31 January 2019
NIGHT OF IDEAS
Ugoma Adegoke’s Notes
Theme – That Elusive Seat At The Table / Womanness
We have observed a very long history of silencing and muffling the female voice; widely practised misogyn..
The poet Ijeoma Umebinyuo asks in her recent anthology “How quiet can we make this woman?” My answer to this is, “As quiet as SHE chooses to be!”
I’ll speak mostly from my personal experiences.
NOBODY can quiet me or shut me up…no man or woman for that matter. Because I have gracious, intelligent, value-adding, often humorous contributions to make and I have been trained (by my Igbo culture, my enabling and liberating upbringing and my self-imposed practice of self-determination, the pursuit of excellence and courage) to make those contributions; to speak ; to have a voice ; to boldly and confidently take my seat at the table; to create my own table when and if needed; to doggedly and creatively create the access I need; to take ownership of my life and all that is good and bad within it; to be strategic and goal-oriented; to not ask anyone else permission on matters that solely affect me, and as my recent post on Instagram says – “ to wear my high heels and gracefully kick down the doors to ALL the rooms I WISH to enter – including the “other room”.
For ME, the important first steps are to develop something worth saying & then choose to say it.
Let’s take a little walk down memory lane to about 3000 years ago to the first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’. telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public. It was the moment in Homer’s Odyssey, when while Odysseus was on his war adventure and away from home, his wife Penelope (following her suggestions for the resident bard to perform happier music) is commanded by her own son, Telemachus and I quote “Mother, go back up to your quarter, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff…speech will be the business of men, all men and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household”
This is one example in a long line of largely successful attempt throughout history to exclude women and even parade them as ridiculous things that are not to be taken seriously.
One 2nd century A.D guru put it that “a woman should as modestly guard against exposing her boise to outsiders as she would guard against stripping off her clothes”.
Public speaking and oratory voice were not only things that ancient women did not do, they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender. Public speech was a defining attribute of maleness.
VOICE. SPEECH. OPINION. LIBERAL THOUGHT. FREE EXPRESSION….were all male domains.
Take for example, the language we still sometimes use to describe the sound of women’s speech = we “whinge” and we “whine”. Words matter. They do. Such words remove the authority and seriousness from what women have to say.
Something to note – for how we are referenced and how we refer to ourselves.
Old habits die hard, but THEY CAN DIE.
Professor Mary Beard writes “it is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice they do not hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it.”
The important point here, which buttresses my previous point, is the fact that perhaps there is a method to (re)learning HOW to hear authority in the female voice. As I said old habits can die, new conventions formed as can new languages and attitudes…And that’s what I really want to focus on – new ideas of this ‘womanness’; rethinking our now (of course registering and celebrating the strides that we have made so far as a gender) an defining our own way forward.
So let us leap frog to today and let me just quickly share an anecdote from my lunch meeting today with a client ( a man) when I mentioned that I would be speaking and sharing some ideas on ‘womanness’.
He said, “WOMEN! A specie and phenomenon that I have the least understanding about , who act as if they are endangered but yet seem to be multiplying and strengthening by the day”,
I hear these sorts of views a lot from men. A lot!!! So are we women moving forward? I say a resounding YES. There is still a long way to go yet however, but we are definitely progressing and redefining structures, perceptions and creating our own spaces at the table.
My mind at this moment is occupied by the amazing stories and incidences of strong women and their strides and I will share just a few.
