Browse Tag: iwd

Losing Access to Sisterhood: Tomboys, Masculinity, and the Unmaking of a Girl

When I woke up to International Women’s Day celebrations, the first thing on my mind wasn’t politics, but the personal connections I didn’t know I would forfeit the minute I stopped wearing skirts, traded in my long hair for a frohawk, and fell in love with a woman. 

I used to have a very close-knit circle of female friends; we defended each other from perverts at crowded bars, cried on each other’s shoulders, told each other we were beautiful whenever the world made us doubt that we were, and gave each other relationship advice, regardless of the gender of the person we loved.

We were sisters. It didn’t matter if we were tomboys or not. We were sisters. It didn’t matter that some of us wore skirts, and some of us wore shorts. We were sisters. That was all that mattered. Right?

Wrong. The second my gender presentation transitioned from straight girl femininity to queer masculine “inbetweener,” I lost most of my sisters. I’m a different kind of woman now. And all of a sudden women I used to call my sisters don’t know how to interact with me. I’m still a woman, but the reactions to my expression of womanhood have changed, drastically.

This is the kind of experience that informs my work as a media activist. I’m always thinking about which perspectives are missing from political conversations and representations in pop culture: who is being excluded? why? how can our political movements become more self-reflective so that we can identify who among us is being left behind, and become stronger advocates for the kind of progress that includes them. Incidentally, in the fight for women’s equality, the people most frequently excluded from consideration and celebration, often enough look just like me.

It’s been a few years since I wrote about the experience of being forced to wear a dress to my friend’s wedding (even though she knew I was tomboy). Yet, despite the political successes the women’s movement is celebrating today, not much has changed for me, professionally and personally.

Even within the open-minded, women’s activist spaces in which I find myself for work, I still have to endure not just the endless hours about boyfriend/husband talk (as though women can’t bond around any other topic), but also–after I attempt to contribute–the prolonged, awkward silences that follow once they realize my partner is a woman. 

My straight girlfriends–bless their hearts–enjoy inviting me to their favorite (straight)  nightclubs so they can maintain their perception of my being “normal”, but have no clue how uncomfortable it is to be a tomboy in a venue with a dress code policy that insists, “Ladies wear heels, Fellas button-downs and hard soles.” So, they’ll usually abandon me on the dancefloor to go to the ladies room for a “touch up”, or worse,  disappear into the post-nightclub meat market, leaving me exposed on a street curb as a prime target for drunk dudes to take out insecurities about their masculinity: “Was that your girlfriend? What, you think you’re a dude? You like pussy? I like it,too. I got a dick though.” 

Yup, that happened. I broke up with a friend over such an incident (and more since then).

I can’t tell you how many times my masculinity has been used to absolve other women (and men) of the responsibility of advocating for me; whether in the face of harassers on street corners, the gender-ed aisles of mainstream clothing stores, or even within the women’s movement itself, it’s as though people automatically assume I’m “stronger”, physically, mentally, and emotionally, just because I shop in the men’s department.

“Don’t worry about her. She can take care of herself.” 

But I have never experienced physical aggression from the world to the degree that I do now. From constantly dodging men who take it upon themselves to “put me in my place” to being ignored by women who’ve subconsciously decided that I’ve chosen “the other side,” I’ve never felt less safe and more in need of protecting.

Hence, in light of international women’s day, I can’t help but note how often my masculinity is the unspoken reason I’m excluded  from women’s spaces, and denied access to the very same sisterhood that nurtured my unwavering dedication to every woman’s empowerment. 

Since losing access to “the sisterhood,” I’ve been rebuilding my support network from scratch, one in which the full spectrum of “womanhood” isn’t just acknowledged, but celebrated: African feminists committed to building cross-movement alliances, queer “brown bois” leading national conversations about healthy masculinity, and progressive women of all shades and stripes, interested in seeing gender justice done in the media.

I am fortunate. But today, I’m also aware of just how fortunate I am to have experienced even this yearning for a sisterhood that I did have–at least at some point. Even as a tomboy/woman whose gender presentation is more masculine, though inclusion in women’s spaces plays out in odd and hurtful ways, my identity as a woman has never been questioned. But some of my sisters have never known that privilege. I know transgender women (born male, now living as women), for instance, that have never known the comfort, loyalty, and power of a female friend circle.

But, we are still sisters. It shouldn’t matter that some of us were born male and some born female. We are sisters in blood and numbers, in shared missions and shared struggles. That’s all that matters. That’s all that should matter… Right?

