As one writes this, it seems likely that in a few weeks, the most powerful person in the world and the President of the United States of America may be a woman. Months ago, a brave young girl defied men of Jihad and suicide vests, the kind children and even adults have nightmares about; her reward initially being a bullet in the face and temporarily being removed from what she was fighting for – education. Later she would become the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Closer to home, a woman has once again been appointed to the highest political (administrative) office in the land – Ministry of Finance. Are women finally getting a seat at the table?
The most optimistic woman in the world would be loath to say yes. These events are, of course, laudable progress but for every woman – a first that rises to an office, where she is the minority or wins recognition which had been previously inaccessible to her – there are scores in rural India who are sentenced to rape, a recognized institution of punishment there. There are the women in Saudi Arabia who do not have a right to move freely – that is without a man – and when they do break this ‘law’, they are deemed undeserving of justice. In one case, a teenager was gang-raped while she moved around without a chaperone. She was punished by the court. In Nigeria, girls close to their teenage years and far from any form of acceptable mental, emotional, anatomical sophistication or readiness are married off to much older men. A recent suitor was the former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, once listed in TIME Magazine’s Most Influential People in the World and a university-trained career economist.
Still, are women in the world and women in Nigeria optimistic that there will be change? If they have something to do about it, yes – and they have done recently with a number of significant events. Most notable, perhaps, is an inspiring TED talk ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, made more famous – and apparently more urgent – when it was sampled by global pop star Beyoncé. There was also the little matter of the hashtag #BeingFemaleInNigeria that caught the attention of global media – where women concertedly voiced out the frustrating, sexist, unjust realities they navigate on a daily basis on account of their gender. It is no doubt this reality, discrimination, this movement, conviction that inspired and acted as amplifier to the politically charged and socially conscious stage play, ‘Hear Word’.
The play which is by women, of women, directed by a woman, and importantly not only for women but for all, takes a mirror to our society and explores how we treat our women. The play laughs; we laugh at ourselves, about how the lot of women is played out. It then admonishes in between, gently; we realize that it’s really not that funny. And then we think. ‘Hear Word’ is billed to show over the course of four days in December 2015 but gave viewers a taste of what was to come at the Ake Book & Arts Festival which held at the June 12 Cultural Centre, Abeokuta, some weeks before.
‘Hear Word’ is an unapologetic, satirical cavalcade of true-life stories that is thorough in its retelling. Directed by Ifeoma Fafunwa, the stories take on colourful, vibrant life through the play’s cast – an all-star collection of women, actresses at the height of their thespian powers – Joke Silva, Ufuoma McDermott, Elvina Ibru, Taiwo Ajayi-Lycett, Bimbo Akintola, Zara Ufodia-Ejoh, Odenike, Rita Edward, Deborah Ohiri and Omonor.
Its first few scenes open with women being builders of their own barriers, bullets of their own attack. Mothers present interactions with the opposite sex to their daughters as something to be feared.
“If he just touches you, you will get pregnant!”
Daughters are unable to build lasting relationships, handicapped by the memories of their mothers’ loud admonitions in their heads. Daughters become women who are of ‘marriageable age’. They soon begin to overstay their welcome in this societal bracket. Mothers wring hands and worry and ask their daughters why the suitors are not forthcoming. They are, of course, absent of any blame in the matter. They are, in fact, unaware of it. In other scenes, women gather to denigrate other women who behave in any way that is not the norm. These normless women occupy high-ranking positions in the corporate industry. They carry on friendships – openly – with the opposite sex without the expectation of rings to be exchanged. They have opinions on matters. They even throw their heads back while they laugh.
They are ashewo!
The play smartly reserves its funniest lines and scenarios for this woman-on-woman abuse, with more weighty topics ahead. The actresses make full use of their body, across the stage, engage the crowd. In one scene, the ten-woman cast all appear at once and seemingly all talk at once yet you miss not a line, not a sound, not a snap of the finger. The jokes, the lines, the voices follow themselves and overlap in seamless concert.
And then the laughter exits left.
Scenes of rape, abuses of trust, abuse of the body and – the likely culprit – tradition as a weapon of abuse, follow in quick succession. A mother-in-law in a stunning monologue teaches a prospective daughter-in-law her place – behind her husband, always with her children, and in the kitchen.
“Serve, submit, silence, else another woman will take your place… Serve, submit, silence lest another woman claims your destiny.”
She is never to eat before them. If her husband is violent, she is to accept his ‘discipline’ in silence. She is only to be present when husband or children need something. She is not to have free time – something is always to be cleaned – or engage in leisurely activities. How dare she watch TV? The mother-in-law finishes her monologue with a chilling:
‘She go serve her husband, serve her children before she remember herself. She go know why kitchen dey for back.’
In other scenes: a student is raped by a boyfriend and study mate who had agreed to wait till they get married; a young daughter is molested, her body run over by the penis of an opportunistic ‘uncle’ who came to see his girlfriend – her sister, who was not at home at the time. He had asked the little girl to make him lunch. She declined. He feels slighted and asks if it’s her growing breasts and pubic hair that gave her the gall to decline. He touches her in these places and soon brings out his penis. She is ‘saved’ from what would have happened next by the housemaid who returns from an errand. In another scene, a wife is made to sleep with her husband’s dead body. How else will tradition/culture ascertain if she ‘had a hand in his death?’
At this point, the reality of being female, in Nigeria, painted more starkly seems to have hit close to all those in the hall, watching. People shift uncomfortably. The hall is quiet. There is sniffling. The silence is pierced repeatedly – and particularly during scenes of rape – by the collective laughter of a few who apparently think it is funny. The voices belong to men. Shocking. They are told angrily by others with the use of colourful expletives to keep quiet. The cast on stage in this couple of scenes outdoes itself. With the help of lights and genius drumming, the mood of abuse is set. It builds up to a point where many – I, for one – can’t take any more pain. Suffering. The director is aware of this because what happens next…
A scene of a ‘market woman’ who starts small but grows to become a force of industry, an employer of labour, a true Iyalode. Her fortune is nearly claimed after the death of her husband because it is understood that her success must have been his doing. She fights back and wins. Another woman is beaten regularly by her husband. She fights back, one day, and wins. Another woman, fiercely religious, married and ‘born again’, discovers that sex is not a routine duty to be crossed off a to-do list, but an activity driven by want, desire and pleasure to be shared and enjoyed. In a hilarious but incredibly fiery moment of sexual discovery, the character, delivered unforgettably with heart by Ufuoma McDermott, screams”:
“My Vagina Sings!”
These scenes showing last may have been unwittingly deliberate. One suspects that the empowered women scenes coming at the end was the director’s attempt to end the play on a feel-good note, but what remains clear is that cases of poor sexual education, rape, marital abuse, violence against women remain at the fore. They are the pervading reality, but of course, there are stories of small victories.
That a play such as this exists is one of such. The awareness amongst women that they need no permission to speak up and fight back, as a result of this play, will climb. The awareness amongst all, that women are drafted daily into battles against their existence, which they did not sign up for – and we should all be watchful, conscious and speak out – will rise.
The play’s message is loud and clear and ringing.
I heard word.