By Juliet Ezenwa Maja-Pearce.
The obsolete concept that women exist merely as the playthings of men has a long and depressing history, nowhere more than in denying women the various freedoms that men jealously guard for themselves.
We can get a sense of why misogyny exists if we know what it is and have a workable description of it.
Misogyny came into use in 2012. In gender social relations, it is more a multi-layered system of social control than the state of mind of a person. It is behaviour which manifests as acts of social control and dominance where the victims are female and the perpetrators are male. It usually manifests when a woman disagrees with a dominant man, even in casual conversations. Dominance and control are its twin aims. Social control and non-physical coercion are the common tools of choice.
Misogyny functions to guarantee the patriarchal social order. It does not require consent or assent; it does not take into consideration people’s assumptions, beliefs, values or theories. Misogyny is a life-style choice, a way of doing things. Misogyny is the violence that kicks in when patriarchal social relations are disrupted.
In a patriarchy the woman is never her own person. She always belongs to someone else, e.g. ‘the mother of…’, ‘the daughter of…’, ‘the wife of…’ etc, especially when it relates to a male figure. Sexism upholds misogyny in society. In patriarchy, there is an imbalance in the power relations between men and women. Some women may have power in-service but they are not autonomous. The woman conforms to patriarchal roles and expectations where she is seen to be endlessly giving, even to the extent of self-harm.
Women are the most gifted people in the world yet the least, the kindest but the cruellest, the cleverest but the stupidest, the most reliable but the most fickle, the most virtuous but the most immoral. Women drive us mad because they don’t always live up to our expectations.
The role of women in society is now more sophisticated. It seems as if, for all the freedoms this century has offered, society demands full payment in compensation. Single, stay-at-home moms are no longer acceptable. Non-professional women are frowned upon and termed lazy. The average woman is expected to be a perfect mother, an excellent wife, a caring and polite in-law, a successful professional, a good marketer and a PR expert. A slight flaw in any of these roles and the criticism comes pouring in. Society expects the modern woman to be a super-hero and will punish her mercilessly if she falls short. In short, women are set up to fail.
In many respects, mothers do indeed wield a strong influence on her child’s first impressions of the world. But she is a person with a history and with flaws, just like everyone else. The case is made worse if she is under age, a child herself with a child. So powerful are mothers – or their absence – that they are blamed when the child turns out bad. So powerful is this influence deemed that it requires a great deal of regulation and control (especially where it affects power and authority in royalty), so much so that it becomes punitive, including gender-targeted taboos and restrictions.
Misogyny has everything to do with alerting us to codes of practice that legitimize the systemic humiliation of women. Evidence of misogynistic acts is often invisible, ignored or covered up by both the powers that be and the victims. The problem with misogyny is that people don’t think it should be taken seriously. Men assume that women want to satisfy their own needs without thinking about what women want. Uninformed women are the ventriloquist’s dummies of patriarchy, being the mouthpiece or protagonist of the patriarchy which colludes in oppressing their own sisters. This is most evident in harmful cultural mores, notably FGM, gender–shaming, gender discrimination and harmful widowhood practices.
Men both love and hate women. Their love for women makes them vulnerable and dependent, which they hate. This explains the outrages perpetrated against female schoolchildren by Boko Haram, kidnapping and forcing them into marriage on the grounds that their only function in life is to be owned by them for their exclusive pleasure and discarded when they have done with them. Their then leader, Shekau, even labelled them ‘slaves’. But we don’t have to go that far. We see it in otherwise respectable men, including serving governors, who justify marrying fourteen-year-old girls on the grounds that they answer to the Koran and not the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which they had otherwise sworn to uphold. They rubbish the Child Rights Act, which forbids child marriage, and refuse to ratify it at the state level. But under-age marriage, FGM, harmful widowhood practices and forced marriages, along with gender-restrictive traditions, are all misogynistic in origin but legitimized by an unrelenting patriarchal social order. For the longest time, gender-based violence was ignored in Nigeria because the patriarchy, in whose hands the authority to change things rested, saw no need for change.
Sexual assault involves not only overriding the victim’s will but also mentally rewriting the victim’s experience. Each time we cover up the story or silence the victim or do something to protect the perpetrator, we legitimize misogyny. In extreme cases, it manifests as domestic violence, sexual assault and strangulation. Choking is a prelude to strangulation.
The purpose of this exercise is to bring to the fore what we do, what we might do and what we don’t notice we are doing in both private and public that legitimize misogyny. If you somehow feel the need to check the gender of the author of this article it is a sure indication that you are susceptible to, or complacent about, misogyny.
These are the ideas that inspired the body of works on display at this exhibition. I would like to give credit to Kate Manne, author of Down Girl: The logic of misogyny, and Adam Phillips the author of ‘Unforgiven’, published in London Review of Books, for giving me a clearer understanding of the topic.
The works in this exhibition were produced in Swansea in the UK as part of a residency programme sponsored by the Marion Donalda Fund for Visual Artists in partnership with Yemaja Gallery.
As portrayed in the painting ‘Against all Odds’, a woman is shown holding a baby’s hand while clutching the tip of the moon and riding through the sun. It is a visual representation of women’s tenacity for success in the face of life’s challenges, a scenario commonly found amongst Nigerian women.
In the painting, ‘Triumph over Misogyny’, a maiden masquerade in full body attire, inscribed with African ethnic motifs and a mask head gear, is caught in mid-step as she dances. This lone dancer represents the many small victories individual women achieve as they consciously and collectively engage with the challenges of misogyny.
While we applaud the achievements by women’s advocacy groups, many Nigerian women are still calling for help from a higher authority to deliver Nigeria from the hands of those who desire her destruction. The praying women series, which is from the collection ‘Praying for Nigeria’ honours the efforts and faith of Nigeria’s praying women.
The ‘Brides in Waiting’ and the ‘Looking Ahead’ series were prompted by the incessant portrayal of African women and children as the face of poverty in the international media. The plethora of humanitarian organisations using photographs of the suffering African woman and child to solicit for donations has now become ubiquitous. No doubt African women and children represent a good percentage of the Earth’s poorest people but this is far from the whole story. As an African, I decide to do something about it; I decided to portray African women and children at their best and where better than at a wedding. I created this series believing that in the near future African countries will have achieved lasting peace, and with it the growth and development that will result in a many more women and children looking as gorgeous as I have portrayed them – and not just at weddings.
Juliet Ezenwa Maja-Pearce is a Visual Artist, Facilitator and Trainer, as well the owner of Yemaja Gallery.