Tag Archives: human rights

Here We Go Again

lilywhite

The past few month has seen a lot of talk about racism in the media. Particularly in relation to the Oscars. With it, a lot of eye rolling and people saying they are fed up of black people going on about discrimination and playing the race card. What about the Muslims, the gays, the transgender, the browns, the women, the poor? It is a constant source of irritation and sadness for me when these discussions kick off and people start shouting at each other. My first issue is no one wants to listen. This is why racism and the many other forms of discrimination continue to thrive in our societies. Societies that are ashamed to admit a lack of progress and would rather hide what they consider dirty laundry out of view. As if out of sight is really out of mind. Well, it is humanity’s shame and face it we must. Because if we don’t face it then we won’t ever fix it.

On the Oscar issue: yes, it is inherently racist. Why? Because up until recently, majority (94% according to many internet sources) of those who are eligible to nominate and vote for the winners are white and ¾ of those are men. Human nature, and this is evidence-based, is such that if a selection of talented actors/actresses/directors is presented to a person, the voter will look for common traits to identify with the nominees. The easiest trait to identify: skin colour, gender and other physical attributes. So stands to reason that if 94% are white, they are more likely to nominate and vote for white people. There was a blog by a young black woman who works in the entertainment industry published on mumsnet. The reaction was one that had my gnashing my teeth. Many (white, brown and black) suggested that it was not the correct forum for such a discussion. I was dismayed. If mothers are not the people who need to be educated about the ills of discrimination and who need to be encouraged to socialise their children into seeing beyond colour, then who exactly is going to be the catalyst for change?

mother and child

I cannot for the life of me see which other group yields more influence when it comes to such a fundamental change. As a soon to be mother, I see it as absolutely my job to teach my child to see the inner qualities of every person they interact with and judge them based on their actions and words and not the things over which they have no control over.

queue jump

In Nigeria, there is blatant racism still. The fairer your skin is, the more socially desirable you are in many circles. The more foreign your English accent, the more educated you are perceived to be. Being resident in Europe or America or Asia elevates your self-worth. Doesn’t matter if you do the most menial of jobs abroad or have very little education over there. I was born in Nigeria, left as a teenager and I have now officially spent more of my life outside of Nigeria then in it. I see the discrimination clearly. Sure I am a highly educated and successful professional but most of the strangers I interact with don’t know this. To many it is all superficial. I get asked my opinion on things that are well outside my area of expertise and even when I am confessing to having little knowledge, my opinion carries weight. I get better customer service because of the way I speak. I get less abuse from those who like to abuse their positions of power – the police, road safety, customs and immigration officers. When I go into shops run by foreigners, I watch how they treat ordinary Nigerians with barely disguised rudeness or contempt and how those Nigerians do not complain about it. I speak up sometimes to the surprise of those Nigerians and I get told I am ‘feisty or fiery or outspoken’ with amusement or admiration depending on the age of the Nigerian I am defending. I have been in situations where a non-black person has walked into the place, seen the queue of Nigerians waiting to be served and decided that their time was more valuable that the locals and cut to the front. I wait to see if the officials say anything, rarely will they ask for the person to do the right thing. If nothing is said, I am never afraid to tell the person that there is a queue and we were all in it.

The other manifestation is through skin bleaching. It is so prevalent in Nigeria and indeed many other societies. People, mostly women, spend a lot of money on creams and lotions containing dangerous toxins which ‘whiten’ their skin. Some of the more expensive products do a good job and give them fairer skin that looks natural and healthy. Most do not. It is so ugly to see the patchwork that results from some of these products. You see women prancing around with their face and neck a Caucasian skin tone, their arms brown and their joints black as nature intended. It is so unnatural that it sometimes looks like a comedic caricature. Sadly, for those who do it, they look in the mirror and think they look more beautiful. Heart breaking to me because some of the most superficially beautiful people on the planet are all shades of brown and black. There is nothing more beautiful to me than flawless golden or deeper brown skin. I see photos every day and wonder how those who bleach are unable to see the beauty in brown skin. Of course this is all about superficial beauty. Maybe that is where we fail. We are too preoccupied by the outer image and fail to see the beauty within. I truly believe that for a person to be truly beautiful, their soul, their heart and their mind must have a positive nature. That is why I find beauty in the eyes – a person whose eyes glow with love, happiness, kindness and warmth is a person I naturally gravitate towards.  That is why there is nothing more beautiful to me than a baby (human or other mammals). That luminosity that is unspoilt by life and its many hardships, that bright light.

