a distance that’s safe. Distance is a great enabler of unconditional

love and support because it allows us to recognize that the attack, “the

bitch hoe bullshit,” isn’t personal but part of the illness.

As feminists, our focus has got to change. We can’t afford to keep

expending energy on banal discussions of sexism in rap when sexism is

only part of a huge set of problems. Continuing on our previous path is

akin to demanding that a fiending, broke, crackhead not rob you blind

because it’s wrong to do so.

If feminism intends to have any relevance in the lives of the majority

of black women, if it intends to move past theory and become functional,

it must rescue itself from the ivory towers of academia. Like it or not, hip

hop is not only the dominion of the young, black, and male, it is also the

world in which young black women live and survive. A functional feminism

for us, one that is going to be as helpful to Shequanna on 142nd as

it is to Samantha at Sarah Lawrence, has got to recognize hip hop’s ability

to articulate the pain our community is in and then use that knowledge

to create a redemptive, healing space.

Notice my emphasis on “community.” Hip hop is not only instrumental

in exposing black men’s pain, it is a vital tool in bringing to the

surface the healing black women have got to do. It’s time to stop ignoring

the fact that these rappers meet women daily who reaffirm their depiction

of us on vinyl. Backstage, the road and the hood are populated with

women who would do anything to be with a rapper sexually for an hour if

not a night. We do ourselves a disservice when we pretend to not know

who rapper Jeru the Damaja is talking about when he says:

Dealing with bitchez it’s the same old song

they only want you ’til someone richer comes along

Don’t get me wrong strong black women

I know whose who total respect I’m giving …

Now a queen’s a queen but a stunt’s a stunt

You can tell who’s who by the things they want

Most chicks want things, diamonds and Benz

Spend up all your ends

Probably fuck your friends …

They be giving up sex for goods. Sex has long been the bartering chip that women use to gain protection,

material wealth, and the vicarious benefits of power. In the black

community, where women are given less access to all of the above,

“trickin”‘ becomes a means of leveling the playing field. Denying the justifiable

anger of rappers-men who could not get the time of day from

these women before a few dollars and a record deal-is not feminist or

strategic. Turning a blind eye and scampering for moral high ground

diverts our attention away from the young women who are being denied

access to power and are suffering for it.

It may be more convenient to turn our “feminist” attention to “the

sexist representation of women” in the latest Sir Mix A Lot video, to continue

fussing over one sexist rapper, but it would be infinitely more productive

to address the failing self-esteem of the 150 or so half-naked

young women who are willing, unpaid participants. Perhaps instead of

expending all of our energy reading brothers who call us out of name, we

might examine how flip we are when it comes to using the b-word to

describe each other. At some point we’ve all been the bearers or recipients

of the competitive, unsisterly, “bitchy” ways in which we can sometimes

act, particularly when vying for male attention.

Black folks have finally reached the point where we can recognize

how we engage in oppressive behaviors which white folks have little to do

with. Though complexion prejudices and classism are illnesses that have

their roots in white racism, the perpetrators are certainly black.

Similarly, feminism must confront the ways in which we are complicit

in our own oppression. Men’s exploitation of our images and sexuality in

hip hop is, in many ways, done with the permission and cooperation of

our sisters. We need to be as accountable to each other as we believe

“race traitors” (that is, 100 or so brothers in blackface cooning in a skinhead’s

music video) should be to our community. To acknowledge this

doesn’t deny our victimization but it does raise the critical issue of whose

responsibility it is to end our oppression. As a feminist, I believe it is too

great a responsibility to leave to men.

A few years ago, on an airplane making its way to Montego Bay, I

received another gem of girlfriend wisdom from a sixty-year-old, self declared

nonfeminist. She was meeting her husband to celebrate her

thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. After telling her I was twenty-seven and

very much single, she looked at me and shook her head sadly. “I feel

sorry for your generation. You don’t know how to have relationships,

especially the women.” Curious, I asked her why she thought this was.

“The women of your generation, you want to be right. The women of my

generation, we didn’t care about being right. We just wanted to win.”

Too much of the discussion regarding sexism and the music focuses

on being right. We feel we’re right and the rappers are wrong. The rappers

feel it’s their right to describe their “reality” in any way they see fit. The stores feel it’s their right to sell whatever the consumers want to hear. The

consumers feel it’s their right to be able to decide what they want to listen

to. We may be the “rightest” of the bunch but we sure as hell ain’t doing

the winning.

