“You can’t get that shot! Let me get it for you,” said a male photographer at a wedding as he grabbed my camera and proceeded to take photos. I was too stunned to react and watched him in stupefaction. It was the one of the many times a man had told me how to work but it was also the first time someone had implied I didn’t have the technical or compositional skills to capture an image. Many years later, I would become aware that it won’t be the last as it became part of the many incidences where I would be degraded and taught how to do my job.
In 2015, I graduated from school and landed in Nigeria determined to document the everyday lives of our people. At first, I was an odd sight. “What is she doing?”, was the usual question. I am a Kanuri woman from a conversation Muslim community with a camera. It was a rarity. Once I created a social media page and started posting stories like “Humans of New York” but for Borno, the page “Bits of Borno” spread like wildfire. Countless media organizations focused on profiling me as one of the first Kanuri women photojournalists in the area. It was surreal and shocking but deeply gratifying to see how not only our image as a conflict state was changing but the discussions of the role of women in certain professions was restarting. It was deeply moving. There were many letters of support. Endless beautiful, heart warming messages from women, men and even children.
To this day, I still get messages. One of the most beautiful ones was a man who said ‘‘I showed my daughters your work and told them to pursue a career in the arts if they wanted to.” This was profound for me; Nigeria is notorious for being a place where degrees in Law, Engineering and Medicine were the preferences pushed on children as “professional” courses. Hence, this was a paradigm shift in my eyes. A welcome development. It has been five years since i picked up a camera to start documenting the impact of the Boko Haram crisis on the physical and emotional well being of our people in Borno state. However, I forgot the aftermath on my own psyche. Not only had I underestimated the toll it would take on me but I had also never imagined the sort of fame it would bring. As the buzz created by my work brought invites to many major cultural and development projects, I began to attend workshops, talks and had exhibitions around the world. Suddenly, I became acutely aware of the flipside of fame; built up resentment towards me. Many men around the certain circles in some ‘liberal’ gathering were starting to whisper about my freedom, my abilities, my marital status, my looks, my brain, my clothes. A man attacked me online for speaking at a conference. “What did you say?”, he asked in a series of mocking messages that continued to question me as the “voice” to speak about Borno.
I also began to have stalkers; someone who I met in a workshop drove to my house to say he was proposing to me. He bought the domain name for my website and later kept it. One person called me to say “they’’ as some men of the town had decided i was not marriage material as i was freely mingling with men and endlessly traveling to sleep in a hotel. “Am I supposed to sleep under a tree when I travel?’’, I asked. Silence. Different men from many works of life including influential men began to offer the usual proposals; “Meet me in Dubai’’, ‘‘Come to the Island I am in.” The objectification,
sexualization and the need to have “conquests’’ had also started. The dominant narrative of a working woman being free to be a mistress or a traveling companion is an experience many women in Nigeria have. There are enough stories to last a lifetime. But the most devastating was being told “Whatever you achieve you will have no respect because you are not married.” This time it was a woman.
The negative noise around my work and my personal life began to overwhelm me. I always knew the Nigerian state has always been viewed as one of the worst countries in the world for women; emotionally, physically. It is a place where your views are disregarded, your dress policed, your ambitions occasionally supported but within the limits that should not overshadow men. Most importantly, a male country, as a place of perceptions of women as belonging in the kitchen. “All you modern women know is writing on social media but can not even cook a meal’’, someone said to me recently. “Go cook something for me right now,” this person added. He was now on my list of men to avoid. The other one had wanted me to serve him food at the buffet style board meeting. He had seen the Chairman of the occasion being served food by a “learned colleague,” a female lawyer i respected. “The buffet is called “serve yourself in Nigeria,” I added and walked off in dismay. We were, as women in that meeting relegated to the kitchen role even as we were part of a policy making meeting. My social media is full of “Darling’’ and “Sweetheart’’ from men I’ve never met.
People may dismissively say “Look at the bright side” and ignore the negatives but it is hard when it is an everyday battle. At every turn, women in unconventional professions are often criticized. Like this image of a bullet ridden mosque in Bama, the harsh words hit you relentlessly till you are walking numb structure; full of scars and strength.
Strangely, I had battled through every sign of being belittled without being aware of the physical trauma; heartburn, insomnia. In early 2018, I decided to seek therapy again. The woman who silently listened to me mentioned the importance of boundaries; how it was crucial to create a safe space where I could avoid the type of condescension and disdain I was encountering in my life, town and country. How do you navigate working as a woman in the media? How do you mention you are doing this because it is gratifying and brings you joy telling such important stories? How do you teach men to avoid telling women how to work, how to act, how to live? How do you avoid unsolicited advice? How do you defend ourselves without being called emotional? How do I become a successful woman without being labelled unmentionable words? How do we support women without belittling them? How do we create a world where women safely pursue their dreams without toxicity? The questions are endless. The truth, however, is the fact women and men need to support each other in healthy ways.