I’ll end with an excerpt from my contribution to Ms. Afropolitan’s Women’s Day post: a roundup of comments from African women responding to the question, “What Does Women’s Day Mean to You?” 

When I remember how my mother celebrated International Women’s Day–as part of a community of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of African women, dressed in bright colors, often laughing and dancing, holding hands–I think about how many African lesbians have been evicted from their sister circles, how many transgender women have never experienced unguarded female friendship. Women’s Day inspires me to keep writing my story so that my African sisters can get to know me, and to keep advocating for queer Africans like me who are still fighting–not just for women’s “rights” but for women’s community, sisterhood, Love.

Women’s Day should be a reminder to all of us to keep advocating for every woman’s right to love and be loved, even long after we’ve found sisterhood for ourselves.

Have you experienced being excluded from women’s spaces due to not fitting in to a heterosexist idea of womanhood? If you’re someone who believes in the importance of women’s spaces and sisterhood, how do you make sure to enact that ideology in your personal life? I believe masculinity is suffering from an estranged relationship with womanhood. What do you think?

Lessons from my Mother: African Women and Feminism

Yesterday, countries around the world celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD), a day during which thousands of events — political rallies, business conferences, government activities, networking events, local women’s craft markets, theatric performances, fashion parades and more — are held to inspire women and celebrate achievements in gender equality.

This year’s theme, “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures,” called for intentionally including young girls in the discussion and creatively brainstorming solutions for bridging the divide between generations. Hence, Gender Across Borders hosted a successful live blogging event, in which over 200 blogs explored a plethora of ideas such working with girls in conflict areasprotesting female genital cuttinginvesting in girls leadership,  and — the piece I wrote — women writing their way back into history. In an attempt to highlight African women’s contributions to IWD, I also created a “Africa on IWD” board on Pinterest. You can view the board here.

Looking at the colorful collection of images, videos, and blog posts of African women celebrating all across the continent invoked mixed feelings; on one hand, I was proud to see African women, both individuals and organizations, respond in droves to the call, but on the other hand, being so far away from home on IWD made me a tad homesick, causing me to reflect on how it is I came to be so involved in women’s issues.

I attended an international primary school, where International Women’s Day was a chance for all of us to celebrate women from different cultures via music, art, dance, and charity. Often, students would read inspiring facts about women from their home countries, followed by traditional dance and music performances, international food expos, and a myrid of opportunities for students and their families to learn and give back. Yet, global women’s activism wasn’t just tied to my school’s programming.

Growing up in Nigeria, the idea that improving the lives of women was a cause worth fighting for didn’t just come from organizations, or brochures, or formal programming; I had strong women around me who constantly put this into practice in the every day, including my own mother.

As a child of the Biafran war and the first daughter of her family, my mother faced the heavy burden of supporting her family through the loss of a number of relatives, including her own mother who died from sickness. To this day, she credits the support of women’s organizations for her survival. And thus, she committed herself to charity from a very early age. I remember my mother telling me about the one night she’d prayed the hardest to God; it was during a bomb raid. She’d close her eyes and clasp her hands together as she’d recount the promise she made to God that if she made it through the night, she’d dedicate the rest of her life helping people, much like the older women — human rights advocates, volunteers, missionaries — who had risked their lives during the war in order to deliver relief to the region in which she lived — food, clothing, sanitary pads. She’d trek over 10 miles back and forth every day just to deliver food and drinking water to her family, but she never really emphasized the distance; what remains with her is the memory of dedicated women that were waiting to receive her on the other side.

My mother’s life was spared and she kept her promise. Inspired by the circumstances she’d witnessed her own family go through after the loss of her own mother, she founded and led the first program in the country to advocate for the rights of women who had lost the heads of their households and had young children to care for (The Widows Trust Fund).  Later on, she became president of the International Women’s Society, an organization that works for the advancement of women and children in Nigeria. As a social entrepreneur, she founded Garden of Zinnia, an organization that creates holiday gift baskets — a popular tradition in Nigeria — by partnering with local vendors i.e. market women, local artists and craftspeople. Every year, hundreds of people — from the elderly basket-weavers to the young girls who sell the wrapping ribbons — rely on my mother’s unwavering commitment to supporting women who are working to support their families.

