My femininity has always been a salient part of my consciousness. Before I considered myself Igbo by tribe, I was female. And before I thought of myself as Nigerian and also African, I was female. However, this initial consciousness of knowing myself as female did not necessarily materialize because I was proud to be female. I was overly conscious of my femininity because it was impossible to ignore all the disadvantages that inevitably came with this particular part of my identity. It felt like I was already guilty of something unforgivable just by being female. Society, as I knew it, had taken an unspoken vow to make women spend their entire lives constantly engaging in futile attempts to make up for the mistake of being born as women. I watched the women in my life — my mother, my sister, aunties, female teachers, women in my neighborhood, — and all of them struggled in vain to overcome the disadvantages of being women.
My initial identification as female was based on my society’s view of femininity in terms of how it compares and contrasts to masculinity and how it serves and compliments masculinity. The message was clear: there is no female without the male. Women existed only because they were bound inevitably by an invisible cloak of servitude to men. Even when we were not actively serving men, we were subconsciously molding our personalities, words, thoughts, body language and even physical appearance to fit the so-called type of woman that was deemed fit, acceptable and attractive to men. The result of this unfair burden placed on womanhood was that for a long time, I was unable to imagine myself without confining myself within the constraints of rigid requirements and expectations as prescribed by a male-dominated society.
Even my aspirations were initially linked to the general idea of being the kind of woman that society and men encouraged. For example, even though education was a serious priority for me, marriage somehow remained at the top of a list of priorities for me as a woman. I had great ambition and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with myself if I ever had the chance to exist outside of my society’s expectations. But I would always remind myself that at some point I would need to really focus on finding a husband. As naive as I now find this thought, it remains true that in a moment of ignorance, with a very flawed narrow vision of what every woman’s life should be like, marriage did seem like a very necessary part of every woman’s life. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie could not have been more accurate when she said, “Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage.” Sometimes, this expectation was voiced. But more times than not, it was never voiced. Nevertheless, we all knew that as women, marriage was supposed to be the highpoint of our lives.
The danger of a culture that defines womanhood solely in terms of masculinity is that women continue to have no vision of themselves in any capacity other than that of a subordinate bound by a need to fit a role already outlined by society. Women deserve to live for themselves. It took me a while, but I finally understand this. Now, after being exposed to different alternative ways of living and thriving, my claim to femininity has since developed into a much deeper understanding of what it means to exist as a woman independent of the influence of masculinity. This does not mean that I will always want to define myself solely on the basis of my ability to escape the masculine-defined presumptions that follow most, if not all, women throughout our lives. Instead, when I think about my identity as a woman, I can now see myself a woman fully capable of greatness because I recognize and understand that I cannot be limited by society’s dominantly masculine definitions of who I am and what I can do. It is now possible to break free from the constraint of viewing myself through a lens that reflects the people who created it more than it reflects me.