I believe that hip hop can help us win. We can start by recognizing

that its illuminating, informative narration and its ability to articulate our

collective pain is an invaluable tool for examining gender relations. The

information we amass can help create a redemptive, healing space for

black men and black women.

We are all winners when a space exists for brothers to honestly state

and explore the roots of their pain and subsequently their misogyny, sans

judgment. It is criminal that the only space our society provided for Tupac

Shakur to examine the pain, confusion, drug addiction, and fear that led

to his arrest and damn near his assassination was a prison cell. How can

we win if a prison cell is the only space an immensely talented but troubled

young black man could dare utter these words: “Even though I’m not

guilty of the charges they gave me, I’m not innocent in terms of the way I

was acting. I’m just as guilty for not doing things. Not with this case but

with my life. I had a job to do and I never showed up. I was so scared of

this responsibility that I was running away from it.” We have to do better

than this for our men.

And we must do better for ourselves. We desperately need a space to

lovingly address our failing self-esteem, the ways we sexualize and objectify

ourselves, our confusion about sex and love, and the unhealthy, unloving,

unsisterly ways we treat each other. Commitment to developing these

spaces gives our community the potential for remedies based on honest,

clear diagnoses.

As a black woman I am aware that this doubles my workload, but

without these candid discussions there is little to no hope of exorcising the

illness that hurts and sometimes kills us.

We’ve already tried, “You’re wrong. You’re fucked up and I’m going

to light into you every time you do that shit.” Let’s flip the script and think

about how much more effective it is to hear, “I love you and I want to

always have you back. That’s why I need to know why you’re illing like

this because it hurts me. And it’s impossible for me truly to have you back

when you’re hurting me.”

At the end of the day, I’d prefer the love to the empty victory of being

right and alone anyway. Wouldn’t you?

Extra Credit

Okoloma was one of my greatest childhood friends. He lived on my street and looked after me like a big
brother: if I liked a boy, I would ask Okoloma’s opinion. Okoloma was funny and intelligent and wore
cowboy boots that were pointy at the tips. In December 2005, in a plane crash in southern Nigeria,
Okoloma died. It is still hard for me to put into words how I felt. Okoloma was a person I could argue
with, laugh with and truly talk to. He was also the first person to call me a feminist.
I was about fourteen. We were in his house, arguing, both of us bristling with half-baked knowledge
from the books we had read. I don’t remember what this particular argument was about. But I remember
that as I argued and argued, Okoloma looked at me and said, ‘You know, you’re a feminist.’
It was not a compliment. I could tell from his tone – the same tone with which a person would say,
‘You’re a supporter of terrorism.’
I did not know exactly what this word feminist meant. And I did not want Okoloma to know that I
didn’t know. So I brushed it aside and continued to argue. The first thing I planned to do when I got home
was look up the word in the dictionary.
Now fast-forward to some years later.
In 2003, I wrote a novel called Purple Hibiscus, about a man who, among other things, beats his wife,
and whose story doesn’t end too well. While I was promoting the novel in Nigeria, a journalist, a nice,
well-meaning man, told me he wanted to advise me. (Nigerians, as you might know, are very quick to give
unsolicited advice.)
He told me that people were saying my novel was feminist, and his advice to me – he was shaking his
head sadly as he spoke – was that I should never call myself a feminist, since feminists are women who
are unhappy because they cannot find husbands.
So I decided to call myself a Happy Feminist.
Then an academic, a Nigerian woman, told me that feminism was not our culture, that feminism was un-
African, and I was only calling myself a feminist because I had been influenced by Western books. (Which
amused me, because much of my early reading was decidedly unfeminist: I must have read every single