A recent Instagram post revealed a bold and beautiful picture of the chairpersons of the 3 largest banks in Nigeria. All women. Women. Excellent competent women. Competitive HUMANS. I am thinking (and smiling as I do) of the times I live in and histories I have witnessed – of Oby Ezekwesili (bravely putting herself forward to run for President of Nigeria); Theresa May (dignified through the stress of one of the most disastrous political and social realities of modern history); Margaret Thatcher (that legendary prime minister who rejected the idea of her womanhood as a limiting framework and insisted that she be affirmed as a great politician and not a great female politician); My grandmothers, Agbogho and Grace (influential, strong, effective matriarchs and successful politicians in and out of the home and who inspired recent tattoos of mine as an homage to their impact on me); My mother, Elemanya (grace and courage personified); My favorite teachers throughout my life – Miss Wilhelm, Mrs Willoughby, Mrs Alli,
Miss Howard and Miss George; The Women of the Biafran war who traded goods and enabled the survival of many behind enemy lines; The women of the Aba riots; Funmilayo Ransome Kuti; Queen Amina of Zaria (an example of a recorded exception to the global norm 500 years ago on our African soil); And ME – Ugoma, a woman before you, invited to speak publicly (a previously male domain) and not being made in to an honorary man to do so or fearing attack or ridicule…the list is endless.
There is no shortage of fabulous, accomplished women who are remembered today for their proverbial ‘balls” and their focus on excellence. This behaviour is what we must focus on and quickly and aggressively imbibe.
The focus must shift swiftly away from gender and towards ability, excellence, competence.
Allow me to share a quote that is poignant and frames the kind of mindset that I thrive on and
am thinking of so intently today.
“Nobody warned you that the women whose feet you cut from running would give birth to daughters with wings” – Ijeoma Umebinyuo.
This beautiful thought sums up the idea that change and evolution for women is possible, has happened and is happening. It also heralds the era of audacious possibilities – possibilities with no limits; possibilities enabled because of grit, hardwork, hope and intentionality; possibilities of daughters that were not possible for their mothers and in the same vein, for sons that were not possible for their fathers.
Why do I include men? Well that is because I ultimately believe in promoting a new order that rests on two central pillars = excellence & humanity. If this is so, then men, of course, must be included. Other important and related pillars which we must build on are:- discipline, self determination and courage.
Will now share some bullet-pointed ideas to think and meditate about….and I would like us to interact with these ideas as navigational guides for anew and progressing order in which women increasingly become included, revered, respected and considered integral partners.
- It’s not always about you, even when you are faced with caustic and discriminatory behaviour.
- Stay focused and keep your eye on the prize.
- Stay gracious! In the words of Beyonce Knowles, “always stay gracious, your best revenge is your paper”. (paper = wealth).
- Be excellent…let your competency and ability lead the way and open all necessary doors for you.
- Be careful what discriminations and limitations that you take on…many of these are in my observation, self-imposed. (Do not be a walking manifestation of the impostor theory…do not ascribe the insecurity of someone else to yourself).
- Be careful what you let into your mental space…including the energy of a victim.
- Bigots and bullies are usually SAD people, not BAD people = try to apply humanity always.
- Many men feel just as trapped and silenced and irrelevant. We must be very careful as women, especially in the spaces that require vulnerability, that we do not go from victims to being terrorists.
- We are all 50% male and 50% female. All of us are part male and part female by virtue of our biological makeup.
- Being polite in the face of discrimination and adversity can be form of control and be a real chess move. Response to bullying and bullies with politeness.
- Arm yourself with a balanced cocktail of rage and laughter. Outrage is understandable and necessary and dis-enfranchised people should be angry BUT perhaps we can also include/ permit laughter (for our own psychological self preservation and also as a tool for disarming and responding the oppressor). Bullies do not like to be laughed out and ridiculed by chuckles.
Let me wrap up tonight’s session by saying that I am excited about a future were women are exalted, celebrated and affirmed – by themselves and also by the other (self-affirmation is crucial and I would argue the most important manifestation). So much progress has been made, amazing progress, but the road ahead is still long and we must forge ahead on it with grace, organisation, excellence and fairness….and we must do so with our fellow human – our men – the other half of our humanity, because we are all half man – half woman after all, as I mentioned earlier.
Thanks for listening to me tonight, permit me to leave you with these words, also from Ijeoma
“do not forget your lineage,
do not shrink,
do not bend yourself,
do not shift your tongue for anyone.
whenever you forget who you are,
remember the history you have inherited,