Edited by Veronica Vivi
Illustration by Aaliyah Oshodi
‘Loving another person and that person loving me back – I do not see how that is a bad thing’ (Mohammed, Nagarajan and Aliyu 46).
In my first year of university, I had taken, and subsequently failed, Social Anthropology 1A. I hurriedly put the whole experience behind me but what I did remember from that course, and always will, is that you should never judge a culture by the standards of your own. It was these words that I repeated to myself, years later, from the moment I booked my flight to Lagos, Nigeria. Granted, I am a first-generation immigrant so I can basically taste my country of origin, but I was still born, raised, and educated in Britain. So, on this trip, I had promised myself that I would leave my own preconceptions at home and use the trip as a time to learn and understand. There were many moments in Lagos, but there is one I remember distinctively. I had spent the day wandering around the UNILAG (University of Lagos) campus with my cousins and, as we drove back towards the north of the city staring out the window, I just could not help but think, there must be so many people here unable to just be themselves. It sounds incredibly dramatic but, from my understanding of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) signed by former president Jonathan Goodluck in 2014 and a heated conversation I had had whilst in Lagos about same-sex relationships, it seemed that Nigeria was an incredibly awful place to be LGBTQ+.
Within a couple of weeks of my return to the UK, She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak found its way into my hands. Edited by Azeenarh Mohammed, Chitra Nagarajan, and Rafeeat Aliqu, She Called Me Woman was published by Cassava Republic Press, an African book publishing company founded in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2006. To even publish this book in Nigeria, where LGBTIQ+ rights are not recognised, seems a radical act in itself. A collection of twenty-five narratives, She Called Me Woman is a piece of oral history created with the purpose of responding to ‘the three types of erasure’ (Mohammed, Nagarajan and Aliyu 1) seen in present discussions or debates about Queerness, specifically in the context of Nigeria but with a rightful place in the African and global discourse. The first of these types of erasure the editors identify is the hyper-visibility and invisibility of queer people – they are of often spoken about but never spoken to. The second is the erasure of the queer experience in Nigeria’s traditions, culture and history. The third is denial: many people have experienced queerness but do not humanise or acknowledge it, opting to ignore it.
The editors, who all live and work in Nigeria, travelled across the country to conduct 1:1 interviews, speaking to queer women with different gender expressions and identities, in an attempt to understand the experience of existing and living at the intersection of queer and female. Known only to readers by their initials, age and location, the narrators of these narratives paint a beautiful but stark picture of what it means to be a queer woman in Nigeria. They are not perfectly polished pieces; rather, they are intentionally and unintentionally filtered narratives. To read words that have been said aloud first and written down at a later stage did, at times, create a distance between myself as the reader and the narrator. But this flaw adds to the overall feel of the book, best described as reading whilst holding your breath, continuously aware of how vital this piece of work is and how dangerous it could be for the identities of the narrators to be revealed.
Reading She Called Me Woman almost two years since the first time I did it was this particular statement I was drawn to: ‘As much as I want to do it now in Nigeria, I can’t get married to a woman and I can’t have kids with a woman. I don’t see the life I want to live happening for me in Nigeria. So, I think I want to leave, probably go to Canada or somewhere. It’s going to take a very long time for Nigerians to reach the stage I want my life to be in. Nigeria is not ready right now. Maybe in fifty years or more, a long time from now. At the moment, religion does not allow us to accept things, no matter how much we want to try. Nigerians are too religious’ (Mohammed, Nagarajan and Aliyu 81). This left me considering how we, in the Black diaspora, interact, communicate, and advocate for and with our country of origin. We go to the bars and clubs, eat nice food, listen to the music and get our hair braided for a fraction of the price, all under the pretence of ‘going home’ and ‘reconnecting’. Whilst we are there, a lot of us are able to enjoy a life that is very different from those who live there and our own at home. We are allowed to take up space, take what we need and want, but are spared the difficulties of the day to day. How do we support, engage and learn from those who cannot take up this space? Perhaps, more pressingly, how can we be allies for those who have for so long been silenced and forgotten?
She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak is a wonderful piece of work. It made me sad, but it surprised me. I did not expect – wrongly – to read narratives of such strength, resilience and hope. To read queer Nigerian women speaking of their LGBTIQ+ experiences but also of Nigerian society, politics, culture and religion was a reminder of how important it is to capture and share our stories.
‘I’m so very excited because I’ve never told anyone my story before. At last I have somebody to tell my story to, somebody to share my pains with’ (Mohammed, Nagarajan and Aliyu 57).