By Chris Anyokwu
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the death-defying Afrobeat King typically bellows in one of his hit-tracks, “Beast of No Nation”: “You can’t dash me human rights,… human rights na my property”. The persistent agitation for the recognition and exercise of the fundamental human rights of every human being, regardless of race, sex/gender, class or social status has actually been able to make the world more humane. It has, also, always been about the staking-out of space for personal privacy, the expression and exercise of personal/group freedoms and liberties, among others. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises the fundamental human rights of every human being and these include or rather consist of three basic rights namely: (1) the right to life, (2) the right to personal liberty and (3) the pursuit of happiness. The United Nations has also considered necessary and important to flesh out and “departmentalise” these three fundamental rights in a bid to guarantee the freedoms and liberties of all peoples – the old and young, male and female, disabled and able-bodied, white, black, brown, yellow, educated and non-literate, plants and animals, inter alia. Such is the complex nature of interpersonal relationships, the growing multiculturalism of the global community, international trade and commerce, diplomacy, sport, the building of peace and the eradication or the reduction of friction and conflict that the global body, that is, the UN has tirelessly enacted laws and instituted various treaties designed to address the various aspects of human-to-human, group-to-group, and man-nature interactions. To be sure, there is a sense in which the development and expansion of the scope of human rights is a reflection of the remorseless march of human civilisation. This is so because, as Walter Benjamin in his study entitled On The Concept of History reminds us “there is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”
Thus starting off from the putative assumption of patriarchal privilege and domination, the United Nations and its affiliate bodies have seen fit to pay heed to the interminable agitations of so-called marginalised and vulnerable groups for greater representation in the public sphere as well as in the private or family set-up. Feminists of various stripes, particularly the liberal and the radical tendencies, have managed over the years to convince the world that females the world over have always been made to hold the short end of the stick. They have argued and posited right from the so-called First-Wave, the Second-Wave and the contemporary post-feminist movements, including the less-confrontational and more conciliatory African variants – that man is the problem of Creation. He is the elephant in the room. Nature and custom have given him a head-start over the female/woman. Thus civilisation itself is a natural product of the male. If language is the vector of culture and culture itself the sum-total of our way of life, language is also considered a man’s invention. Thought and cognition are inescapably male-oriented, phallocratic. Stranded in this cosmic wilderness in which the male towers as a monolithic plinth over everything else, women have fretted to see that some semblance of gender complementarity is established in order to guarantee the unfettered flowering of the female sex. Therefore, feminism, the quest for the empowerment of females, including the girl-child, is energised by the perceived subjugation and oppression of females under patriarchy and sexism. The male is the Cause, the female the Effect; the male is the Centre, the female, the Margins, or, to borrow Gayatri Spivak’s phrase “the subaltern”.
While we may write tomes upon tomes on the varied dimensions and aspects of the Human Rights brouhaha, we would prefer to accommodate ourselves to the agitations over the exercise of human rights in the family set-up. There is, yet again, a sense in which contemporary marriage institution is set against its traditional form, that is, how our parents led their lives. For instance, Sarah in the Bible is considered a timeless paragon of wifely virtues – diffident, bashful, reticent, sweet-tempered, self-possessed, submissive, gracious, devoted, pure, and faithful to her husband, Abraham. Now, set the postmodern, latter-day wife beside Sarah. How does she compare? The citified wife of today is rightfully well-educated, articulate, self-aware, well-spoken, fashionable and trendy, a career woman who juggles family commitments with office obligations and responsibilities. And, like Esi, the protagonist, in Ama Ata Aidoo’s novel Changes, the career woman who equally doubles as wife always has a decision to make concerning which of these two aspects of her life – family and career – takes precedence over the other. Thus while tradition seeks to bludgeon her onto the tortuous path trodden by her foremothers a la Sarah, modernity holds up before her emancipatory vistas of self-actualisation. For the Western-educated wife, the choice is always an easy one: freedom. The freedom guaranteed by careerism empowers her financially, and this financial independence grants her agency, voice, self-presence, power. She virtually becomes a man without – you guessed it – a penis. But, again, what’s the use of a penis without power, I mean, financial power? This is why when a working wife sees her lazy, idle husband lounging supine in bed, all she sees or imagines is a dog! A mangy dog she feels like kicking out of her boudoir [“No romance without finance, if you wanna be with me, you must have J-O-B…”]. Thus, the fundamental human rights of every member of the family, especially the husband and wife, are defined and determined by how much money each one brings to the table. Woe betides that man whose wife has the upper-hand or possibly is the breadwinner. He is done and done for. She will shred the man with her rapier-like tongue and let him know where he belongs, namely: among the efulefu (the ne’er-do-wells). And she is quick to press her claims to her rights in the family and won’t take nonsense from anybody, not even her mother-in-law and the meddlesome Pastor or Mama G.O. This house is her territory and she intends to run it as she deems fit.
