Reading Progress:

She Called Me Woman: Cassava Republic Press collects the stories of Nigeria’s queer women

by Janiene Farquaharson

She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak a rich resource that allows Nigeria’s queer women to speak their truths as honestly, as openly, and as safely as they can. A collection of first-person narratives collated in response to the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, it is a decidedly critical, determined stab at the many forms of erasure Nigeria’s queer women contend with.

She Called Rectangle

CONTENT WARNING: This review contains brief mentions of homophobia and rape.

In 2014 the Nigerian government passed the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, which allows sentences of up to fourteen years for engaging in intimate same-sex relationships. While queerness wasn’t openly accepted in the country beforehand, there also wasn’t a law of this gravity targeting LGBTQIA+ people. The law goes as far as to criminalise those who aid homosexual unions, which has emboldened the homophobic to target queerness with violence and impunity. KZ, aged 40, shares a shocking story: she once heard of a man who having been arrested for being gay, was later raped by the police officer at the station. Intimate and impactful, She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak is a collection of first-person narratives collated in response to the prohibition act and the resultant growth in homophobic sentiment across Nigeria. Recent discussions within Nigerian society—whether “on the radio, in church or mosque”—have been virulently bigoted, stemming from the fallacy that queerness is “un-Nigerian” and “against our culture.” This anthology knows this couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Edited by queer feminist lawyer Azeenarh Mohammed, writer and activist Chitra Nagarajan, and writer and filmmaker Rafeeat Aliyu, She Called Me Woman is out to correct three types of erasure that target queer people: their exclusion from the discourse on their own lives; the rewriting of their long histories; and the denial that they even exist. These anonymised stories are sourced from a series of one-on-one interviews carried out by the book’s editors, who travelled across Nigeria to areas like Abuja and Ondo. They could have, as it is more common, used the materials collected to concoct an extensive work of anthropology. The editorial decision to instead publish these women’s stories exactly as they are, as they have been told, is profoundly radical. Along with titles like The Sex Lies of African Women—another anthology of interviews rendered as first-person narratives documenting the kaleidoscopic range of African women’s sexualities across the span of the continent and its many diasporas—this book is bringing an inclusive sociological approach into the publishing mainstream and is at the forefront of a determined effort to publicise dialogues that go unheard. For, as described in the introduction, these narratives are life histories: they are vital documents on Nigeria’s queer community. She Called Me Woman is bound to spark dialogue all along a literary landscape rarely ever puts Black voices—and particularly those of Black women—at the forefront of discussions on sexuality and queerness.

The editorial decision to publish these women’s stories exactly as they are, as they have been told, is profoundly radical.

She Called Me Woman doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects (though these are handled with a delicate touch). Where necessary, content notes open chapters and “allow the reader to make informed choices about whether to skip certain narratives.” BM, a thirty-year-old desiring to transition, shares her experience of being physically beaten and later ostracised by her family after getting caught with another girl, calling it “the worst three years” of her life. HA, a thirty-year-old lesbian, describes the abuse she received from her family after she came out publicly via an online article, written in the wake of the passing of the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act. While her mother had responded with acceptance when she came out to her privately two years earlier, when she went public with her sexuality she “went crazy on her,” responding with regret and disappointment, telling her she was no longer her daughter. In Nigeria, queerness is just about tolerable when it’s behind closed doors and kept on a need-to-know basis, but far from it when it’s made public. 

When we take a step back from the intimacy of these deeply personal stories, a collective emerges backdropped against a complex socio-political landscape. Many of the narratives note how perceptions have drifted towards conservatism in the last decades, long before the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, and how opinions often hinge on generational divides. OW, twenty-five, states that older people in their seventies and above are more tolerant because “it was normal in the culture back then—female-female and husbands having lots of wives and stuff going on between the wives.” The middle-aged generation is far less accepting: they are caught up in religious dogma and clamouring for a return to tradition or a semblance of stability in an increasingly unstable nation. Many have said it before: homophobia is a new development on the continent, a lasting remnant of colonial British legislation. Bisi Alimi, a Nigerian gay rights activist, brought attention to this in The Guardian, stating that “African culture is no stranger to homosexual behaviour and acts.” Though a number of African politicians espouse homophobic rhetoric, like former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, homosexuality occurred openly in pre-colonial societies.

Perceptions have drifted towards conservatism in the last decades and opinions often hinge on generational divides.

It’s not all bad. I found joy and beauty in the healing power of the queer communities described and the interviewees’ journeys towards self-acceptance. HA, who as we know suffered for years at the hands of her family after publicly coming out, eventually found an online queer family. Cocooned in the safety of the internet—where many underground queer spaces like Hi5 and NaijaLez thrive—she was showered with love by her peers, many of whom found their own strength in her coming out. PD, a twenty-nine-year-old lesbian, talks about how when she’s with her straight friends she’s forced to “act proper, talk of the perfect guy, weddings and the Bible.” With her queer friends, she is honest and no topic is off limits (especially sex positions). The collection also offers several heartwarming stories of sexual exploration in early adolescence, particularly in same-sex boarding schools. Several of the women recalled situations in which young girls could be romantically and sexually affectionate with their peers. DK shares that “it was obvious” that some of the girls were dating one another. They weren’t treated any differently on account of it. HA also shares that women are “allowed to show affection and love” to each other in all-girls boarding schools: “it wasn’t a big deal.” Given the ways in which patriarchy and homophobia intersect, it is difficult to imagine this same kind of openness within all-boys boarding schools. There is freedom to be found within Nigeria’s queer communities, both online and offline, that the wider society cannot imagine.

She Called Me Woman is something to ready yourself for, to enter with a mind open to learning and listening. It is a rich resource that allows Nigeria’s queer women to speak their truths as honestly, as openly, and as safely as they can and in publishing their words as they were said, She Called Me Woman puts them at the centre of the discourse on their own lives. Queer people of all ages exist in Nigeria and have done for generations. She Called Me Woman is a decidedly critical, determined stab at the many forms of erasure they contend with.

by Janiene Farquaharson

JANIENE FARQUAHARSON is an avid reader, book blogger, and writer. Find her on Instagram at @readbyjaniene.

She Called Me Woman: Cassava Republic Press collects the stories of Nigeria’s queer womenShe Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak by Azeenarh Mohammed, Chitra Nagarajan, Rafeeat Aliyu
Published by Cassava Republic on 1 January 2018
Genres: Non-fiction, Queer
Pages: 344
Goodreads
five-stars

This stirring and intimate collection brings together 30 captivating narratives to paint a vivid portrait of what it means to be a queer Nigerian woman. Covering an array of experiences—the joy and excitement of first love, the agony of lost love and betrayal, the sometimes-fraught relationship between sexuality and spirituality, addiction and suicide, childhood games, and laughter—She Called Me Woman sheds light on how Nigerian queer women, despite their differences, attempt to build a life together in a climate of fear. Through first-hand accounts, She Called Me Woman challenges us to rethink what it means to be a Nigerian ‘woman’, negotiating relationships, money, sexuality and freedom, identifying outside the gender binary, and the difficulties of achieving hopes and dreams under the constraints of societal expectations, and legal terrorism. These beautifully told stories of resistance and resilience reveal the realities of a community that refuses to be invisible any longer.

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