Ebele Molua said she was born privileged. An only child, she attended private schools and went abroad for her degree in Business Administration without taking on debt. She knew very little about women oppression, until she joined Twitter and started following activists like Ozzy Etomi and Damilola Marcus. To a large extent, Twitter was an “eye-opener” into the world of feminism. In March 2018, she joined a march calling for women not to be silent about gender injustice. And, in December of the same year, she joined another group to march to Yaba and demand a stop to inappropriate touching by market traders.
The morning of the December March, “it was scary,” Molua told me. “I know how Yaba boys can be.” But she didn’t back down. She donned her bright yellow shirt and joined the group of about 30, made up of mostly women. There were some policemen with them, but the officials were largely nonchalant about the trader’s aggression. “Madam no vex, na just touch,” they’d quip.
The men at the market threw pure water nylons and stones at the women, grabbed their arms and chanted ‘Holy Ghost Fire’ to counter the women’s ‘Don’t touch us’. The men pronounced the ladies harlots. “Look at what you are wearing,” they said. At some point Molua doubted whether this was the right strategy, coming out into the market, carrying placards. She felt drained and angry. But the group was vociferous and did not relent. When it was all over, Molua told me she “felt like going back.”
I met Ebele Molua, this past January, at a bar in Lagos. She was early and wore an Ankara dress and had bright eyes and a full-blown hair. “I think men are trash,” she said. Does that mean she hates men? “Oh no, I am a straight woman,” she replied. ‘Men are trash’, in her explanation, is an unequivocal condemnation of toxic masculinity. “A lot of our issues come from the Male Gender. I think the Male Gender has proven to be a threat to society.” While there are good men and bad women in society, the numbers overwhelmingly suggest that men are the male culprits of gender violence, Molua said.
She is barely interested in feminist theory (“I am not a big reader”) but she has some strong views: despite being a Christian (her father is a pastor), she doesn’t believe in the institution of marriage (“I think marriage is performative”), believes the LGBT community is valid, and is “very picky” in how she interprets the Bible.
Transforming Nigeria into a country that treats women the same way it treats men is not going to happen in a day, Molua told me. “It is going to take more than one March.” But she is full of optimism. After the Yaba March, ladies who visited Yaba market started to report that no one was touching them, something akin to a miracle. The Market March women have met with the wife of Nigeria’s Vice President, Dolapo Osinbajo and they are planning more market marches across the country.
“It is not easy to change minds, but it is going to happen,” Molua said, her face set in quiet conviction.
The Market March movement was created by Damilola Marcus, who describes herself on Twitter as “unbullyable”. Marcus has a serene countenance and her voice is small and light, features that underlie the ferocity with which she tackles patriarchy on Twitter and, as those close to her told me, in real life. Molua has described Marcus as a “fucking warrior” and said Marcus’ “bravery is beyond me.” Tobi Afolabi, one of the women who marched at Yaba, described Marcus to me as a “fighter, smart and opinionated.”
Marcus grew up in Lagos. She attended Queens College and the University of Lagos, both in Yaba. So she frequented the Yaba market often and men pulled, dragged her. Once, in the market, a guy slapped her caboose after she told him to stop dragging her. “I felt so helpless,” she said. “It was in broad daylight and nobody said anything.”
She did nothing about it until she started to hear stories from women online about the harassment they had also faced at the markets. “Their experiences were all too familiar and unsurprising as I have experienced the same myself,” she wrote in an email to me. And it was the stories that troubled, that shook her “in a way that I couldn’t ignore and I chose to do something about it.”
The call for Marchers came from Twitter. Some of the women, who I spoke to for this story, told me they had never met Marcus offline, before they decided to sign up. “It all started on Twitter,” Jekein Lato-Unah, one of the women who signed up, said. They were bounded, not by familial ties, but by the familiar stories they shared.
On the day of the March, which held on a Saturday (December 15), Marcus took the megaphone and led from the front, the bottom of her yellow shirt bunched up in a knot. She wore a palm-wine tapper’s hat.
“I felt strange but in a good way,” she said in the email. “I have for a while now been a vocal feminist, so I’m no stranger to the power and energy of resistance. The March was just different, it was empowering in an unexpected way. I let out a lot of bottled up emotions. I felt so good about my righteous rage and in the midst of all the chaos, I found comfort and reassurance in the rage, shouts, and protests of the women who marched with me. I’m proud of every single woman and man who came out to march, was proud then, still am, even more so now.”