Mills & Boon romance published before I was sixteen. And each time I try to read those books called
‘classic feminist texts’, I get bored, and I struggle to finish them.)
Anyway, since feminism was un-African, I decided I would now call myself a Happy African Feminist.
Then a dear friend told me that calling myself a feminist meant that I hated men. So I decided I would now
be a Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men. At some point I was a Happy African Feminist
Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss And High Heels For Herself And Not For
Of course much of this was tongue-in-cheek, but what it shows is how that word feminist is so heavy
with baggage, negative baggage: you hate men, you hate bras, you hate African culture, you think women
should always be in charge, you don’t wear make-up, you don’t shave, you’re always angry, you don’t
have a sense of humour, you don’t use deodorant.
Now here’s a story from my childhood.
When I was in primary school in Nsukka, a university town in south-eastern Nigeria, my teacher said at
the beginning of term that she would give the class a test and whoever got the highest score would be the
class monitor. Class monitor was a big deal. If you were class monitor, you would write down the names
of noise-makers each day, which was heady enough power on its own, but my teacher would also give
you a cane to hold in your hand while you walked around and patrolled the class for noise-makers. Of
course, you were not allowed to actually use the cane. But it was an exciting prospect for the nine-year-
old me. I very much wanted to be class monitor. And I got the highest score on the test.
Then, to my surprise, my teacher said the monitor had to be a boy. She had forgotten to make that clear
earlier; she assumed it was obvious. A boy had the second-highest score on the test. And he would be
What was even more interesting is that this boy was a sweet, gentle soul who had no interest in
patrolling the class with a stick. While I was full of ambition to do so.
But I was female and he was male and he became class monitor.
I have never forgotten that incident.
If we do something over and over again, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over
again, it becomes normal. If only boys are made class monitor, then at some point we will all think, even
if unconsciously, that the class monitor has to be a boy. If we keep seeing only men as heads of
corporations, it starts to seem ‘natural’ that only men should be heads of corporations.

I often make the mistake of thinking that something that is obvious to me is just as obvious to everyone
else. Take my dear friend Louis, who is a brilliant, progressive man. We would have conversations and
he would tell me, ‘I don’t see what you mean by things being different and harder for women. Maybe it
was so in the past, but not now. Everything is fine now for women.’ I didn’t understand how Louis could
not see what seemed so evident.
I love being back home in Nigeria, and spend much of my time there in Lagos, the largest city and
commercial hub of the country. Sometimes, in the evenings when the heat goes down and the city has a
slower pace, I go out with friends and family to restaurants or cafés. On one of those evenings, Louis and
I were out with friends.
There is a wonderful fixture in Lagos: a sprinkling of energetic young men who hang around outside
certain establishments and very dramatically ‘help’ you park your car. Lagos is a metropolis of almost
twenty million people, with more energy than London, more entrepreneurial spirit than New York, and so
people come up with all sorts of ways to make a living. As in most big cities, finding parking in the
evenings can be difficult, so these young men make a business out of finding spots and – even when there
are spots available – of guiding you into yours with much gesticulating, and promising to ‘look after’ your
car until you get back. I was impressed with the particular theatrics of the man who found us a parking
spot that evening. And so as we were leaving, I decided to give him a tip. I opened my bag, put my hand
inside my bag to get my money, and I gave it to the man. And he, this man who was happy and grateful,
took the money from me, and then looked across at Louis and said, ‘Thank you, sah!’
Louis looked at me, surprised, and asked, ‘Why is he thanking me? I didn’t give him the money.’ Then I
saw realization dawn on Louis’s face. The man believed that whatever money I had ultimately came from
Louis. Because Louis is a man.
Men and women are different. We have different hormones and different sexual organs and different
biological abilities – women can have babies, men cannot. Men have more testosterone and are, in
general, physically stronger than women. There are slightly more women than men in the world – 52 per
cent of the world’s population is female​ but most of the positions of power and prestige are occupied by
men. The late Kenyan Nobel peace laureate Wangari Maathai put it simply and well when she said, ‘The

