By Raliat Oluyemisi Sunmonu
I am often called a feminist. Sometimes it is even a compliment. As far as I'm concerned it's just a label and labels don't mean much to me. However, the characteristics typically associated with the given label I do care about. Usually when a man calls a woman a feminist, what he really means is that she's a man-hater and/or that she exhibits the same traits which in a man, would be considered admirable but in a woman are "too strong" or "unfeminine" or at the very least, impractical. I do have some of those characteristics-I'm strong-willed and independent. I can be a very vocal critic of things that bother me. I am passionate about the things and people I care about. I am idealistic; I want to make a difference. I hate injustice of any kind. I believe in the fair and equitable treatment of women. Does this make me a feminist? Maybe so. And I have the men in my life to thank for it because I could not be the woman that I am without them.
The Activist: I was one before I knew what the word meant. Listening to my father's speeches, reading the books and papers he brought home from the various conferences he attended, sitting at the table while he, my mother and the usual assortment of trade unionists and other activists discussed politics and social issues between courses of my mother's exceptional meals heightened my awareness of what was going on in the world around me. Growing up in the so-called Third World forces one to live the reality of what to others is merely an academic debate on social development issues; but it was my father's influence that crystallized for me the dichotomy of the haves and have-nots and a burning desire to bridge the gap between the two. Oh, like other girls my age I read my fair share of romance novels (or "penny dreadfuls" as my mother referred to them) and I had my girlish notions of tall, dark and handsome men sweeping me off my feet but I devoured books by Mazrui and Sembene, books on Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Biko, Lumumba, Guevara, papers on the IMF and World Bank and their policies with as much relish. And when I fantasized about my dream man carrying me off, it was always in the glorious dawn of an African Renaissance.
The Professional: The first job I ever had turned out to be the one that had the most impact on me (till date anyway). I was out of high school, waiting to go to college and I had no clear idea of what I wanted to do. Then I got the opportunity to work with a young company; a newly formed software development company with a staff of 5 men-young but still older than my seventeen years. I'd lied and told everyone I was nineteen. One of the founders, H., was my direct boss (a lofty albeit well-deserved title) who had studied abroad, left his job and to the derision and doomsday prophecies of his friends, gone back home to start a software business at a time when only the biggest multinational corporations even had computers, in a country where over fifty percent of the people lived below the poverty level and at a time when the Internet was dim buzzword to the general populace of the West. It was supposed to be a summer job. I ended up staying a total of two years.
He was so much like my father and yet so different. He believed that the only way to help Africa was for Africans to stop begging for aid and help themselves. Like my father, he was a pan-Africanist-no petty considerations of ethnicity or nationality or gender influenced his decisions, business or personal. Unlike my father who is a strong muslim, he is an atheist. And perhaps it was that last that prevented me from descending fully into the ignominy of hero worship. My training, such as it was, was rather unique. H. threw me to the wolves. I started out testing programs (the most boring job in software development I think), then writing small modules and then after a few of months, writing whole applications. I would ride around with him on rounds to clients. I would watch as he taught a clerk who'd never seen a computer how to operate one and use our software (one rather creative approach he used was to compare a monitor to a TV, the CPU to a VCR and the floppy to a video cassette). I would sit with him as he negotiated a new deal with a client, charmed another one into buying more software or soothed another's ruffled feathers. I did this for the first couple of months and then after that I was on my own. Suddenly they were MY clients, MY trainees and MY software. I got to participate in the entire software development cycle from requirements analysis to installation and training. How exhilarating those times were! Tough too. Here I was, this young girl fresh out of high school in an office with five guys, dealing with clients who were mostly men and trying to earn their respect. And H. made it so much easier for me. I never had to prove anything to him because my work spoke for itself. I had his confidence and respect as a person, not as a woman and he made sure everyone knew it. I remember one time when we were negotiating with a client at a business requirements meeting. This particular client was old, cantankerous, difficult to deal with even under the best of circumstances and of course, male. Whenever I asked a question or raised a point, he would turn to H. and answer him. And H., bless his heart, would deliberately turn to me and say, "what do you think?" This little comedy went on for a while until nearly the end of the meeting when the client finally condescended to address me directly. Another time, some of my co-workers complained to H. about me. He never did tell me the specifics but the gist was that I didn't defer to them enough. H. told me: "I don't even know what to tell you. I don't know how to tell you not to do your job." And there was my first valuable lesson of working with men of any race or color-a woman is usually expected to relate to a man, even professionally, as a woman dealing with a Man and not simply as a person relating to another person with whom she happens to work. H. toughened me up, even though I don't think he realized he was doing this. I was subjected to the same treatment and expectations as my co-workers. He never gave me any quarter because of my sex and I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
The Lover: I have a passion for so many different things-my religion, my family, books, new experiences and so much more. I guess it's only natural to suppose that my romantic relationships would be fiery, all-consuming experiences. That has rarely, if ever, been the case. Usually my head falls first, then my heart. But one thing has been consistent-the men. I have never met a man who has been physically, mentally or verbally abusive to me. I have never been with a man who cheated on me with my best friends (unless they're not telling! J), stole from me, dumped me at the alter or done any number of things one reads about everyday. I am not saying such men do not exist; only that I've been fortunate enough to be romantically involved with men who still remain friends, men who never make me lose my faith in the essential decency of the species and most importantly, men who like me in all my dimensions, with all my faults and accept the challenge to match my various facets. These are the men who make me say, "thank God I'm a woman and heterosexual!"
I cannot imagine my life without these men's influences. It takes a strong man to appreciate and nurture a strong woman. To all the men in my life, to those who shaped it, those who nurtured me, guided me, mentored me, loved me; to all those who helped me be me and even those who are yet to come, I say: thank you.