name spelling

Here in England, racism is everywhere. I have a surname that has 3 syllables. Pronounced exactly as it is written yet many won’t even attempt to pronounce my surname. If I can get my head around Siobhan actually being pronounced as shee-von and Yvonne pronounced as Ee-von, then I do not see how it can be hard to say a name as easy as Ab-dal-lah or Jo-da or Di-ya. Working as a doctor on the wards, I have had patients say to me with surprise ‘you speak good English’ and I turn around and say to them ‘why wouldn’t I? English is one of 3 languages I was brought up speaking’. I overhear staff talking to non-native English speakers (those with foreign accents or limited English) very loudly, as if the issue is with hearing loss. I hear comments about those non-indigenous Brits being ungrateful for asking for what is routinely offered to their white British fellow patients. I see the relief in black and Asian patients when I say that I will be their doctor and I will look after them. I empathise with them even as I feel sad that I make them feel better not because of my medical skills but because of the colour of my skin and how they perceive that I can relate to them better or will treat them with more dignity.

I will never forget the first time I was racially discriminated against. I was in my 3rd year of medical school on my first hospital placement in an inner city English hospital working with a medical team. On the first on-call I did with them (on-call means being responsible for the new patients coming in off the streets as emergencies), I was seeing patients who were then reviewed by the qualified doctors. Of course, there is a triage system so medical students never saw patients who needed urgent care for things like an on-going  stroke, heart attack or acute asthma that needed immediate treatment before information gathering. Anyway, I was allocated an elderly Asian gentleman to see. I walked into the cubicle and introduced myself, clearly explaining that I would see the patient then get one of the doctors on my team to review. The patient did not protest but his 2 sons were affronted. They, in their high-powered suits, did not think it was appropriate for their father to be seen by me. They wanted someone else. I got my registrar and told him what they had said. He, being Asian like them, was angrier than I was. He marched me back to the patient and his family, informed them that I was part of the team and as this was the NHS, they would be seen by the first available medic. Their choice was me or going private. How awkward for me and the patient! They apologised and I got through the consultation. This happened 10 years ago and happens to this day. I applaud my registrar for his stance and anecdotally, it is happening less and less because people like that registrar were calling people out for their attitudes.

random search

I spoke in another post about the attitude the police have when they stop you as a black person. The approach is usually quite different – the black person is more likely to be treated as guilty of some wrong-doing until proven otherwise even where you are the victim reporting a crime whereas the white person is more likely to be treated as innocent until proven otherwise. Same as when you go into a shop, a security man (or woman) is more likely to follow around a non-white person than a white person. Same as ‘random’ extra security stop searches in the airports. Once, I got stopped for a random search twice in 10 minutes in Birmingham International Airport less than 100m apart. I was irritated and the lady was apologetic and wouldn’t meet my eyes. I pointed out to her that her colleague had just stopped me randomly too and in fact he was only a stone’s throw away. What was it she thought would have changed in the distance to her? It is a random search ma’am. Randomly because I am black you mean. She flushed and muttered an apology as I gathered my bags and carried on. Random. Racial profiling is reality.

So whilst I know that majority of white people are not actively racist, just as I know that majority of Muslims are not extremists, it is clear that as a black woman, I have more obstacles to contend with. Life is just that little bit harder because I was born with the colour of my skin. I ask for no special treatment. I just want to be treated the same as my non-black friends are. I want to be treated with respect and given my dues. I want people to judge me for what I have said and done (which I have control over) and not the genetics I have inherited. I want my talents to be recognised for what they are and not the physical package they come with. I want the same rights afforded to me by virtue of being a human being. I want justice. I want acceptance. I want to freedom to be me.