higher you go, the fewer women there are.’
In the recent US elections, we kept hearing of the Lilly Ledbetter law, and if we go beyond that nicely
alliterative name, it was really about this: in the US, a man and a woman are doing the same job, with the
same qualifications, and the man is paid more because he is a man.
So in a literal way, men rule the world. This made sense – a thousand years ago. Because human beings
lived then in a world in which physical strength was the most important attribute for survival; the
physically stronger person was more likely to lead. And men in general are physically stronger. (There
are of course many exceptions.) Today, we live in a vastly different world. The person more qualified to
lead is not the physically stronger person. It is the more intelligent, the more knowledgeable, the more
creative, more innovative. And there are no hormones for those attributes. A man is as likely as a woman
to be intelligent, innovative, creative. We have evolved. But our ideas of gender have not evolved very
Not long ago, I walked into the lobby of one of the best Nigerian hotels, and a guard at the entrance
stopped me and asked me annoying questions – What was the name and room number of the person I was
visiting? Did I know this person? Could I prove that I was a hotel guest by showing him my key card? –
because the automatic assumption is that a Nigerian female walking into a hotel alone is a sex worker.
Because a Nigerian female alone cannot possibly be a guest paying for her own room. A man who walks
into the same hotel is not harassed. The assumption is that he is there for something legitimate. (Why, by
the way, do those hotels not focus on the demand for sex workers instead of on the ostensible supply?)
In Lagos, I cannot go alone into many reputable clubs and bars. They just don’t let you in if you are a
woman alone. You must be accompanied by a man. And so I have male friends who arrive at clubs and
end up going in with their arms linked with those of a complete stranger, because that complete stranger, a
woman out on her own, had no choice but to ask for ‘help’ to get into the club.
Each time I walk into a Nigerian restaurant with a man, the waiter greets the man and ignores me. The
waiters are products of a society that has taught them that men are more important than women, and I know
that they don’t intend harm, but it is one thing to know something intellectually and quite another to feel it
emotionally. Each time they ignore me, I feel invisible. I feel upset. I want to tell them that I am just as
human as the man, just as worthy of acknowledgement. These are little things, but sometimes it is the little
things that sting the most.
Not long ago, I wrote an article about being young and female in Lagos. And an acquaintance told me
that it was an angry article, and I should not have made it so angry. But I was unapologetic. Of course it

was angry. Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. I am angry. We should all be angry. Anger has
a long history of bringing about positive change. But I am also hopeful, because I believe deeply in the
ability of human beings to remake themselves for the better.
But back to anger. I heard the caution in the acquaintance’s tone, and I knew that the comment was as
much about the article as it was about my character. Anger, the tone said, is particularly not good for a
woman. If you are a woman, you are not supposed to express anger, because it is threatening. I have a
friend, an American woman, who took over a managerial position from a man. Her predecessor had been
considered a ‘tough go-getter’; he was blunt and hard-charging and was particularly strict about the
signing of time sheets. She took on her new job, and imagined herself equally tough, but perhaps a little
kinder than him – he didn’t always realize that people had families, she said, and she did. Only weeks
into her new job, she disciplined an employee about a forgery on a time sheet, just as her predecessor
would have done. The employee then complained to top management about her style. She was aggressive
and difficult to work with, the employee said. Other employees agreed. One said they had expected that
she would bring a ‘woman’s touch’ to her job, but she hadn’t.
It didn’t occur to any of them that she was doing the same thing for which a man had been praised.
I have another friend, also an American woman, who has a high-paying job in advertising. She is one of
two women in her team. Once, at a meeting, she said she had felt slighted by her boss, who had ignored
her comments and then praised something similar when it came from a man. She wanted to speak up, to
challenge her boss. But she didn’t. Instead, after the meeting, she went to the bathroom and cried, then
called me to vent about it. She didn’t want to speak up because she didn’t want to seem aggressive. She
let her resentments simmer.
What struck me – with her and with many other female American friends I have – is how invested they
are in being ‘liked’. How they have been raised to believe that their being likeable is very important and
that this ‘likeable’ trait is a specific thing. And that specific thing does not include showing anger or being
aggressive or disagreeing too loudly.
We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what boys think of them. But the reverse is not
the case. We don’t teach boys to care about being likeable. We spend too much time telling girls that they
cannot be angry or aggressive or tough, which is bad enough, but then we turn around and either praise or
excuse men for the same reasons. All over the world, there are so many magazine articles and books
telling women what to do, how to be and not to be, in order to attract or please men. There are far fewer
guides for men about pleasing women.
I teach a writing workshop in Lagos and one of the participants, a young woman, told me that a friend
had told her not to listen to my ‘feminist talk’; otherwise she would absorb ideas that would destroy her
marriage. This is a threat – the destruction of a marriage, the possibility of not having a marriage at all –
that in our society is much more likely to be used against a woman than against a man.
Gender matters everywhere in the world. And I would like today to ask that we should begin to dream

