Queer politics have a tendency to be white-centric, male-dominated, and disproportionately focused on Western concerns. The LGBT community has a way of pushing those most in need of the rainbow umbrella’s shelter out to the margins, amplifying the voices of those who were most likely to be heard anyway – often drowning out the perspectives of women and people of color. She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak is an antidote to all of that. Edited by Azeenarh Mohammed, Chitra Nagarajan, and Rafeeat Aliyu, the book is filled with women’s testimonies of what it is to love and desire other women in modern day Nigeria.
Speaking at Bare Lit Fest, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf – founder of Cassava Republic – announced that the publishing house was planning a collection of queer Nigerian men’s voices, but felt it important to start by centering women’s voices. The ethos behind Cassava Republic, a press founded to “change the way the world thinks about African writing”, is amplifying voices that have historically been sidelined. Those politics show in the care with which She Called Me Woman was put together.
She Called Me Woman is a collection of more than two dozen interviews with Nigerians “at the intersections of queerness and femaleness”, offering “snapshots of histories, experiences, and realities” that have traditionally been erased from the bigger picture of both lesbian and Nigerian identity. Each interviewee has been kept anonymous so that telling her own story in her own words need not compromise her safety. Many of the testimonies contain women’s accounts of violence. Two of the women who were supposed to be sharing their stories disappeared before their interviews could take place and have not been seen or heard from since – an absence which speaks volumes, and can be felt throughout the book.
To give some context, both gay and lesbian sexual activity is currently outlawed in Nigeria. Being with a partner of the same sex carries the penalty of up to fourteen years imprisonment – one woman, OF, observes that “rapes get fewer years in prison.” In certain northern regions, being gay or lesbian is punishable by stoning to death. Nigeria offers its citizens absolutely no legal protections against homophobic discrimination, and the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act actively criminalises gay and lesbian partnerships being formalized through civil union. There is no country in this world where being a woman who loves women is totally free from risk, yet being lesbian or bisexual carries a heightened vulnerability in Nigeria.
In addition, deviating from the gender norms prevalent within Nigerian society carries certain social backlash. QM describes the stranglehold of the feminine gender role, strictly policed by her family: because she ran, rode horses, and had a knack for manual work – all considered masculine, not suitable for a girl – she believed herself to be a boy for many years. QM was forced into an abusive marriage as a way to correct her behavior. Of this violence, she says “I have seen other women suffer the same thing. They are not given ears that listen. Nobody listens to them. Nobody wants to intervene. Nobody wants to talk.”
Women’s accounts of violence are woven through the collection, and they are harrowing. It took me double the expected time to read She Called Me Woman because I had to pace myself. And yet men’s violence is a pillar of heteropatriarchal society: we cannot challenge it without first acknowledging it is there.
Descriptions of relationships between women fill that particularly lesbian spectrum from sad to sexy. Stories of lost loves are particularly poignant. Multiple women have lost girlfriends to marriages of convenience. The appearance of straightness offers a layer of protection to women, and the partnership with a man offers a level of security that is worlds away from the precarity of living openly as a lesbian. Every one of the socioeconomic forces designed to keep women apart can be recognized as compulsory heterosexuality in action, and it is devastating.
This is a book that details the political vulnerability attached to LGBT lives, but it is also an account of the joy, hope, love, and community found within those lives. When Western writers try to tell African people’s stories, there’s an ever-present danger of the narrative devolving into tragedy or inspiration porn – both of which are ultimately dehumanizing, because nuance is lost when catering to a white and Western gaze. Only when African people tell their own stories, unfiltered, is that risk of Othering removed. There is real heart in She Called Me Woman, because each interviewee tells her own story in her own way. This raw, unmitigated honesty gives their testimonies real power.
Just as the book contains words from a variety of women, it offers a broad range of perspectives – at points contradictory – shaped by different experiences of life. One contributor, a “proud lesbian” referred to as LN, finds fulfillment in taking on what has traditionally been the masculine role within a relationship – paying for her girlfriend’s meal on a date, behaving in a way she considers chivalrous. Others find the freedom from gender roles within lesbian relationships to be liberating. Many of these women are closeted so as to avoid jeopardizing their own lives, but some are out to close friends and family.
And yet there is so much warmth and love to be found within the pages of She Called Me Woman. NS captures the joy of falling for another girl for the first time. OF shares the magic of seeing her girlfriend for the first time with real poetry, saying “…there was this girl with my friend, like a shining light.” In one way or another, every contributor mentions the way relationships with women – romantic or familial – has nourished her.