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Freedom

Freedom comes in many forms. As does oppression. Before I launch into my tirade against hard-headed hard-line judgmental people and narrow-minded stereotypes, I have a confession for you. I am a feminist. And I am proud to be one. My mother is a feminist, the first in my family and I am proud to say I will carry on that tradition and pass it on as far as wide as I am capable. Feminism for me is all about freedom. People who know nothing or small bits about feminism immediately think a feminist is a woman who hates men, wants them all to suffer and is probably lesbian or at best bisexual. I am writing this to set those people straight of their misconceptions.

First of all, I know of feminist men. Misconception number 1 banished. 2nd misconception is that feminists hate men. The ones I know don’t. We all have things we don’t like about people, be they men or women or even children. We even have the odd people we hate like the wife-beaters and child rapists. Yes most of those are men but there are evil women too and we feminists hate them with as much passion as we hate the men. 3rd misconception is that we want men to suffer. That one is easy – if you read anything about feminism proper, you’ll know that what feminists actually want is for women NOT to suffer because of the things men do to them. Last misconception is that feminists are lesbians. Well, I am married and I love my husband. And I can tell you that when I go to bed with my husband, I am not looking to fondle breasts or play with his hair. My mama, despite the 1st disastrous outing with my biological father, remarried and I know it wasn’t all chat. So there. Feminists are not all women, we do not hate all men, we do not wish to harm all men and we are not all lesbian.

I was born into feminism. Like I said, my mother is a feminist so from infancy, I was exposed to a lot of grown up things. Things that she tried to shield me from but as I said in another blog, I loved to sit with my mum and would often refuse to leave or would hang around even when they wanted privacy so I heard a lot. And part of my contradictions as a child was that I listened and never forgot anything I heard. I would always come back to my mama at a later date having thought about what I heard and ask her to explain the whys and the whats. To her credit, incredible woman that she is, she would patiently explain and give me leaflets and books to read to help me understand.

One of the first things I learnt from my mama is that in a Yola marriage, a woman has to put up with a lot of crap. A lot of that is linked to the fact that in Yola when I was growing up, most women were housewives (two-thirds I would guess). Which meant that women were dependent on their husbands for all their material needs. This gave many men the license to use and abuse their wives. Women in Yola are strong, by Yola women I mean the Fulani women. They are so strong that they think crying/complaining of pain whilst in labour is a sign of weakness (rightly or wrongly). I know this for a fact because I worked in FMC Yola for nearly 5 months a few years ago and as a paediatrician, I was in the children’s wards which were right next to the maternity wards and I swear I probably only heard labour ‘sounds’ 5 times in the whole time I was there. And those women were probably not Fulani and had complicated births. I digress but you get the point. That is why I know how badly they must have been treated. Because they came crying. Weeping like they had lost a child or a parent. My mama was like the agony aunt with legal and financial aid at her NGO.

I also learnt that although the Yola community, like many others, hides behind religion and tradition, the religious and traditional leaders know what the truth is and if forced to will admit it. For example, a lot of muslim Yola women are/were under the impression that divorce was the domain of the husband and the wife was basically under lock and key unless he decided she could leave. Actually Islamically the wife has as much of a right to divorce her husband as he does her but tradition meant that the husbands were better educated which then meant 2 things: 1. The husband could write a divorce script and the wife being illiterate could not and 2. The ‘law enforcers’ in customary and Islamic courts were men so unless faced by someone in the know, feminists generally like my mama, they would rule in favour of the men. My mother asked her lawyer friends for guidance and her belief that the wife had a right to divorce as long as she had valid grounds was correct. Then we found out through her NGO’s work that a few Yola women despite being uneducated had realised this a while back and they had successfully filed for divorce. Guess the commonest reason they cited for wanting a divorce: my husband is impotent. And you know why that is? Because the husband was too ashamed to face any questions on his virility that he granted the divorce asap. Good on those women who discovered and shared the secret!