about and plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are
truer to themselves. And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise
our sons differently.
We do a great disservice to boys in how we raise them. We stifle the humanity of boys. We define
masculinity in a very narrow way. Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage.
We teach boys to be afraid of fear, of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true
selves, because they have to be, in Nigerian-speak, a hard man.
In secondary school, a boy and a girl go out, both of them teenagers with meagre pocket money. Yet the
boy is expected to pay the bills, always, to prove his masculinity. (And we wonder why boys are more
likely to steal money from their parents.)
What if both boys and girls were raised not to link masculinity and money? What if their attitude was
not ‘the boy has to pay’, but rather, ‘whoever has more should pay’? Of course, because of their historical
advantage, it is mostly men who will have more today. But if we start raising children differently, then in
fifty years, in a hundred years, boys will no longer have the pressure of proving their masculinity by
material means.
But by far the worst thing we do to males – by making them feel they have to be hard – is that we leave
them with very fragile egos. The harder a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is.
And then we do a much greater disservice to girls, because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of
We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller.
We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too
successful, otherwise you will threaten the man. If you are the breadwinner in your relationship with a
man, pretend that you are not, especially in public, otherwise you will emasculate him.’
But what if we question the premise itself? Why should a woman’s success be a threat to a man? What
if we decide to simply dispose of that word – and I don’t know if there is an English word I dislike more
than this – emasculation.
A Nigerian acquaintance once asked me if I was worried that men would be intimidated by me.
I was not worried at all – it had not even occurred to me to be worried, because a man who would be
intimidated by me is exactly the kind of man I would have no interest in.
Still, I was struck by this. Because I am female, I’m expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to
make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Marriage can be a good

thing, a source of joy, love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage, yet we
don’t teach boys to do the same?
I know a Nigerian woman who decided to sell her house because she didn’t want to intimidate a man
who might want to marry her.
I know an unmarried woman in Nigeria who, when she goes to conferences, wears a wedding ring
because she wants her colleagues to – according to her – ‘give her respect’.
The sadness in this is that a wedding ring will indeed automatically make her seem worthy of respect,
while not wearing a wedding ring would make her easily dismissible – and this is in a modern
I know young women who are under so much pressure – from family, from friends, even from work – to
get married that they are pushed to make terrible choices.
Our society teaches a woman at a certain age who is unmarried to see it as a deep personal failure.
While a man at a certain age who is unmarried has not quite come around to making his pick.
It is easy to say, ‘But women can just say no to all this.’ But the reality is more difficult, more complex.
We are all social beings. We internalize ideas from our socialization.
Even the language we use illustrates this. The language of marriage is often a language of ownership,
not a language of partnership.
We use the word respect for something a woman shows a man, but not often for something a man shows
a woman.
Both men and women will say, ‘I did it for peace in my marriage.’
When men say it, it is usually about something they should not be doing anyway. Something they say to
their friends in a fondly exasperated way, something that ultimately proves to them their masculinity –
‘Oh, my wife said I can’t go to clubs every night, so now, for peace in my marriage, I go only on
When women say ‘I did it for peace in my marriage,’ it is usually because they have given up a job, a
career goal, a dream.
We teach females that in relationships, compromise is what a woman is more likely to do.
We raise girls to see each other as competitors – not for jobs or accomplishments, which in my opinion
can be a good thing, but for the attention of men.
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way boys are. If we have sons, we don’t mind
knowing about their girlfriends. But our daughters’ boyfriends? God forbid. (But we of course expect
them to bring home the perfect man for marriage when the time is right.)
We police girls. We praise girls for virginity but we don’t praise boys for virginity (and it makes me
wonder how exactly this is supposed to work out, since the loss of virginity is a process that usually
involves two people of opposite genders).
Recently a young woman was gang-raped in a university in Nigeria, and the response of many young

Nigerians, both male and female, was something like this: ‘Yes, rape is wrong, but what is a girl doing in
a room with four boys?’
Let us, if we can, forget the horrible inhumanity of that response. These Nigerians have been raised to
think of women as inherently guilty. And they have been raised to expect so little of men that the idea of
men as savage beings with no self-control is somehow acceptable.
We teach girls shame. Close your legs. Cover yourself. We make them feel as though by being born
female, they are already guilty of something. And so girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have
desire. Who silence themselves. Who cannot say what they truly think. Who have turned pretence into an
art form.
I know a woman who hates domestic work, but she pretends that she likes it, because she has been
taught that to be ‘good wife material’, she has to be – to use that Nigerian word – homely. And then she
got married. And her husband’s family began to complain that she had changed. Actually, she had not
changed. She just got tired of pretending to be what she was not.
The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are.
Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t
have the weight of gender expectations.
Boys and girls are undeniably different biologically, but socialization exaggerates the differences, and
then starts a self-fulfilling process. Take cooking, for example. Today, women in general are more likely
to do housework than men – cooking and cleaning. But why is that? Is it because women are born with a
cooking gene or because over the years they have been socialized to see cooking as their role? I was
going to say that perhaps women are born with a cooking gene until I remembered that the majority of
famous cooks in the world – who are given the fancy title of ‘chef’ – are men.
I used to look at my grandmother, a brilliant woman, and wonder what she would have been if she’d
had the same opportunities as men during her youth. Today, there are more opportunities for women than
there were during my grandmother’s time, because of changes in policy and law, which are very
But what matters even more is our attitude, our mindset.
What if, in raising children, we focus on ability instead of gender? What if we focus on interest instead
of gender?

