Monday, April 15, 2019 12:27 pm
By Nehru Odeh
She wowed Nigerians with her jokes and mimicries for over a decade. And when the news about the doctorate degree the University of Lagos awarded her recently hogged the headlines, it set not just the nation on fire but also the internet. She aroused public interest the more when, while dedicating the degree to her mother, she revealed she was conceived and born through rape. “I dedicate this to my mum. You gave birth to me out of rape. They told me I wouldn’t amount to anything. I grew up hearing from family members being called a ‘bastard’ and each time I asked you, you said Olorunl on won omo were’ meaning, God watches over the child of a mad person. He’d watch over you.”
This is the incredulous story of Helen Paul, aka Tatafo, comedienne, actress, and singer, who rose from being a bastard, a castaway and a receptionist to not only be one of the top echelons of the entertainment industry in Nigeria but has also acquired a Ph.D., the highest academic qualification. And she, contrary to expectations, has by her recent feat stood up not just for herself but for the womenfolk.
But sadly while many pour encomiums on her, they lose sight of the fact that this is a lady who was born through rape in a patriarchal society where women are relegated to the background, where rape victims are shamed and stigmatized rather than helped and who, due to the circumstances of her birth amounted to nothing. They lose sight of the fact that the phallus, a metaphor for male dominance, a weapon of mass destruction, and one of the instruments by which women are dominated was the reasons he was called a bastard and amounted to nothing. The father who raped her mother was trying to prove his superiority and dominance over her by entering into her without her consent. And the only tool he used at that moment in order to prove his socially valorized virility and satisfy his urge was his penis.
And because of the nature of our society Helen bottled up her rape story for more than three decades. Her mother never spoke out about the rape nor cried for justice. But she, by breaking her silence, has brought to the fore the issues Simone Beauvoir, existentialist philosopher and the mother of feminism, raises in her compelling book, Second Sex.
In that sprawling book, Beauvoir not only espouses her feminist ideas, but also portrays how men have for centuries dominated women and relegated them to the background. Beauvoir says women were not born inferior but that their second class status in society was determined by men. And she distinguishes between men and women according to their unequal positions in society as Subject and Object, the One and the Other respectively. One of Beauvoir famous statement in that book lends credence to this. “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman. No biological, psychic, or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society; it is civilization as a whole that elaborates this intermediary product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine,” she says.
Beauvoir also posits that the act of sexual intercourse is itself rape, whether consensual or not. “The woman is penetrated and impregnated through the vagina; it becomes an erotic center uniquely through the intervention of the male, and this always constitutes a kind of rape. In the past, a woman was snatched from her childhood universe and thrown into her life as a wife by a real or simulated rape; this was an act of violence that changed the girl into a woman: it is also referred to as ‘ravishing’ a girl’s virginity or ‘taking’ her flower,” she avers.
The fact that women are Object and the Other shows that they are indeed the second sex. And as I said earlier one of the tools men use to perpetuate this insidious crime is the phallus. “The penis gets its privileged value from the social context,” so said Beauvoir. She also says for instance that men are taught how important the penis is right from the cradle. “The child is persuaded that more is demanded of boys because of their superiority; the pride of his virility is breathed into him in order to encourage him in this difficult path; this abstract notion takes on a concrete form for him: it is embodied in the penis; he does not experience pride spontaneously in his little indolent sex organ; but he feels it through the attitude of those around him. Mothers and wet nurses perpetuate the tradition that assimilates phallus and maleness; whether they recognize its prestige in amorous gratitude or in submission, or that they gain revenge by seeing it in the baby in a reduced form, they treat the child’s penis with a singular deference.”
“Having a penis is certainly a privilege, but one whose value naturally diminishes when the child loses interest in his excretory functions and becomes socialized: if he retains interest in itpast the age of eight or nine years, it is because the penis has become the symbol of a socially valorized virility. The fact is that the influence of education and society is enormous here. All children try to compensate for the separation of weaning by seductive and attention seeking behavior; the boy is forced to go beyond this stage, he is saved from his narcissism by turning his attention to his penis, whereas the girl is reinforced in this tendency to make herself object, which is common to all children. The doll helps her,”
Beauvoir sums up her idea about the phallus as instruments of male dominance thus: “The young man is proud of his sexual propensities because he assumes his virility joyfully; sexual desire is aggressive and prehensile for him; there is an affirmation of his subjectivity and transcendence in it; he boasts of it to his friends; his sex organ is for him a disturbance he takes pride in; the drive that sends him toward the female is of the same nature as that which throws him toward the world, and so he recognizes himself in it “ In another instance she said “No one is more arrogant toward women, more aggressive or more disdainful, than a man anxious about his own virility,”
Since Helen is a product of rape, there is no gainsaying the fact that a rapist’s uncontrolled penis in this case was responsible for her low self-esteem. It was also because the rapist saw Helen’s mother as a sex object and second sex that he decided to have his way without her consent. And it was because we are in a patriarchal society where rape crimes are committed with impunity and where rape victims bottle up their feelings for of being punished and shamed that nothing was done about the rapist. Helen finds herself in a circumstance beyond her control because she was born in a society where women have little or no voice. And it was the circumstance of her birth that motivated her to aspire to greatness so she can have a voice and be recognized in society. “I used my situation to my advantage. It inspired me to always do more and be the best, instead of being depressed,” she was quoted to have said in an interview.
Helen, by being an achiever in everything she has set out to do, and by having the courage to voice out her repressed feelings, has not only vindicated herself, but has also vindicated other women and spoken for them. She has proved that no matter how difficult it is for women in a patriarchal society like Nigeria, every woman can aspire to greatness by sheer dint of hard work. She has not only spoken for herself, but has also spoken for other women in patriarchal societies. And as a proud holder of a doctorate degree in theatre arts, she is now a voice for women and her story is a vindication of not just her rights but other women’s rights.
She has also vindicated 18th century British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication Of The Rights Of Women. In her book Wollstonecraft argues that women should have education commensurate with their position in society. She also says women are important in society since they educate its children and because they are companions to their husbands rather than mere wives. She claims rather than treating women as ornaments, they should be treated as human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights as men. Since Helen has acquired the highest educational qualification, she has a sense of fulfillment akin to those who have been to break barriers and boundaries that the circumstances of their birth put them. And of course Beauvoir and Wollstonecraft must be smiling in their graves right now, and giving the thumbs up to Helen who has risen from being a product of rape, a castaway, to acquire the highest academic qualification. Nothing can be more fulfilling than that.
-Nehru Odeh, journalist, writer and poet, is the author of The Patience Of An Embattled Storyteller.