As a young girl, I remember accompanying my mother to meetings, fundraisers, award ceremonies and the like filled to the brim with inspiring African women. I witnessed my mother giving awards as well as receiving them. I didn’t understand the word “feminism” when I first heard it, but I watched my mother’s active mentorship of the young women she invited into our home and took under her wing. I didn’t understand the term “economic empowerment” when I first heard it, but I saw my mother apply this principle in her work as a business owner each year she refused to replace local products in her gift baskets with expensive imports from overseas. My family never sat around discussing women’s liberation at the dinner table; my mother never thought to write about her experience as an African woman navigating gender, war, and poverty; she simply lived the principles she believed in. It is because I watched my mother, that I strongly believe in applied advocacy for women’s issues in all its forms — gender equality, LGBT human rights, and women’s visibility in media — not just as a celebration on a single day, but as a way of life; not just as ideas to be talked about, but work to be done.

I appreciate the 2012 International Women’s Day theme — Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures — for the reminder that women’s contributions to the world don’t always have to come in press releases, or conferences, or non-profit programs to make a difference; that sometimes, the greatest impact is felt within the scope of the every day; that my mother is a woman worth celebrating; and that, I — the first daughter of my family, a proud afrofeminist, women’s and media activist, tirelessly fighting for gender equality — am the future she inspired.

Question to Readers: Did your relationship with your mother — or other parental figure — shape your activism? influence your politics? If so, how?

For Women’s History Month: Writing Our Way Back into History

Happy Women’s History Month!

There is a lot to say about women’s history. Yet, what is always at the forefront of my mind is that women’s history starts with me sharing my own story, contributing to the movement of millions of other women doing the same.

All morning I’ve been reading tweets about great women who inspired change — politically, socially, within the fields of science, music, the arts etc. It’s inspiring to see so much media that sheds light about amazing womens’ contributions to the history of the world, but let’s face it — not all of us are going to get interviewed on BBC, speak at a UN convention, amass the most followers on Twitter, or write a book that makes Oprah’s highly coveted reading list.

Does this reality make any of us less important? I don’t think so — but how many women from the everyday do? How many inspiring women — mothers, wives, teachers, students, scientists, artists etc — equate being a part of history with being a famous celebrity, or tech innovator, winning an election, or leading a political revolution? My guess is many. But, history doesn’t always have to be so dramatic to count — it just needs to be documented.

History, contrary to the popular misconception that the word is derived from “his” and “story” put together, actually has its roots in an ancient Greek word ἱστορία (hístōr), which can mean “inquiry,” “knowledge so obtained,” or — my favorite — “a written account of one’s inquiries, narrative, history.” Note that no part of the definition of history inherently suggests a limitation of “written accounts” to men, or white people, or any other marginalized group for that matter. So why have women’s stories been (and continue to be) left out of history?

Perhaps rehashing the etymological roots of a single word won’t change the  fact that history has long been recounted from the viewpoint of dominant society; Hollywood, arguably the world’s most influential movie industry is still run by white people, or men, or Americans (depending on which way you look at it); the op-ed pages of major news outlets — through which policy and thought leadership are driven — are also dominated by men who don’t understand women’s issues; and while stories of minority groups do make their way into history archives, the fact that they are often told from the point of view of the oppressor often leads to unrealistic, dehumanizing, biased portrayals of the people whose history is being documented for them. But, embracing the revelation that history is simply “a narrative accounted for” actually makes things less complicated:

In order to address the dearth of women’s histories — our stories, and voices being undocumented, under-valued, and falsely represented without reprimand — women must begin telling their own stories; we must essentially write our way back into history.

Incidentally, one doesn’t always have to “do” something huge to be someone important  — sometimes sharing the complex, intersecting pieces about ourselves (and inspiring others to do the same) can do just as much, if not more, to change the world.

For instance, I recently asked my straight, conservative, Christian brother — who does not consider himself a writer, by the way — to contribute a guest blog about his personal experience spending his first Christmas with me and my partner. At first he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to hear from him; he even stated in the piece that he’s just “a regular guy from Nigeria.” Well, three months later, I still get emails from so many young people telling me that they used his piece to come out as gay to their families. Three months later, I still have African students walk up to me after I’ve given a talk to let me know that my brother’s piece changed their lives, that his “writing” gave them hope. I’m about to hire one of them as an intern this summer, an opportunity she describes as opening her world up to more African community than she’s ever been exposed to before.

And in case you’re tempted to point out that my brother’s a guy, it was no different when my younger sister contributed a similar piece, Confessions of a Straight Girl, two years ago; a high school teacher reached out to me then for permission to use her piece to lead a gender and sexuality studies class.