I know a family who has a son and a daughter, a year apart in age, both brilliant at school. When the boy
is hungry, the parents say to the girl, ‘Go and cook Indomie noodles for your brother.’ The girl doesn’t like
to cook Indomie noodles, but she is a girl and she has to. What if the parents, from the beginning, taught
both children to cook them? Cooking, by the way, is a useful and practical life skill for a boy to have. I’ve
never thought it made much sense to leave such a crucial thing – the ability to nourish oneself – in the
hands of others.
I know a woman who has the same degree and same job as her husband. When they get back from work,
she does most of the housework, which is true for many marriages, but what struck me was that whenever
he changed the baby’s nappy, she said thank you to him. What if she saw it as something normal and
natural, that he should help care for his child?
I am trying to unlearn many lessons of gender I internalized while growing up. But I sometimes still feel
vulnerable in the face of gender expectations.
The first time I taught a writing class in graduate school, I was worried. Not about the teaching
material, because I was well prepared and I was teaching what I enjoyed. Instead I was worried about
what to wear. I wanted to be taken seriously.
I knew that because I was female, I would automatically have to prove my worth. And I was worried
that if I looked too feminine, I would not be taken seriously. I really wanted to wear my shiny lip gloss
and my girly skirt, but I decided not to. I wore a very serious, very manly and very ugly suit.
The sad truth of the matter is that when it comes to appearance, we start off with men as the standard, as
the norm. Many of us think that the less feminine a woman appears, the more likely she is to be taken
seriously. A man going to a business meeting doesn’t wonder about being taken seriously based on what
he is wearing – but a woman does.
I wish I had not worn that ugly suit that day. Had I then the confidence I have now to be myself, my
students would have benefited even more from my teaching. Because I would have been more comfortable
and more fully and truly myself.
I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femininity. And I want to be respected in all my
femaleness. Because I deserve to be. I like politics and history and am happiest when having a good

argument about ideas. I am girly. I am happily girly. I like high heels and trying on lipsticks. It’s nice to be
complimented by both men and women (although I have to be honest and say that I prefer the compliments
of stylish women), but I often wear clothes that men don’t like or don’t ‘understand’. I wear them because
I like them and because I feel good in them. The ‘male gaze’, as a shaper of my life’s choices, is largely
Gender is not an easy conversation to have. It makes people uncomfortable, sometimes even irritable.
Both men and women are resistant to talk about gender, or are quick to dismiss the problems of gender.
Because thinking of changing the status quo is always uncomfortable.
Some people ask, ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or
something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in
general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular
problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been
excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was
not about being human, but specifically about being a female human. For centuries, the world divided
human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the
solution to the problem should acknowledge that.
Some men feel threatened by the idea of feminism. This comes, I think, from the insecurity triggered by
how boys are brought up, how their sense of self-worth is diminished if they are not ‘naturally’ in charge
as men.
Other men might respond by saying, ‘Okay, this is interesting, but I don’t think like that. I don’t even think
about gender.’
Maybe not.
And that is part of the problem. That many men do not actively think about gender or notice gender.
That many men say, like my friend Louis did, that things might have been bad in the past but everything is
fine now. And that many men do nothing to change it. If you are a man and you walk into a restaurant and
the waiter greets just you, does it occur to you to ask the waiter, ‘Why have you not greeted her?’ Men
need to speak out in all of these ostensibly small situations.

