I had abandoned my passionate affair with writing for a more sedate relationship with science, the first time I heard the name Buchi Emecheta.
It was my 15th year on this little speck of rock hurtling through space, and I was hurting at the unfairness of being female.
I could feel the clutches of the Igbo tradition closing in on me like a noose.
School, books, and writing were my escape from a culture that would overwhelm me, and pull me under like an inexperienced swimmer if nothing was done.
The unspoken rules of being an Igbo girl were making their presence known in my daily life as I filled out my clothes, and attracted the ever-roving eye of the male folk in my neighborhood.
As soon as blood stained the seat of my grey shorts, I was told:
“Don’t let any man touch you lest you become pregnant and bring shame on your father’s name.”
My little shorts and skirts disappeared only to be replaced with long skirts and trousers that did little to hide my growing body.
The games I played with the male playmates of my childhood, were suddenly frowned on by everyone.
Even when I had gotten good at skipping rope, enough to finally beat my neighbor's grandson who visited during holidays, I discovered my male friends now had an indulgent smile when regular arguments broke out over football, and whose turn it was to be the goalkeeper.
Soon, indulgent smiles turned to outright refusals, peppered with phrases like,
“girls shouldn’t be goalkeepers in a boy’s game”,
“you could get hurt”,
“and we’re too strong to play with you”
It rankled that nobody particularly saw anything wrong with my sudden expulsion by my male playmates.
I was expected to make do with games like Tinko Tinko, Suwe and playing with dolls.
And I hated the whole affair with every fibre of my being.
My resentment of the Igbo culture grew as I finally noticed my father’s obsession with having a son. My father always threw around the phrase “only girls” as if it was my mother’s fault that we were all girls.
In his eyes and those of many Igbo people, it actually was.
My mother never saw the irony in making us conform to a culture that saw us as less, while at the same time wishing one of us was male.
“If only one of you was a boy!”
I grew up not questioning the status quo.
I never paid attention to what it meant for my mother who had five girls.
The phrase “only girls” never bore any negative connotations until I heard my father use it during an argument with my mother. It opened my eyes to the pitying looks my mother often got, when people found out she had five female children.
Like other Igbo men, my father was encouraged to leave my mother and take another wife, all in the search for the “elusive golden son”. My father’s cousin had thrown his wife of 12 years out because she had four female children.
My mother lived under the same threat, and this made her turn a blind eye to my father’s many mistresses. It felt like we were an embarrassing disease that my mother was unfortunate to have.
A disease that was deserving of pity at best, and scorn at worst.
This unfairness of it all turned to boiling rage one afternoon in Biology class.
Biology was one of my favourite subjects. But it was especially hard to pay attention that day because the second break time of the day loomed ahead.
That break was my reading time and I always spent it devouring books in the school library.
My teacher, Mrs Ojolo, was talking about inherited traits. But my mind was on the tantalising Sidney Sheldon novel I didn’t finish the previous day.
Mrs Ojolo asking me to name the female sex chromosomes, brought my wandering mind back to class. This little question interlude to the lesson yielded new information. According to my teacher, women didn’t determine the sex of the child as they had two kinds of the same sex chromosomes (XX). Only men with their two different sex chromosomes (XY) can determine the sex of their children.
I couldn’t believe my ears.
Sidney Sheldon novel forgotten, I waited after class to ask my teacher if she was sure. Because there is no way generations of Igbo women have suffered over having female children, when the fault lay with the men. Not trusting Mrs Ojolo’s word nor her BSc in Biology from the University of Ibadan, I raced off to the computer room to ask the internet.
And the internet said the same.
My disbelief would turn to incandescent rage at the unfairness of it all.
Women like my mother had to endure pity, scorn, abuse, and many times were forced out of their homes for something that was solely the fault of Igbo men.
And these men had the audacity to subject women to all sorts of insults, over something they as men couldn’t even control.
It was bad enough women can’t inherit property, and the full extent of ambition expected of us was marriage and children. But even in that marriage, women didn’t know any peace until they produced sons and were blamed if they didn’t.
With my rage came a migraine as these thoughts wouldn’t leave my head.
At home that day, I could only cry angry tears as I tried to explain to my mother why I had a migraine.
My inability to explain through my tears made me cry harder.
Even when I went to school the next day, the anger remained.
In the midst of this earth-shattering revelation, I came across Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta. It was one of the recommended texts for the literature students in my class and one of them loaned it to me.
If I had any illusions about my fury fading away with time, reading Joys of Motherhood made sure it stayed that: an illusion.
It didn’t take much effort to see the similarities between my experiences as an Igbo girl, and the characters in Joys of Motherhood.
No one ever asked the character Nnu Ego, what she wanted from her life.
Would she be content as only a wife and mother?
My education was only a means of making me attractive enough to snag a husband. Not to push me to pursue my dreams.
Educated women fetched more bride price.
The height of ambition for many Igbo women is marriage and children. Any ambition on my part was encouraged as long as I didn’t aim higher than a husband and kids. A PhD was out of the question because according to my mother,
“Who will cook for your husband while you run after book?”
The Igbo woman cannot exist as a separate independent entity.
She is either defined as her father’s daughter, or her husband’s wife. In Joys of Motherhood, Nnu Ego was never Nnu Ego, an independent person. She was defined by the men in her life. She was either Nnu Ego, Agbadi’s daughter or Amatokwu’s wife.
Same was expected of me.
No matter how intelligent, smart or ambitious I am, I would be defined as Nneka, Chief Otika’s daughter and then Nneka somebody’s wife.
There was no room to be Nneka, an individual who didn’t want to be anybody’s wife. I, of course, had no choice in the daughter part.
The only thing worse than a woman with only female children, is a barren woman.
Another thing that defines Igbo women is having children, preferably male children. Nnu Ego’s inability to have a child with her first husband, made her the object of scorn and abuse. It made her position in her home unsure. Having children with her second husband, Nnaife made her a “complete” woman.
The day I told my mother I was uninterested in having children, she spent 3 days fasting and praying as she believed something must be terribly wrong with me. Because how will my life be complete without kids?
Joys of Motherhood made me realize how systemic the unfairness and inequality Igbo women faced and are still facing.
Many Igbo women who bore the brunt of this inequality, are still enforcing the traditions and mentality that saw them as less. That a book set in pre-independence Nigeria, could resonate with me in the 21st century, means nothing had actually changed.
Educating female children may have become fashionable in my time, but our wings are still clipped by traditions and society at large.
It would take another 5 years for me to come in contact with the terms patriarchy and feminism.
Before I encountered the books on feminism, I knew women were treated unfairly and dismantling the mentality that made this inequality possible, was something I wanted to do.
When Mona Eltahawy talks about teaching girls to rage, I understand.
Without my rage at the unfairness women in my tribe endured over having only female children, I wouldn’t be a feminist today.
Without books like Joys of Motherhood, I wouldn’t have understood how ingrained patriarchy was in my culture.
Buchi Emecheta may be gone, but feminists like me exist because of her work.
Words by Nneka Otika