Women can’t be heroes, they must be mothers


In the beginning- according to Yoruba mythology- the creator of the world (Olodumare), sent 17 gods to establish the earth. 16 of those gods were male and one was female: Her name was Osun.

Without consulting her, the 16 male Orisa came into earth and made decisions about the ways the world would unfold. They picked out the textures and the colours of this new world without considering or caring that Osun might have had opinions about just how brown the sand would look or how brittle it would feel. They fashioned the order of the world she would live in without asking her how she wanted to live, or even, what she needed to stay alive within it. In other words, they couldn’t have made the phrase “it’s a man’s world” any more clearer.

All of a sudden, rain stopped falling in the earth: The male Orisas watched the earth crack in the dry heat. Yet, that wasn’t the worst of it: The heat turned all the plants into ash and soon, they had no food to harvest. There was no drop of water to quench their thirst. The famine caused too much hunger and the drought- too much thirst. So the male gods spoke amongst themselves and agreed they should return to Olodumare and ask their creator for a solution.

“How many of you did I send down there?” Olodumare asked when confronted by the 16 male Orisas.

“17” one of the Orisas replied.

In the hope that they would figure out where they failed, Olodumare prodded further; “and how many of you are here now?”

They looked around and counted each other.

“16”, the same Orisa who had spoken before announced.

“One of you is missing” Olodumare confirmed as an obvious yet important fact.

“The one you seem to have forgotten is Osun who controls the river. And it is the river who controls all the water in the earth. Through her magic, she sends the water from the ground into the earth and it falls back as rain. Without her, there will be no rain. And without the rain, the soil will be dry. And if the soil is dry, there will be no food. And if there is no food, there will be no life”, said Olodumare.

All the male Orisas begged Olodumare for a solution. He refused. He left them with a warning instead: “If you ignore life, life will ignore you”

As Chinua Achebe said in Things Fall Apart, “there is no story that is not true.” No one is sure that Olodumare actually said that last line- or any of it. No one is even sure the creator is a spirit man named Olodumare. In fact, you might laugh at the whole story, but this creation story is not more far-fetched than any creation story: Just like the Christian story of Adam and Eve revealed the patriarchal culture of the countries that endorsed it, the Yoruba creation story reveals some of their old cultural values. Regardless of whether there was a tape recorder in Olodumare’s kingdom or not, the point of this story is clear: The Yoruba people who created this myth believed that Olodumare only needed to send one female Orisa, and they also believed, strongly, that She was the only Orisa with the power to nurture life or to end it.

Panic stricken, the other 16 orisas ran down to earth to beg Osun to forgive them. They wanted to live and they knew they would die without her forgiveness. Pained and pregnant, Osun made a promise: If she gave birth to a son he would act as mediator between her and them. But, if she had a daughter, there would be an impasse. In her book African Wo/man Palava, Chikwenye Ogunyemi simultaneously describes the collective panic of the male orisas and the silent strength of the single female orisa:

“The male orisa, marvelling at the magic of the womb, stunned by the silence of the womb which they could not hear, the darkness of the womb which they could not read, the mystery of the womb which they could not decipher, prayed fervently for a son”

At this point in the story, there’s an interesting dynamic that happens in the (re)telling: Though Osun is confirmed to be the orisa of all the sources of life on earth, it is never assumed that she controls the creative design of human life specifically. This is important to observe because it speaks to the constant placement of women at the center of nurturing, with the responsibility to deliver and preserve life but usually, without the honor of creating that life. Even though Osun is seen to be the source of life on earth, the Yoruba myth has establishd that Olodumare is a man, in control of the design that happens beyond the earth- He is still in control of She.

I find it interesting that mythological stories always choose to refuse logic in order to build hope for a beginning that’s magical and not logical. People want their lives to be magic. Magic here specifically means that they want the values they adore in their lives to be fully represented in the stories they tell each other about themselves. It works like a double-edged sword because myth uses storytelling to prove societal values right and in a bid to be on the right side of society, people believe myth as fact and choose to live their lives in accordance with the storylines

But, before we dive too far into finding logical details in the mythological, let us consider the moment in this Yoruba myth where the woman is only consulted when the crisis is becoming unbearable for everyone. Not just unbearable for her, but unbearable for everyone- man and woman alike. It seems like a crisis unbearable for women is just a mere fact of life as a woman but a crisis unbearable for everyone warrants all 16 Orisas travelling to Olodumare’s palace to declare a national emergency. But in fact, we are not sure how long Osun had to suffer alone and in isolation from the world she was sent to live and lead.

