This essay was originally published on June 6, 2020 as part of YNaija’s Non-binary Blog. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
In early 2020, at a commemorative event for the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Conference, I introduced myself to a room full of Nigerian feminists aged 18 to 80 as “a queer feminist writer.” I hadn’t planned to do this, but the response confirmed my suspicions about how the evening had been envisioned. Brows creased, ears moved close to tightened lips to confirm what they had heard, and confusion draped itself across the faces both of feminists who didn’t know what ‘queer’ meant and those who simply pretended not to.
At the end of the night, a kind woman in her 40’s said that it was truly brave of me to bring up my sexuality, especially since it hadn’t been particularly relevant to our conversation about Nigerian women’s realities. I explained to her that I had only brought up my feminist ideology, which is always relevant to the realities in question, and I had in fact left my sexuality at home.
In the past decade, young Nigerian feminists–several of whom were in the room that evening–have increasingly used social media to raise their voices, resist patriarchy and build affirming relationships with other feminists. This development has produced remarkable shifts in online conversations around bodily autonomy, domestic labour and toxic masculinity, as well as offline mobilisation against sexual abuse and state violence targeting women.
All of this great progress has been beset by one small problem, however. Most feminist conversations assume–in fact, often insist–that ‘women’ refers exclusively to people with uteruses, whose biggest concern is negotiating safe and respectable partnerships with cisgender men, and/or who merely want the same advantages that men have access to in our society.
The narrowness of this thinking is what informs my belief that Nigeria needs queer feminism. Not because I and millions of other people in this country are queer, but because feminist liberation is.
What is feminism, anyway?
Feminism: a belief in the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes.
In a recent conversation with GirlTrek, the feminist revolutionary and abolitionist Angela Davis said, “Feminism is not simply about gender and not simply about women. It’s about identifying the connections between race and gender and capitalism and sexuality and imperialism.” I completely agree, as I define ‘feminism’ not as ‘the fight for women’s rights’ but rather “the politics and practice of liberation from all oppression resulting from, connected to or reinforced by sexism.”
Among Nigerian women, there is the widely-held belief that feminism is about tipping the scales of the so-called gender binary so that the disempowered half can achieve the same status as the oppressive half. The primary goal of this logic is to secure a foothold within ‘heterocapitalism’, which I define as ‘a system of resource extraction and distribution that rewards normative social behaviour, with its primary beneficiaries being men.’
Under heterocapitalism, money is power and power is masculine. Mainstream feminism focuses on appropriating ‘powerful’ behaviours such as autonomy, aggression, sexual freedom and wealth accumulation in ways that benefit women. It also attempts to increase the social value of traits associated with disempowerment, such as service, personal grooming, self-awareness and mutuality by promoting such traits to men.
Mainstream feminism rejects the types of interpersonal violence usually perpetrated against women by men, with a significant focus on addressing intimate bodily harm after it has happened. Its primary targets are the workplace and the nuclear household, and its goals are to redistribute labour, social responsibility and resources so that women’s proximity to men becomes more profitable and less dangerous or burdensome.
This sort of feminism is easily digestible, taking a reactionary and invariably reductionist approach to social injustice. ‘Equal pay for equal work’ campaigns replace anti-capitalist frameworks for eliminating impoverishment, ignoring the fact that poverty is manufactured and sustained by exploiting working class, rural and under-educated people of all genders. The pursuit of ‘gender equality’ reinforces the Eurocentric gender binary, normalising the violence of this man/woman dichotomy while making sociopathic masculine conditioning somehow aspirational. Slogans like ‘real men don’t rape’ or ‘Say no to rape’ provide individualised catharsis for ‘good’ men and wounded women. Yet, as South African feminist scholar Pumla Gqola writes, there are social and psychological structures that make sexual violence absolutely necessary in our society. Simplistic catchphrases like the above provide little room for meaningful analysis.
In promoting individual behaviour or ‘choice’ as the antidote to systemic oppression, mainstream feminism dilutes the fight to end sexism. Simultaneously, by focusing only on patriarchally-defined categories of ‘women’, it devalues and erases identities or lived experiences that don’t fit neatly into its limited scope. In this way, it contradicts itself and ends up doing the counterproductive work of enforcing patriarchy’s rules regarding who deserves to exist safely. In the final analysis, mainstream feminism doesn’t seek to end patriarchy. It seeks to adapt it to better benefit ‘deserving’ women.
Ridding ourselves of the master, his tools and his house
However, we can’t end oppression by negotiating with it–and certainly not by replicating it. In her oft-quoted 1984 speech, lesbian feminist writer Audre Lorde said, “Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women…know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”
Feminist liberation has to be queer, i.e. come from the margins, because feminist liberation can only exist outside the limits of patriarchy. Instead of holding on to bigotry and insisting that queer realities are irrelevant, Nigerian feminists with access to the mainstream must understand that queer perspectives are essential to the feminist cause. A queer lens reveals that the master himself, and not just his tools and house, can be rendered irrelevant. Queer feminism, including trans feminist scholarship, provides robust analyses of gender, poverty, interpersonal and state violence, bodily autonomy, sexual predation, domestic abuse, and stigma-free access to healthcare and safe housing, all of which affect people of all identities and orientations.
Unfortunately, mainstream feminism continues to hold us all back, thanks to its coy capitulation to the system it claims to resist. Mainstream feminists insist on addressing only the needs of structurally advantaged women, saying that more inclusive approaches are ‘distracting’ or ‘divisive’. Yet, they subject trans women in particular and queer people in general to unprovoked dehumanisation while treating poor, women and/or sex working women like projects rather than people.
Despite sustained pushback and calls for solidarity from the affected communities, many of these feminists refuse to acknowledge the lateral violence of their behaviour and beliefs. Meanwhile, patriarchy thrives unabated, threatening non-compliant cishet women with cruel punishment and all the rest of us with extermination.
I believe–and our revolutionary feminist foremothers have taught us–that there is a better way; one that allows everyone devalued by heterocapitalism to thrive. We need a feminist movement which recognises that experiences of oppression are all connected, and so must be addressed from the furthest margins all the way to the centre. With queer, intersectional and inclusive feminism, we can dismantle the master’s house called patriarchy, and slowly but surely build collective liberation in its place.