Once offended by feminists, this lawyer explains why no man “gets it right” on the first try

Once offended by feminists, this lawyer explains why no man “gets it right” on the first try
Image: Ayo Sogunro
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Nigerian writer and human rights lawyer Ayo Sogunro has described his country’s history as “a dreary narrative of travails: from colonial repression to civilian oppression to military brutality.” One legacy of these travails is that Nigeria has the highest number of people living in extreme poverty of any country, according to a new report from World Poverty Clock.

At the confluence of gender and poverty, Nigerian women face a double blow as cultural expectations and traditional roles of women mean that many of them miss out on school and become victims of sex trafficking. ”If the only crime in Nigeria is to be poor,” Sogunro wrote on his blog, “then the guiltiest person in Nigeria is the poor female child.”

In this interview with Quartz, Sogunro discusses the differences between tackling conversations about gender within and outside of the human rights community, argues that fighting for justice with social media can be just as effective as through the courts, and comes clean about his past as a “mansplainer.”

1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?

Two factors triggered my thinking of workplace gender inequality—particularly condescending and hostile attitudes to women—prior to the Me Too movement: (i) my own growing awareness of my privileges in society; and (ii) my increasing involvement in human rights work. Admittedly, my default thinking around this was reliance on legal structures (police complaints, prosecution, civil litigation) as avenues for obtaining remedies. But in an already dysfunctional legal system, hope in these avenues is often wishful thinking.

And so, the most important lesson I have picked up from the Me Too movement is that social avenues—especially through speaking up and sharing stories—can be just as effective as legal remedies in their impact for people who have experienced violence and harassment.

2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?

I identify with feminism and I believe in and publicly identify with the goals of achieving equality for women in public and private spheres of social interaction and self-actualization. However, I avoid nominally labeling myself as “a feminist” because I think labeling tends to imply ownership of an experience and—in the case of men—this creates a risk of driving and leading a conversation that is not primarily about men’s experiences.

Nevertheless, I also understand that feminism involves diverse, dynamic, and unique perspectives and struggles across the world, and therefore the label of “feminist” should not be mistaken as implying the existence of a hegemonic definition of feminism. In this wider understanding of “feminist,” I think I fit in somewhere.

3. What do you do on a daily basis to advance gender equality?

I try to advance gender equality by engaging discourse, in a Foucauldian sense. On the one hand, I try to engage women in daily interactions with a keen awareness of my highly patriarchal background and sexist socialization, ensuring that I do not willfully take advantage of the privileges arising from this background. On the other hand, I try to create more social awareness by educating other men—in person and through social and mass media—on gender inequalities in our social and legal systems. Also, I participate in gender equality projects by non-governmental organizations in Nigeria and South Africa.

4. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so?

Yes, I often do. For my male colleagues in the human rights environment, it is relatively easier to point out directly that sexism is incompatible with the general human rights aims that we pursue. For peers outside the human rights environment, I often have to engage in a more tasking debate. The most effective tactic has been to juxtapose the struggles of women with other struggles in society, particularly in areas of economic and political marginalization.

Still, the greatest inhibition to effective discussions are the entrenched religious, cultural, and pseudo-scientific ideas that many men hold. And so, even when some men claim to understand the logic of gender equality, their beliefs in these ideas prevents them from agreeing to the validity of gender equality. In instances where a person has such strong beliefs, talk can be very futile.

5. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?

I have been fortunate not to have had typical worries or anxieties about being “a man”in the socially constructed sense. Yet, I should say that I had to dissociate anxieties arising from an entrenched sense of responsibility as the eldest child in my family from any anxieties arising from social expectations of responsibility as “a man.” While I still bear the burden of the former, I have never been bothered by the latter.

6. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?

I often find myself in a situation where feminists criticized my views because they thought it inadequate or problematic, while conservative men and women felt I was being too radical.  I have now come to understand that it is rare that a man coming from a patriarchal background would “get it” on the first try. And I have often found myself agreeing—months later—with ideas by feminists that I once felt were too critical of my views. And so, while it can be tempting to feel martyred, it is more useful to consider these situations as part of the growth process in an understanding of gender equality.

7. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work, or at home, what would it be? Why?

I think it would be the general concept of “mansplaining,” which I have been guilty of on several occasions, especially in my early 20s. Looking back on those times, I realize that I often conflated having an opinion on an issue with having expertise on the issue, and in that way hindered women who had experiences to share.

8. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?

In relation to these issues, it is hard to think of any direct advice from another man that has been meaningful. On my part, I think young men can learn to be comfortable in their masculinity without defining themselves through the demonization, repression, marginalization, or oppression of women. It is important to understand that there is nothing wrong with being a man in a strict biological sense—but there are a whole lot of wrongs in creating or perpetuating systems that prioritize and privilege people simply on the basis of being men.