We Need to Tell Our Stories: A Review of She Called Me Woman
By Ona Akinde
- Title: She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak
- Editors: Azeenarh Mohammed, Chitra Nagarajan and Rafeeat Aliyu
- Publisher: Cassava Republic Press
- Number of pages: 357
- Year of publication: 2018
- Category: Essays
There are many ways to describe silence: deafening, accepting, reassuring, uncomfortable, but one of its most outstanding, if negative, descriptions is that of a thief. Not just in the literal sense, but in the ways the culture of silence forces us to keep our stories and realities secret, in the ways it steals our existence from us.
She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak recounts what it means to be a queer woman in Nigeria and seeks to dismantle the deep-seated culture of silence that has convinced queer women that their stories do not deserve to be told. By documenting firsthand the realities of these women’s lives from childhood to the present, the anthology sheds light on an issue that has been forced into the dark, as the editors note in the book’s introduction.
The stories, twenty-five in all, come from women of different ages, ethnicities and religions. All the women are anonymous, a decision taken by the editors for the purpose of standardisation. Some women wanted to be named because they are tired of hiding who they are, while others were afraid of their identities being revealed. In protecting the interests of these women, all the reader has are their initials and their ages, with all other identifying markers removed from the book.
The stories explore a number of themes including domestic violence, sexual harassment, drug abuse, forced marriage and racism. Some of the women are bold and affirming in telling their stories; others less so. Regardless, this anthology affirms that their feelings are valid; their voices deserve to be heard. They are queer, but they are also human. To limit them to their sexualities alone is to demean them.
The essays highlight the stereotypical notions around homosexuality generally. In ‘If You Want Lesbian, Go to Room 24’, RD says:
Also, have you ever heard how straight people talk about gay people? Can you imagine how terrible that conversation would be? Why do these people exist, Sodom and Gomorrah, the world is coming to an end. They make it look like we’re the reason the world is coming to an end. The reason God is going to send floods to flush the world. He is even going to send fire and [brimstone.] And then some people are like ‘Maybe it is a curse. Maybe it is from the village. Maybe it is a mental [disorder.]’ There is always something terrible attached to it.
For others, there is a general consensus that something terrible is attached to being the way they are. Society considers them abnormal and is quick to invoke religious authority against them. BW dismisses this in ‘Your Sexuality Doesn’t Define Who You Are’:
If a straight homophobic person was reading this, I would like to tell them to look past the homosexuality to the person. Our sexuality doesn’t define who we are. We have terrible people who are straight, and we have terrible people who are homosexuals. Same thing with being good. Sexuality has a minute part to play in being a good person.
Another important issue these essays shed light on is how queer women balance their sexuality with religion. The two major religions in Nigeria, Christianity and Islam openly call homosexuality a sin, and some denominations go as far as labelling it the worst of sin of all. Sometimes, these religions are openly homophobic and for many of the narrators, who were raised according to the tenets of these religions, a conflict arises as they begin to affirm their identities as queer women. The responses of the narrators to this conflict differs. OF says in ‘Love Is Not Wrong’:
I believe in God but not religion. I think it divides people and I do not like that about religion. I also do not believe God is going to smite me for loving. Loving another person and that person loving me back – I do not see how that is a bad thing. If you kill somebody, steal from somebody or do something without a person’s consent, then that is wrong. But love is not wrong.
VA toes a similar line in ‘Living a Double Life’:
I’m more comfortable with not going to church. The kind of church I used to believe in doesn’t work with what I believe in now. I believe in God but I won’t practice religion.
In ‘I Pray That Everyone Has Forgotten’, TQ says:
I’m a devout Christian. Anything I do, I put God first. I don’t play with prayer. But it’s difficult. In most churches now, preaching against homosexuality is the only thing they know how to talk about. I sit here thinking, ‘They’re wasting their time.’ At times, it pisses me off when I hear people talking about it, criticising people who are doing it. It makes me feel very bad because I’m one of them. I feel as if I’m the worst sinner. I think, ‘How will this thing that I have started end?’ But what I’m doing is not wrong. Or it’s wrong but we can’t help it.
In January 2014, the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act took effect in Nigeria, criminalising same-sex relationships. This made LGBTQ+ people extremely vulnerable. Some of these essays highlight how this law has shaped their lives and the extra measures they take to protect themselves. When a lesbian is raped for being a lesbian, for instance, she is unable to go to the police because she is scared of being arrested, being both victim and offender. ‘I guess the effect of the law is that people need to hide more, but I was already hiding’, OF says in ‘Love is Not Wrong’. It is not enough that they are forced into hiding. They now face imprisonment.
The essays in this book leave the reader with a host of emotions. From heart-wrenching stories about the dangers queer women face in Nigeria, to stories of abuse and neglect as well as resilience and bravery, they aptly document what it means to be queer in a misogynistic, patriarchal society. They painfully show us what it is like to be constantly judged on the basis of one’s sexual orientation, as well as the consequences of nonconformity.
In ‘Why Do I Have to Ask You to Consider Me Human?’, DK says, ‘I have a voice. Nobody can silence me’. In amplifying these women’s voices, She Called Me Woman reminds us of why we need to tell our stories.
Photograph: ‘silence’ by paolobarzman
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Ona Akinde is a Lagos-based writer and editor with a love for words and the powers they possess. She is a Wawa Book Review Young Literary Critics Fellow.
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