Molara Ogundipe: Warrior, Feminist, Marxist, Trudges On

By OweiLakemfa. Words went round the University of Ife, now, Obafemi Awolowo  University, that a leading literary critic, Ms. Molara Ogundipe

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By OweiLakemfa.

Words went round the University of Ife, now, Obafemi Awolowo  University, that a leading literary critic, Ms. Molara Ogundipe (later, Professor)  from  the University of Ibadan, was visiting. She was at Ife to give a Marxist interpretation of Professor Wole Soyinka’s 1965 novel, “The Interpreters.”

This was 1980/81 when Soyinka was Head of  Ife Drama Department, and, still half a decade from his Nobel Prize.  Many found ‘The Interpreters’ a  turgid  and impenetrable novel.  The novel’s  very first statement: “Metal on concrete jars my drink lobes.”  was a put off for some. But  this leading feminist writer was coming, not just to dissect it, but give a Marxist interpretation.

The presentation went well and the newest professor on campus made a response which I did not agree with. So in my contribution, I punctured some holes in his response. The man was furious! This was not just his first outing as a professor, but to be contradicted by a student, was intolerable. He interjected   saying: “ Much  as I do not want to kill a fly with a canon, I will not tolerate any  insult” Mr.. Gordini G.  Darah (now a professor) came to my defence. He told the newly minted professor: “ A canon can kill a fly, provided it has balls” The furious professor walked out. That was the first  time I met Ogundipe. She was cerebral, quite articulate, confident and persuasive.

Some radical intellectuals including Ogundipe held a Women In Nigeria (WIN) Conference at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria from May 27-28, 1982. The participants then established an organization by that name. The objectives included defending the rights of women,  working for their  liberation and fighting for social justice. Ogundipe and other founders of WIN were quite clear that women cannot be liberated without the society itself including the working class and the poor, being liberated.

Ogundipe’s presentation, which was on the theme of the conference, encapsulated her position on the various strands of women oppression.  On race, she argued: “ The oppression of women; economic or personal, is not solely a White-Black Race confrontation although the oppression  of Black Women is deeply tied to   the variable of race  in the history of imperialism”

She noted that one of the main challenges of  women emancipation  is that: “ The liberation of women is conceived as the desire of  women to reduce men  to housekeepers.  Since most men despise  manual work  for feudal and middle class reasons, women’s liberation is feared  as an effort by women to ‘feminize’ men, that is, degrade them”

Ogundipe argued that women in traditional African societies   were quite active in the economy and that even where they  were driven indoors, they continue  to be productive, adding: “women work in purdah and sell their products through emissaries” Women, she argued, tend to be subordinated  in marriage, and  blamed for childlessness: “…as men  are never admitted to be sterile or infertile”  She added:    “ A childless woman is considered  a monstrosity…”

In this paper she presented 37 years ago, Ogundipe said: “Abortion  is not likely  to be legalized soon.”  and that women: “ can only claim  equality  within marriage  if they are willing  to share  the financial and other  burdens of marriage.”

 WIN  was also open to men, so I joined and helped to establish   its Lagos chapter. Ogundipe moved to Lagos to join the GUARDIAN Editorial Board and we worked together on the WIN project. She could not immediately secure accommodation in Lagos, and the Lagos-Ibadan shuttle  was quite burdensome. So she moved in to stay with my family in a flat in Bakinson House, Bakinson Street, Oregun.

In those days, we had endless debates, especially about her hypothesis of the seven layers of oppression she posited   the African  woman was subjected to.  Ogundipe’s  consciousness as a woman, a female in a male-dominated academic system, and being a witness to the place of women within a cultural, religious, capitalist, colonial and neo-colonial patriarchal society, firmed her postulations on the  woman.

She argued that while the woman is universally oppressed, the African woman is the most oppressed. She however insisted that rather than a blanket assumption,  women needed to be studied within their specific environment. 

Ogundipe   condensed her ideas on women in an hypothesis she called, the Social Transformation in Africa Including Women (STIWA)  Explaining  STIWA, she said: “…what we want in Africa is social transformation. It is not about warring with men, the reversal of role, or doing to men whatever women think that men have been doing for centuries, but it is trying to build a harmonious society. The transformation of African society is the responsibility of both men and women and it is also in their interest. The new word describes what similarly minded women and myself would like to see in Africa. The word “feminism” itself, seems to be a kind of red rag to the bull of African men. Some say the word by its very nature is hegemonic or implicitly so. Others find the focus on women in themselves somehow threatening ….”

As a thinker, she was conscious that coining such an acronym would be useful for mass mobilization. It gave the sense  of an ideology; Stiwanism,  while a person who identifies  with the concept could be called a  Stiwanist.

Professor Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie as she later became known,  produced a lot of intellectual works including  books like  ‘Sew the Old Days and Other Poems’ 1985, ‘Re-Creating Ourselves: African Women & Critical Transformations’ (ed.) and  ‘Moving Beyond Boundaries.’

We lost contact when she went abroad. After I returned to the country in 2015  following  a three-year absence, I was unaware she was also back. Then on March 12, 2016, I got a request from her on Messenger  for my cell number and e-mail address;  vital information tools that were absent the last time we were in contact.  We were back in  contact discussing various  issues. Then on November 13, 2018, she sent me a message for advise on the media she should write for as she intended resuming column writing.

Earlier this year, I promised that when next I am  in  Lagos or Ibadan, I will visit her in the new university in Ogun State    she was teaching.  That visit will never happen as on June 18, 2019, the warrior-academic, Marxist-Feminist- Narratologist, departed the earthly battle field for other fields.

Let me end this tribute with a poem she wrote four decades ago: “How long shall we speak to them of the goldness of mother, of difference without home How long shall we say another world lives Not spinned on the axis  of maleness But founded and who led, charting through Its many runnels its justice distributive”

Posted by: OweiLakemfa.lakemfaowei@yahoo.com

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