Now, some of you may be thinking, “Well, even if I want to write, my life is not that interesting. I’m just a [insert perceived mundane role here that has everyone wondering why you’re being so self-deprecating] with nothing to say…” That is simply not true. Bertrand Russell (a man) once said, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” When I think about how many boring history textbooks written by men are out there, it motivates me to keep writing, no matter how insignificant the voices in my head insist my perspective (on anything) is. And if positive-thinking doesn’t work for you, here are some other factors to consider:

  • Women are less likely to run for office in  part because they don’t feel “qualified enough”
  • “Mommy Blogging” has gotten the attention of a $750 million blog marketing industry; companies want to know what moms — not “experts” — think before they spend a dime developing new products
  • The It Gets Better campaign — videos created by regular people — has dramatically increased awareness of issues facing LGBT youth
  • There are too many men who really shouldn’t be talking (Rush Limbaugh and David Bahati come to mind) writing and saying all kinds of things, and even worse influencing millions of people with their biased point of view — shouldn’t we at least join them?

See, the problem with women not telling their stories isn’t just an issue of “balance” (i.e. we need men and women’s voices in equal measure), but an issue of “influence.” Thus, the reason I write as often as I do is not because I think I have more to say, but rather, there’s too much at stake in the world if I don’t say enough. So, in moments when I doubt my power to impact others, I’ve learned to tap into the deep dread I feel at the thought of someone else speaking for me, especially after I’m gone; someone giving my children their version of who I was instead of doing the work to make sure my children get to read my words. My writing ensures accountability to my voice, my perspective, my journey, my history, which is worth telling, and worth telling right.

So, for women’s history month, I challenge you to take charge of your own history, by writing it. Instead of passively sharing women’s history as recounted by others, how about you begin the process of formally documenting — journaling, blogging, creating art and media etc — about your own life? It’s simple enough these days: you could create your own blog using a free Blogger or WordPress account, sign up for Twitter and share snippets of your history using #myherstory.

Blogging and tweeting may seem trivial given the bigger picture of revolutionizing history, but tell that to the voters (29 and under) who  leveraged the power of social media to elect the first US Black president, or the people of the Arab Spring who tweeted, YouTubed and shared their revolution with the world, and in turn sparked many more revolutions — the occupy movements — worldwide. Yours truly will be participating in Gender Across Border’s Blog for International Women’s Day, thus joining thousands of women all over the world to celebrate this year’s theme, “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures.” Why not be one of them? Your words matter. Our words matter. Women’s words matter.

Whether you’re a teacher who educates young girls in a classroom, a mother of four who loves to write erotica, a hiphop artist who has a thing to say about gender discrimination in the music industry, a bus driver who bakes cupcakes, a sibling with an outspoken, queer, activist of a sister, please speak. Please say something. You have to — the world is counting on you.

International Women’s Day Screening of Africa’s “Waiting for Superman” — “To Educate a Girl”

Originally written for

In a world in which over 72 million children are not in school — and most of them are female — what does it take to educate a girl?

Framed by the United Nations global initiative to provide equal access to education for girls by 2015, the documentary film, To Educate a Girl, takes a ground-up and visually stunning view of that effort through the eyes of girls in Nepal and Uganda, two countries emerging from conflict and struggling with poverty.

In Nepal, Manisha, a teenager who works in the fields while her three younger sisters go to school, is contrasted by three young listeners of a hugely popular youth-oriented radio program. We learn how the program has helped them deal with issues of early marriage and poverty in order to stay in school.

In Uganda, we meet Mercy, the six-year-old daughter of an impoverished single mother who is about to embark on her first day of school, and Sarah, a teenage war orphan who is haunted by a tragic past but still managing to study.

Through the experiences of girls out of school, starting school or fighting against the odds to stay in school, To Educate a Girl offers a compelling look at the lives of young women who are striving to achieve their dreams in the face of conflict, poverty and gender bias.

The film, directed and produced with support from the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), is already been compared to Waiting for Superman, another documentary film that focuses a critical lens on the broken public education system in the US and explores the “achievement gap” within schools mainly along racial lines.To Educate A Girl, however, places the conversation about education within a global context–the millions of children around the world not even in school, and the experiences of girls in particular as they navigate culture, poverty, and gender bias in order to access even the most basic education.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, UNICEF will host the film’s New York premier. The screening will take place on March 8th (time), at Teachers College, Columbia University, and will feature a Q&A with award-winning filmmakers Frederick Rendina and Oren Rudavsky, and representatives from UNICEF.

Note: The film can also be viewed in full at

Check out the trailer:

To Educate a Girl (Trailer) from Talking Drum Pictures on Vimeo.

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