Responding to a question about hope for women rights in Nigeria, Marcus suggested that there was no value in being pessimistic.
“Hope, that’s why I’m this passionate,” she said. “It’s the only explanation for the passion I feel each time I throw my blows at the patriarchy. I found survival in feminism and what is survival without hope? So many women have chosen to demand better and I’m not pessimistic enough to believe their demands won’t be met, it may take long but the future is in all honesty female. We’ve started and there are no breaks.”
Marcus spends considerable time on Twitter. I spent weeks compiling and reviewing her tweets. Even though she claims she is not a theory purist, she quotes scholars like Aurde Lorde, Bell Hooks and Kimberle Crenshaw and writes detailed threads that break down terms such as ‘intersectionality’. On Twitter, she has identified as bi-sexual, liberal and a defender of storytelling vis-à-vis theoretical permutations. “Feminism is survival not martyrdom or intellectual prowess,” she tweeted last December. “It is how we live, because the other choice is to simply exist.” “To understand feminism, you only need to be human. Not educated, not intellectual, just human,” an article she once re-tweeted said.
Marcus is careful in comparing western feminism with Nigeria’s, since the realities are just different. Once, her Twitter name was ‘Who Cooks Egusi Matters’, then it changed to ‘Ashawo Na Work’, a not-so-subtle jab at those who believe condemning sex-work is the same thing as defending women’s rights.
Sometimes, her timeline is a ruckus, as she engages in heated conversations, with men, women and even like-minded feminists. She appears to be constantly wary of deviations, of being overwhelmed by the rainbow of patriarchal, totalitarian views disguised as progressive. In a tweet, she warned that the liberal community would become what it fights if its priorities are not shaped by empathy but fear. “We will be the new gatekeepers of ‘truth’,” she said. “When the framework is a performance of righteousness and merely a rebelling reaction to conservatism, you don lost your way a lil.”
“Feminism is always a pot of different ideas in wild conflict,” Marcus told me. “There’s an old but very stupid saying that goes ‘how many feminists will it take to change a light bulb?’ Or something like that. So it’s not a new or regional thing that feminism takes on varying schools of thought. There are so many different things that one can prioritize, there are always going to be blind spots. There are so many different kinds of feminism. Feminism is something most women find when they’re searching to find their truest selves and we’re all different. The beauty of feminism is that in all it’s diversity there’s a consensus that women deserve much better than what society has offered them all these years. There’s a grand acknowledgment of millennia-long injustice within the movement, we all in our differences understand that although most of us found feminism through a quest for ourselves and through a longing for survival, it remains bigger than us. Feminism is colored in the way that womanity is. It is always in conflict. Is that bad or good? I think neither. If patriarchy can exist in so many different forms and colors, an adequate response to it is one that is up to the task.”
This March, I attended a series of public discussions on Lagos Island, in respect of International Women’s Day. It was organized by Olamide Jinadu and was described as The Working Girl Forum. Marcus and Jekein Lato-Unah were panelists on a session titled ‘Responding to violence and hatred in a patriarchal society’.
“I don’t think there is one formula to respond to violence,” Marcus, dressed in a white t-shirt and baggy jeans, said. “It’s almost like an artistic journey. There is no one way to challenge hate. We react to it differently.” But she did offer an advice : find a good emotional support system.
The two women Marcus and Lato-Unah took turns in responding to questions from Jinadu, who anchored the session.
“Don’t be afraid to want things,” Marcus said, referring to women. “Almost everything they taught you is a lie. I don’t see any reason why you can’t have sex for an iPhone X. That’s fine. It’s not bad to want stability. It’s okay to want money.” (Marcus has argued, on Twitter, that it is rape when a man promises a girl an iPhone in exchange for sex, and then reneges on his promise.)
“Society has normalized abuse for young girls,” Lato-Unah said. At STER (Stand to End Rape), where she is a project manager, Lato-Unah revealed that they received 11,000 rape reports from Lagos in 2017, a huge majority perpetrated by men. Rape statistics are difficult to collect in Nigeria, but at least one in every four women have been sexually assaulted before they reach the age of 18, according to one nonprofit. “Young girls go through a lot,” Lato-Unah said.
When asked to share their most controversial idea, Marcus said, “Gender is trash. I want to break down the barriers of gender.” Lato-Unah, for her own submission, responded, “kill them all.” ✚