One of my mama’s NGO’s main focus is empowering the girl child and preventing child marriage. Unfortunately, there is still a huge discrepancy in the achievements (economical and educational) of boys and girls in most of the world. But feminists have made huge inroads into improving the situation. I have seen dozens of girls brought to my mama and not one appeal for help was turned down. My mama and her team fought tooth and nail to emancipate every child forced into a marriage. They then tried to provide them with long-term prospects either by sponsoring them to go to school or learn a trade. Many of them have been employed by my mama at one point or the other. Many of them are now fully grown women with careers or atleast a means of making some money so they can retain some independence and support their children should their husbands fail to provide. Many of them become one of my mother’s many children and one of my many sisters and the occasional brothers (through their sisters).

One thing about being feminist is about knowing and appreciating the fact that women and men are physically and mentally different. We do not want to be like men. Most of us do not want to take over the traditional male roles that have evolved into male roles because of the physicality. That is not to say that a woman cannot do the same job but it might take longer or she might need another pair of hands and sometimes it is easier for a man to do. Just as we know that there are men who are very paternal and are very capable of nurturing and looking after a baby’s needs BUT physically it is impossible for them to be as good as the mum because they have not got a uterus to carry the developing foetus for 9 months and they have not breasts to breastfeed with. Just as we know that a woman matures mentally in her 20s to her 30s whereas many men do not get to that level of maturity until they are in their late 30s and 40s. And we know being a mother brings out the tiger in every woman so that when their babies are in danger, they are capable of superhuman feats to save them. Men in general do not have those same instincts however it is well known how protective men can be of their daughters especially. So although feminists want women to have equal (human) rights with men, we recognise and even appreciate the differences in how we are built.

The biggest thing about being a feminist is the issue of how to dress. As a feminist I believe that every woman should be able to dress as she pleases. To please herself that is. Because people accuse feminists of hypocrisy if they are dressed to impress or sexily. The point is feminists believe that the woman’s body is hers to do with as she pleases. If she wants to cover herself head-to-toe in a black Arab gown and gloves and socks, then we are happy with it as long as it is her choice. If the same woman decides that today, she would rather be in a miniskirt and vest top, then that is okay too because it is what she wants. Not what her father or brother or husband or even mother wants. It’s all about the right to choose for yourself as an adult woman. But our people are obsessed with the issue of how a woman dresses so the disagreement continues. Tragically, many uneducated people still subscribe to the fallacy that the way a woman dresses is partly to blame for them becoming a victim of rape. To that I say, why is it that a man can walk around in shorts or topless in the heat and in general no woman tries to rape the man but when the roles are reversed the rapist points a finger at his victim for enticing him? Nothing justifies that barbaric act and its almost laughable that anyone would buy that as an excuse in this day and age. Thank goodness for the Nigerian Constitution stipulating a custodial sentence for all rape and for the NGOs providing the legal aid to ensure more men are convicted of this heinous crime.

Above all to me feminism represents love and freedom. Love because we stand up for those girls and women who haven’t a voice to say no when things are being done to them that they absolutely do not want or consent to. Freedom because that is what we promote no matter what the problem a girl or woman is faced with. Freedom to be born (and not killed solely for being female), freedom to go to school (and not be kept at home to learn to be a domestic goddess whilst your brother goes to school), freedom to have a childhood (and not be raped or married off too young), freedom to learn a craft or study for a degree, freedom to marry or not, freedom to choose who you share your bed and home with, freedom to decide how many children you bear in your own womb and breastfeed and nurture for the rest of their lives, freedom not to be violated or abused, freedom to leave a bad relationship. One day the whole world will realise that feminists are not against men but they are for men and women. That what we want is the world is to be happier and for all groups to be free to live a happy life. What we want is for the world to show some love to each other regardless of faith, tradition, ethnic group, education, class, age and most importantly gender. Peace!