Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Whats Wrong with Being Over Thirty, Female and Unmarried in Africa?

One of the luxuries I had been afforded of late, is that of having a routine. I wake up to steaming hot black coffee, hot news and as many sits ups and press ups as I can manage that morning before starting my day. But since CNN and all the other media outlets here are VERY locally focussed, I now tune into BBC World Service on the internet to catch up with the rest of the world.

In my student days in South Africa, I would tune into Network Africa or Focus on Africa while getting ready for the day. But after relocating, the hectic pace of life in London and the weak broadband in Lagos made it t impossible for me to continue this enriching ritual. Well, since I got to New Haven, CT, I have gone back to that routine and today listened to a programme I was once a studio guest on called ‘ Africa Have Your Say’.

The format of the programme is that a topic is chosen and the rest of Africa and its Diaspora share views by phone, text and e-mail. Fascinating stuff. The wide array of views and cultural/intellectual lenses through which we Africans see things are amazing. Anyway, so today’s topic was wait for it: Female, Over Thirty, Unmarried and Successful in Africa! I can feel the temperature rising already....

It was a fascinating discussion and the views shared by men and older women ranged from frightening, humorous, militant, liberal, traditional, rational to completely irrational! However, while there were divergent views in favour of the notion, the majority believed that being ‘ female, over thirty and unmarried’ is a social / religious anomaly, a curse, a taboo, a social ill which either indicated something was very wrong with the lady in question or that she was a wanton lady of the night with lascivious desires which made it impossible for her to settle down with one man. I lie not. There was more, this a short summary. You should have heard the rest! One older lady said something like ‘women like that are not respectable in their communities and are like prostitutes’, while one chap sent a text from Eastern Nigeria saying ( I paraphrase again ) that ‘it was like a curse from hell’. Haba!

So, as you can imagine, I was quite perturbed when I heard all this. I thought really? People think like this? I have heard the ‘biological clock ‘ argument before, but had never really thought of the, sometimes vicious social stigma and ego-denting overt and covert insults that ladies who live this lifestyle are subjected to! However, the young ladies on the programme did not take it lying down and fought back.

Some of the ladies spoke for themselves ( not all single though) and for the sisters. Amongst them was our own Nigerian Modupe Ozolua who made the point, amongst other salient points, that if she had not walked out of a failing marriage, her business would not have been so successful and she is proud to be the mummy and daddy of her own home.

Another very eloquent speaker and writer Shola Dada also spoke about the traditional roles that have been carved by history for Nigerian women and how today’s women are struggling to crawl out of this social pigeon-hole to achieve their dreams and optimally utilise their skills. Her article “ Wanted in Nigeria: Super Women” is an engaging read.

A very cerebral lady a gender researcher from a South African university took the argument to the guys in quite an eloquent academic debating style. Interestingly, she also said that when she was bagging degrees, very few in her family celebrated with her, but when she got married all the family came to rejoice with her, ‘as if all else she had achieved was worthless.’ It was a stimulating debate and a pity that BCC does not archive this programme for later public access or else you could have heard it your selves (I will write to them and politely request that they make such available or this forum).

The truth folks, is that something is happening in our generation that we are not talking about. Roles and expectations are changing in so as far as male-female power, social, economic and emotional relations are concerned, both at home and in the workplace. For we ,the MTV/CNN/INTERNET generation, dynamics of the age-old gender wars are changing and while many of us want to pretend/believe/insist that things should be as they have always been, deep within we know that’s not the case and may never be again – at least in the modern/urban world.

Too much has changed in our societies, economies and the world in general, and if we don’t adapt to these changes, something somewhere will have to give: our hearts, our minds, our wallets ( or all three) or the institution of marriage/ family as we knew it! But is that necessary? Can’t we negotiate, compromise and find a balance somewhere?

So here’s the question: Whats Wrong with Being Over Thirty, Female and Unmarried in Africa? Whose Business Is It Any Way?There are more women over thirty today who choose to stay single and see no reason why there should even be a whimper about it. It’s their life, their choice! It does not mean there is something wrong with them, ....may be its the opposite, who is to say?

Divorce rates are sky-rocketing and as a victim of same myself, I know only too well the excruciating silent sorrow and emotional prison of being in an unhappy/unfulfilling marriage – something many live in but can never admit because of the social stigma. So why can’t a thirty-something year old woman take her time to be sure of Mr Right? Does it have to be because she is Ms Wrong? What do you think? Is there something ‘wrong’ with being female, unmarried and ( God-help her) successful while over age thirty?

Why are African societies so judgemental on this issue? Should we adapt to the changing dynamics and evolving roles and power relations between men and women? Are we men being unfair or are the women trying to have their cakes and eat it ( like we guys have being for centuries)?

Should women just chill out and strike a balance between family life and career? Should guys just calm down and be ready to wear the apron instead of the pants in ‘the house’? Are we witnessing the extinction of the Alpha Male and the rise of the Alpha Female?

Ladies, what do you think and what do you think the guys need to know? Guys, what do you think and what do you think the ladies need to know? Folks , can we talk?

Connecticut, September 08