Because gender can be uncomfortable, there are easy ways to close this conversation.
Some people will bring up evolutionary biology and apes, how female apes bow to male apes – that
sort of thing. But the point is this: we are not apes. Apes also live in trees and eat earthworms. We do not.
Some people will say, ‘Well, poor men also have a hard time.’ And they do.
But that is not what this conversation is about. Gender and class are different. Poor men still have the
privileges of being men, even if they do not have the privileges of being wealthy. I learned a lot about
systems of oppression and how they can be blind to one another by talking to black men. I was once
talking about gender and a man said to me, ‘Why does it have to be you as a woman? Why not you as a
human being?’ This type of question is a way of silencing a person’s specific experiences. Of course I am
a human being, but there are particular things that happen to me in the world because I am a woman. This
same man, by the way, would often talk about his experience as a black man. (To which I should probably
have responded, ‘Why not your experiences as a man or as a human being? Why a black man?’)
So, no, this conversation is about gender. Some people will say, ‘Oh, but women have the real power:
bottom power.’ (This is a Nigerian expression for a woman who uses her sexuality to get things from
men.) But bottom power is not power at all, because the woman with bottom power is actually not
powerful; she just has a good route to tap another person’s power. And then what happens if the man is in
a bad mood or sick or temporarily impotent?
Some people will say a woman is subordinate to men because it’s our culture. But culture is constantly
changing. I have beautiful twin nieces who are fifteen. If they had been born a hundred years ago, they
would have been taken away and killed. Because a hundred years ago, Igbo culture considered the birth of
twins to be an evil omen. Today that practice is unimaginable to all Igbo people.
What is the point of culture? Culture functions ultimately to ensure the preservation and continuity of a
people. In my family, I am the child who is most interested in the story of who we are, in ancestral lands,
in our tradition. My brothers are not as interested as I am. But I cannot participate, because Igbo culture
privileges men, and only the male members of the extended family can attend the meetings where major
family decisions are taken. So although I am the one who is most interested in these things, I cannot attend
the meeting. I cannot have a formal say. Because I am female.
Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not
our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.
I think very often of my friend Okoloma. May he and others who passed away in that Sosoliso crash
continue to rest in peace. He will always be remembered by those of us who loved him. And he was right,

that day, many years ago, when he called me a feminist. I am a feminist.
And when, all those years ago, I looked the word up in the dictionary, it said: Feminist: a person who
believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.
My great-grandmother, from stories I’ve heard, was a feminist. She ran away from the house of the man
she did not want to marry and married the man of her choice. She refused, protested, spoke up whenever
she felt she was being deprived of land and access because she was female. She did not know that word
feminist. But it doesn’t mean she wasn’t one. More of us should reclaim that word. The best feminist I
know is my brother Kene, who is also a kind, good-looking and very masculine young man. My own
definition of a feminist is a man or a woman who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today
and we must fix it, we must do better.’
All of us, women and men, must do better.

Extra credit

Extra Credit Assignment Worth Up to 10 extra Points 

Task 1:          

Visit the following website, theduluthmodel.org and review the information provided in order to understand and identify: Students do not need to answer these questions, only reflect on these questions after visiting the website

What steps were used to organize the community in Duluth?

Who were the stakeholders?

What was the underlying belief system?

What strategies were employed?

How was the Power and Control Wheel developed?

Task 2:

Collect data on violence against women on college campuses. A few sources of information are https://www.justice.gov/ovw/protecting-students-sexual-assault#sexualviolence  and http://feministcampus.org/campaigns/campus-violence/resources/.  Be sure to use other scholarly sources as well to gather adequate information. Collect data on violence against women on campuses across the country including the number of offenses, types of offenses, and demographic data on the victims.

Task 3:

Using the process from the Duluth experience in Task 1, and answer the following questions in the format of a 3 page paper written in APA style, excluding title and reference page:

What steps would you use to organize the community?

Who are the stakeholders?

What is the underlying belief system?

What strategies would you as a campus family nurse practitioner suggest to end violence against women on the campus? Discuss in detail and provide specific examples.

What health policies will you suggest? Discuss in detail either current policies or proposed new policies.


 *** Students must answer all questions in order to get full credit for assignment. Make sure to follow all APA guidelines as well including proper headings and subheadings. Paper must be minimum 3 pages without title and reference page. A minimum of 4 references is required with the latest being that of five years*** 

***Any Plagiarized submissions will be treated as any other assignment and as per your student handbook policy on plagiarism***