There is nothing that gets patriarchy and its adherents in knots as any discussion around women’s bodies and specifically, the thought of women’s control over their bodies. To understand the struggle over women’s bodies is to look at the possible origin of patriarchy – the knowledge at some point of human history where men realized that through the control of women’s bodies, it was going to be possible to determine to an extent, the paternity of children.
What potentially started off as an economic advantage (and possibly the start of capitalism and individualism) – ability to identify the paternity of children, accumulate children for individual wealth rather than community wealth (in this instance, would not matter the father of the children, only their mothers would matter), gradually turned into control of women and their bodies.
Thousands of years later, women are fighting what can at times seem like a losing battle. The public debates and regulation of women’s bodies are unrelenting. Whether be on the right to access and use safe, accessible, appropriate family planning services or the right to access safe abortion for unwanted pregnancies. That women continue to die in their thousands every day because they are having children too early, too close together and frequently, trying to abort unsafely and illegally, has not generated an outrage.
The only outrage has been against those who have the audacity to advocate that women do not need to die if only they are all able to have family planning services and seek to make access to safe abortion in case of unwanted pregnancies, legal.
Every UN session in the last 20 years have become increasingly contentious, and all fought around women’s access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. End of April a UN resolution on combatting rape in conflict excluded references to sexual and reproductive health. God, religion, culture, immorality, all have been used to justify why women should not be able to decide whether they want to be pregnant or not. Women are the ones who get pregnant, who die during childbirth, seeking illegal and unsafe abortions, do not have choices on when and who they marry but their voices do not matter in these debates.
While access to sexual and reproductive health and rights is the most serious, misogynists (unfortunately there are women in this category) continue to fight women over their bodies. Heated debates are commonplace on what women should wear or not wear – there was a female senator in Nigeria whose only claim to fame, and ‘achievement’ was the introduction of a Bill in the senate to ban young women from wearing ‘spaghetti straps’ in universities! For years in Nigeria, and probably still in place, women wearing trousers were not to be allowed into government buildings. We do not know who enacted the law, when, how, there were millions who are were always on hand to ensure its implementation.
Women across the world are being killed in ‘honor killings’, for the offences of being raped and bringing shame to ‘family honor’. Rapists do not bring shame to their communities but women who are raped are the ones ‘dishonored’. Using a warped logic, women are only their bodies. If their bodies are defiled, then they are of no use to their communities. And the punishment for that is death.
I have heard from certain people that if women do not want to be raped, they will fight it and rather die in the process. The flip side of this argument, that women and girls who do get raped did not fight enough to stop it. As usual insinuating that maybe they wanted it (we know that from the ‘what was she wearing/was she a virgin arguments in court – in fact in some countries, raping a certified virgin attracts more punishment than raping a woman who has had sexual experience).
Girls continue to be married off as early as 9, because God forbid, that they become old enough to have sex outside marriage. And because of the fear of girls doing the unthinkable, going to school, growing up and starting to have consensual sex, she is married off as early as 9 years old. She can miss out on all life’s opportunities, skills, choices if she does not bring ‘shame’ by having consensual sex as an adult with choices and rights.
Nigerian music has taken over the airwaves across Africa and globally, and while justifiably proud that black Africans are being recognized for something positive at least, listening to the lyrics fills with dread. Women’s bodies and behavior remain the subjects of this popular genre of music. They sing about women’s bodies and what they need to do to them with all their supposed money, consistently disrespectful and demeaning, all in the name of ‘empowering women’. After all women’s bodies are being ‘celebrated’, and if women have ‘nice ones’, they have the money to pay for them.
Women have fought back for centuries, to reclaim their bodies and their control over their bodies. The fight to make rapists pay, to make cities safe, to be feminists and challenge patriarchy and misogyny that are becoming more entrenched in our societies. The backlash is however very real. Fundamentalisms of all kinds have reared their heads to ordain denial of rights. Women who make informed choices are no longer witches but are deemed ‘unmarriageable’, the new label of shame and ostracization.
The fundamental struggle of feminism I believe is the understanding that we have to take back our bodies because we can effectively takeover other spaces. We will never be able to excel, to soar, to lead, to change the world if we constantly live in fear. Fear of sexual assault/abuse and rape, threat of rape, denial of access to family planning and safe abortion rights, the control over our sexuality, including our dressing. To expand our opportunities, to have freedom of movement and access, our bodies have to be taken back.
Funmi Balogun is a Nigerian feminist writer.