Ordinarily I would react to President Muhammadu Buhari’s comments about his wife with irritation and rancor, but a weekend trip to Johannesburg helped me see the situation with new clarity. Here’s why.
At best, we are all 5 degrees of separation from a couple like the Buharis – possibly fewer if you happen to be a person of African heritage born into privilege. Aisha Buhari is the second wife of President Muhammadu Buhari, who at 47 years old wed her at age 18. Only the two of them and their family know what attraction led these two into matrimony – whether for convenience or true love – but relationships between powerful elderly men and inexperienced young women is quite common.
Everyone has their own notions about why a man who is so far advanced in years would take up a relationship with a woman barely legal enough to qualify for the demarcation, but those notions are rarely noble. Typically, these men are looking for a mate they can control, guide and groom, rather than a partner in every sense of the term. What’s unfortunate is that these sorts of men fail to understand that a woman is not a car; you can’t just add and take away features and still maintain the same product, essentially. A woman is a more like a tree. She will grow in many directions and in time, turn into something entirely different from the seed that was planted into the ground. I suspect this is what’s happening in the Buharis marriage, and we are all being treated to a front row seat to the show.
Last week, you may have heard that President Buhari made some pretty unsavory remarks about his wife while sharing a stage with German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. In response to comments made by his wife in a BBC interview wherein she said that she might not back him in the next election unless he shakes up his government, he said: “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room.”
Mrs. Buhari said in the same interview that she is very vested in protecting her husband’s legacy, a passionate cause which likely led her to speak in a way more candidly than Nigerians are accustomed to.
The reality is that Aisha Buhari publicly spoke to a lot of frustrations that ordinary Nigerians talk about every day. President Buhari’s government has been deemed to move too slow, has ushered in a weaker economy, and appears to lack cohesiveness. As a Nigerian citizen who – like her husband – “belongs to everybody and belongs to nobody”, she has the right to voice her thoughts on the politics of the day. The fact that she married a man who aspired to the office of president and was only successful on the fourth attempt does not preclude her from that right. There has been much talk online (and probably more off) that her role as First Lady – a title she has rejected – is to support her husband no matter what. On the other side of the spectrum and in response to her husband’s reflexive sexism, there have been some who have called for Mrs. Buhari to end her marriage to a man who clearly has bias against her for the sake of her gender and her inferior position as his wife. Whether that bias is unconscious or not, only President Buhari can say…but rest assured Mrs. Buhari knows her husband is and always has been. Like Donald Trump and his comfort with saying the offensive and preposterous, this is not the first time President Buhari as said something outdated, sexist and subversionary to his wife and/or about women.
You may recall Governor Oshiomhole’s crass comments about his wife’s virginity on their wedding day while a room full of guests looked on…. guests that included President Buhari. These are the types of “jokes” that men of this stature are used to making about women, our bodies, our place in politics, etc. None of this is actually funny, but their hubris hinders them from recognizing that they are the only ones laughing.
It’s tempting to believe that comments like these are the mindless ramblings made by men from an era gone by, because we desperately want to believe that humanity is getting smarter…better…more cognitively aware. We must resist that urge to deflect and deny the everyday sexism that women face, particularly from those closest to them. It very much exists.
Just this week I was at dinner with a group of friends where the discussion turned to children and work-life balance. The couples there were of mixed race and heritage, among which was a Ghanaian couple. The husband says, “My wife’s children love to play tennis…”
She stops him with an incredulous laugh and says, “What do you mean ‘your wife’s children’? They’re your children too!”
He retorts, “Ho! How do I know that these are my children? I have no way of knowing!”
The table reacts with stunned silence. He goes on to repeat a Fante proverb about children not belonging to their fathers – without explaining the context – as justification for the offensive thing he’s just implied about his WIFE in front a group of friends and strangers. Clearly, he’s heard this type of “joke” before and grew comfortable enough with this type of jest that he thought he’d try it on for size. He should’ve resisted the temptation, because at 40 years old and with access to education and incredible, wealth, he knows exactly how a DNA test works. That comment was unfair, inappropriate and unwarranted. Furthermore, the proverb was coined before the proliferation of LabCorps. His wife’s response to the gaffe? Silence, as you would expect. Men can be as offensive as they want in public, but women have been conditioned to defend themselves in private.
But in that weekend – which coincided with President Buhari’s belittling comments about his wife – I was reminded that there is little you can do to alter the behavior of a sexist. All you can do is respond to it; and that’s why feminism is essential. To the degree that patriarchy excludes and denies equality is the degree to which feminism is necessary. And the best response to sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination systems is the acquisition of power. That is why President Buhari’s comments matter, but at the end of the day, really don’t.
I am pleased to see that Aisha Buhari has not backed down from her position and her advice that her husband get his political house in order. Her speaking out may not signal the end of their marriage, but it has certainly signaled the end as they have both previously known it.
Folks have reacted with shock to her extroversion, precisely because they expect her to retreat to the symbolic kitchen where she smiles for the camera and disappears in her husband’s shadow. Instead, she has doubled down on her earlier utterances and is on her way to Brussels to talk about women’s role in global security. How could she confidently talk about courage and security while displaying political timidity? And for the sake of “culture”? No! What we are seeing is a 45 year old Aisha Buhari discovering and demonstrating her earned independence. She is slowly (re)crafting an identity apart from “Mr. Buhari’s wife”.
It would shock people to know that women married into power and privilege have a long history of “defying” their husbands, often in the defense of the disadvantaged. Lady Godiva is a favorite figure of mine. Godiva was aarried to Leofric, the tyrannical Earl of Mercia. After the Danish invasion of Coventry in 1040, Leofric ruled with an iron fist, squeezing the population of its livelihood through taxes and levies. His wife, however, was a compassionate who visited the poor and shared of her abundance with them. When Leofric announced that he was to introduce a new tax that would fiscally cripple the population, she begged her husband to reconsider. He said that the only way that he would ever do that is if she rode through the streets naked on a horse… a great dishonor for a woman of her stature.
But on market day, Lady Godiva, robed only with her cascading blond hair, went on the ultimate Slut Walk for her constituents. Upon hearing of his wife’s courageous deed, Leofric was compelled to revoke the tax, and the rest became history. She used her privileged position to bring about the outcome she wanted and gained power to affect change in the process.
So while sexism is a vile state of mind and even worse to contend with, I believe we would make better use of our time by changing our reaction to it. Does sexism need to be dismantled? Without question; but we do that with owning our own spaces, resources and enterprises, not appealing to the kindness and sweetness of the oppressor. It’s never worked. Power is the only thing a sexist (or racists, or ablest, etc.) understands, proving Prophetess Beyoncé right in this one regard: Your best revenge in your paper.
MX5: Are you reading this? What would you do if FX5 got on international TV and said “my wife belongs in MY kitchen”? Call me later girl!