Thus while tradition seeks to bludgeon her onto the tortuous path trodden by her foremothers a la Sarah, modernity holds up before her emancipatory vistas of self-actualisation. For the Western-educated wife, the choice is always an easy one: freedom. The freedom guaranteed by careerism empowers her financially, and this financial independence grants her agency, voice, self-presence, power. She virtually becomes a man without – you guessed it – a penis. But, again, what’s the use of a penis without power, I mean, financial power? This is why when a working wife sees her lazy, idle husband lounging supine in bed, all she sees or imagines is a dog! A mangy dog she feels like kicking out of her boudoir
And God help anyone who crosses her path! Thus, giving priority to career or self-grooming over family or wifely obligations, she would pay particular attention to her weekly exfoliation routine, attend to her weekend constitutional, her manicure and pedicure and wear the trendiest dresses, whether they are form-hugging or scandalously revealing, it does not matter in the slightest. She is not your “African woman”; she is a LADY, stupid! On kitchen matters, the omo odo (house-help) will see to those for she’s got better things to do with her time, for instance fixing her artificial nails or changing her artificial eyelashes or her waist-beads. On money matters, she always insists on total disclosure from her husband. Hers is a no-go area, after all the husband is the traditional head of the family. Any contribution she makes to the home economy, she insists on a refund. Running the home is not one of her job descriptions, is it? Custom says she is merely a helpmeet, abi? Furthermore, the secrecy over her purse equally extends to other aspects of her life, say, her movements, friendships, relationships and all whatnot. And here is the bone of contention: what right has the husband got to open her wardrobe, to search her bags, to scroll through her phone, to inquire about who she calls or who calls her even in unholy hours of the night? Why must he pry into her affairs? Her privacy? Why must he be concerned about the whys and wherefores of her mood swings? Why am I so excited or so grumpy? Are you my God? Is marriage now a prison yard and you my jailor? Gosh! She would fume!
Worse still, when it comes to fulfilling her conjugal duties, she would flare up “I’m not in the mood!” And she would add, for good measure, “I have a right to my body”. By so doing, she in effect reduces the man to a mood-reader, a conjugal speculator: Will it happen tonight? What do I do, Lord? The man prays and hopes the auguries are not contrary. Should the man insist on having his way, she accuses him of lusting after other women and coming home to use her as his sex-object! “I will not be objectified, Mr Phallus!” She would expostulate. Accordingly, she ends up criminalising everything the husband does – his dressing, lovemaking, eating and sleeping habits, financial difficulties, his old car, his close-fistedness, name it. She thus reduces the man to her punching-bag; even PMB’s storied bunglings in governance are blamed on the hapless husband. She would keep regretting and remonstrating over her choice of husband: This is a mistake, this marriage! Oh, God, in my next incarnation, give me a husband, a real husband… Driving to church is an ordeal for the man with his wife in the passenger’s seat. She would criticise every move he makes; question his driving skills. They both will fight from house to church and back, the Pastor can preach all he wants about spousal love and tolerance, who cares? And the children would merely look on, bemused and bewildered, wondering whose side to take in the routinized squabbles. Should the mother scold the children for any misdemeanour, the man would counter: Leave them alone; let them express themselves, it’s their right! When we were growing up in the 1970s and 80s, there was nothing like fundamental human rights of children.
Our parents were the gods we worshipped. They didn’t need to speak to us before we knew what they demanded of us; they only needed to look at us in certain ways and we got the message. The cane, yes, the cane was a symbol of parental authority and our parents (and other adults in the neighbourhood) wielded it consummately on us. By word of mouth, looks and the ubiquitous cane, our parents succeeded in drilling virtue into us and making us realise the boundaries between good and evil. Now, everything has changed. Parents have somehow lost their authority over their children on account of the sundry exercise of rights and privileges. They have to ask permission before they can enter their children’s rooms; look through their stuff such as wardrobes, phones, and books; they cannot ask about their sex life or who they are dating or “hanging out” with. Or whether or not they take banned substances or drink alcoholic beverages or smoke. By the same token, the girl-child can dress as she likes, get her body tattooed in lurid fashion and even put rings on her tongue! And the boy-child or son can equally wear weird hairstyles, put on earrings, tattoo his body and smoke weed or join cult gangs, all in the name of self-expression! Or Human Rights! Nowadays, parents fear to caution their children against acts of violence, sexual misconduct or general misbehaviour for fear of violating their rights. Father is desperately protecting his rights; mother and children too are staking out their respective turfs in the home, drawing lines in the sand for one another.
Sociologists tell us that the family is the basic unit of society and, therefore, if the family is in distress or disarray, then chances are that the entire society will founder and come to grief sooner or later. As it is now, the libertarianism, the ethical deregulation and the moral permissiveness engendered by the unbridled exercise of rights have ultimately given rise to all sorts of pressure and lobby groups and movements agitating endlessly for more rights, both for humans, animals and plants. The LGBTQIA+ movement is one of such groups fundamentally changing (some would argue, destroying) society the way we knew it. Kurt Zouma, West Ham defender, has a case in court for allegedly kicking his own cat! It is therefore necessary for the UN to put the brakes on this freewheeling delegitimising of old pieties, our time-honoured way of life and redirect global attention to the finer details of moral suasion, of individual responsibility, basic decency, the rule of law and morality in the traditional sense of the word. We cannot afford to throw away the baby with the bathwater. This is critically important, else the relentless pursuit of the exercise of human rights especially in the family shall, in the last analysis, destroy the world.
Chris Anyokwu writes from University of Lagos.