By Anote Ajeluorou
THE inaugural lecture delivered by Prof. Julie Okoh (a professor of Theatre Studies, University of Port Harcourt) last Thursday at the University of Port Harcourt was most auspicious. It came in the heels of the yearly Garden City Literary Festival that ended a fortnight ago in Port Harcourt for which she was also a panelist dissecting feminine issues.
The title of her lecture was also instructive as it both echoed and amplified the theme for the festival, which was ‘Women in Literature’. Her lecture with an equally telling title ‘Towards a Feminist Theatre’ also situates women’s issues in the domain of critical literary and intellectual discourses.
Indeed, feminine issues could no longer be brushed aside. Their urgency has become such that skeptics are beginning to take another look, as the women are advancing hard arguments and evidences to prove that rights otherwise denied them could no longer sustained in whatever guise.
And so too did Okoh sought once more to reaffirm what has long become obvious to many: that women’s rights are as important as men’s rights and those traditional or patriarchic institutions or even superstitions that seek to deny women their rights ought to have been thrown away long before now. Indeed, in her numerous theatrical works such as Edewede (2000) and In The Fullness of Time (2000), Okoh has vigorously been deconstructing the patriarchal paradigms that seek to perpetuate women’s subservience through such rites as female genital circumcision, women’s right to education and positions of power, demeaning widowhood rites and relegating women to second class citizens’ position.
Okoh holds the view that such concepts as sexism, which refers to the discrimination against women on the basis of their sex, with its attendant reinforcement of behaviour and attitude based on the stereotypical roles people play in a society and patriarchy, which is societal control through the rule of men that have combined to keep women down the social ladder. Therefore, for her and many like, feminism is a reaction against patriarchy and sexism. She insists that patriarchy is not a natural phenomenon but a social construct. So, she asks, ‘When and how did it begin? Why did women have to agitate for their entitlement to basic human rights?’
In her lecture, Okoh takes a long historical journey through the ages to unearth some of the reasons behind feminine agitations for their rights and how these practices became entrenched overtime and the many battles women have had to fight to free themselves from the shackles society has placed on them over the centuries.
Okoh argues that sexism is still prevalent in Nigeria, noting, “What is the status of women in contemporary Nigeria? Do they enjoy their basic human rights? Do they have equal opportunities with their male counterparts? Do they have protective laws against gender discriminations? How many of them can boldly make their own decision and stand by it without being afraid of intimidation, humiliation, condemnation, ostracism and persecution? Today, women in America and Europe have the same social, political, financial and legal rights as any man, even though there still exists to some extent ‘glass ceiling attitudes’. Are there provisions for women in Nigeria to enjoy the same fundamental rights with men?
“Nigeria is still basically rooted in patriarchal social structure. And as such, violation of women’s basic human rights is prevalent. It is a stark reality that affects a large percentage of women across the country and it cuts across boundaries of age, culture, religion, wealth and geography. It takes place in the homes, on the streets, in schools, at workplaces, in farms, in the markets, in religious places. One only needs to flip through the pages of the daily newspapers to be confronted with gory stories of violation of women’s rights in the country”.
She then enumerates certain dominant varieties of sexism in Nigeria to include sex trafficking, fake maternity clinics, dubbed ‘Baby Farms’ or ‘factories’, which she says are springing up everywhere across the country notoriously in cities like Lagos, Port Harcourt, Enugu and Aba.
Okoh further argues that it is these evils perpetuated against her kind that she has been fighting as a theatre teacher and practitioner, particularly with her many expository dramatic works, stating, “In consonance with the above objectives, the plight of women in contemporary Nigeria constitutes my major concern. That is why in my critical essays and dramatic work, I examine, analyze and evaluate all those unwritten laws and practices converging to restrict and frustrate women from gaining access to their basic human rights, freedom and empowerment.
“As a literary critic, I have written more than thirty articles, both in English and in French, some published in Nigeria, others outside Nigeria. The majority of the articles treat women’s issues. As a theatre practitioner, I have systematically used the theatre to speak against such crude practices as widowhood rites, gender discrimination, child abuse, sexual harassment, childlessness, and female circumcision. On the issue of female circumcision, I have written two major plays: Edewede (2000) and In The Fullness of Time (2000), articles and a book.
“Another traditional practice that has been vehemently challenged by me is the widowhood rites. Widowhood violence is one of the major problems faced by most women in contemporary African societies. Apart from FGM, it is the most sinister and subtle instrument for reinforcing gender inequality in Africa. The experience may assume different forms in different communities, but the effects remain basically the same. The affected widows suffer injustice and psychological trauma.
“Widowhood rites are also still practiced in many communities Nigeria and many Nigerian dramatists have treated this topic with great angst: Zulu Sofola in Wedlock of the Gods (1977), Felicia Onyewadume in Clutches of Widowhood (1996), Stella ‘Dia Oyedepo in On his Demise (2002), Uche Ama-Abriel in A Past Came Calling (2004), Ahmed Yerima in Aetu (2006) Jonathan Desen Mbachaga in Widows’ Might (2008) to name a few.
“In the play Our Wife Forever, I emphasize that systems such as widowhood rites, property inheritance, levirate law associated with widowhood may have had validity and relevance in pristine time. But today, in the face of modernization, globalization, Christianity and internet connectivity, the structures that served to enforce such cultural practices in traditional societies in Africa have been dismantled giving way to capitalism and individualism.
“The subject of female sexuality has been dramatised in my plays from different perspectives. A high percentage of young women and little girls experience sexual harassment, rape, incest, especially paedophilia everyday in this country, yet there is no law against such crimes. So nobody takes the crimes seriously. This is because the lawmakers and their law enforcement agency, those who control power, are sometimes the perpetrators. While treating her plays such as The Mannequins, Closed Doors and Cry for Democracy, these regrettable ugly experiences encountered by girls in contemporary Nigeria, I dissect and analyze the psychological trauma suffered by the victims as well as illustrates to them how they could overcome their predicaments and assert themselves in life.
Okoh points out feminist philosophy of existence in her plays to include a commitment to advocating cultural equity and progressive social change with emphasis on women’s empowerment. In her plays, while condemning the negative elements of African cultural traditions, she examines their impact on the lives of contemporary African women. By so doing, the audience is made to realize that most of the traditional practices are mechanisms instituted by society to repress women’s liberty and to control their bodies and lives.
But Julie Okoh encourages African women to reject this debilitating situation. That is why most of her female characters, instead of negating themselves, are often found striving to transcend their state of immanence in order to gain their status as independent, self-conscious human beings determining and executing their own actions. But they are unable to attain this position until they critically appraise their situation, overcome that crippling fear in them, fear of their master.
The need for women to overcome that obstacle to personal growth is a recurrent motif in Okoh’s plays as could be seen in the plays: Mask (1988), The Mannequins (1997), Edewede (2000), In the Fullness of Time (2000), Aisha (2005), The Trials (2008), Closed Doors (2007).