How did they forget her, how long did it take for her to realize they might never remember her if she didn’t remind them?

This idea of forgetting female pain mirrors the frequent nationalisation of male suffering. The stakes for male and female pain are quite different: One of them is made to seem at odds with the very idea of their identity while the other one is made synonymous and inseparable from their identity. While the physical pain women go through is categorized as “female pain,” the pain men go through is nationalized and made to stand alone in its glass box as just pain. Male pain is displayed to be the biggest tragedy while female pain is normalized to be psychological inconvenience which women choose to complain about. Male pain is a threat to masculine strength and endurance while female pain is femininity.

Leslie Jamison articulated this perfectly in her book The Empathy Exams:

“The moment we start talking about wounded women, we risk transforming their suffering from an aspect of the female experience into an element of the female constitution—perhaps its finest, frailest consummation. The ancient Greek Menander once said: “Woman is a pain that never goes away.” He probably just meant women were trouble, but his words hold a more sinister suggestion: the possibility that being a woman requires being in pain, that pain is the unending glue and prerequisite of female consciousness.”

To use “Woman” as a metonymy for “Pain” is to give Woman little or no opportunity to be anything other than pain. To say women feel pain is closer to a truth. To say some women get pained is even closer to a more specific, and more accusatory truth. But to say “Woman is a Pain” is to marry Woman and Pain in a pre-destined union that cannot be argued or treated away. So then the question arises, why bother? Why bother finding treatment for a pain that has always been around and in fact, never goes away.

Well, maybe there is a lot of physical pain involved with female bodies but the frequency of that pain never overrides its intensity. For instance, because female cramps are repetitive does not mean we get numbed to the pain. It’s just like jumping in the pool- even though your body gets used to the cold water, you’ll always feel the shocking cold whenever you leave and decide to jump back in. To be less metaphorical and more specific, your body will not always get used to the intense back aching pain that sometimes means you find no comfort sitting, standing or even lying down. For some of us, once-every month- when the red fairy arrives with her wicked step-sibling, Cramps, we literally don’t know where to put our bodies. I once found my friend in a bathroom stall where she had thrown up so much that she became weak and fainted on the cold floor. It wasn’t alcohol, it wasn’t food- it was the extent of pain from her period cramps. Because it happens every month doesn’t mean it becomes less painful: Pain is painful, no matter how often it arrives.

“A 2001 study called “The Girl Who Cried Pain” tries to make sense of the fact that men are more likely than women to be given medication when they report pain to their doctors. Women are more likely to be given sedatives. The study makes visible a disturbing set of assumptions: It’s not just that women are prone to hurting—a pain that never goes away—but also that they’re prone to making it up. The report finds that despite evidence that “women are biologically more sensitive to pain than men … [their] pain reports are taken less seriously.” Less seriously meaning, more specifically, “they are more likely to have their pain reports discounted as ‘emotional’ or ‘psychogenic’ and, therefore, ‘not real.’ ” – Leslie Jamison

There’s a systemic erasure of female pain and at the same time, a prioritization of male suffering. For example, historically, during wars of national independence, women were often asked to keep their problems on hold while men they (i.e men) fix bigger problems, as if female life and public life are mutually exclusive concepts. Even today, movements for Black Lives Matter have been moved and even created by women. But yet, fights for issues regarding Black women’s rights for equal wages are still prefixed as “women’s issues”; generally left alone as issues regarding women and therefore only women’s business to deal with. In a scholarly conversation about Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity, Professor Najmabadi addresses the lingual reflection of this separation of women from normal. In her book, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards, she claims that the so-called “gender-neutrality” of Persian just meant the exclusion of women from the text: “When One meant to say “she”, One had to say so”…in comparison to the all encompassing “he” that addresses everyone, speaks for everyone and yet excludes.

“Men would be at the center of the text; women would mark the margins”– Afsaneh Najmabadi

Instead of acknowledging that issues that greatly affected the quality of women’s lives were being sidetracked, women were asked to “stay in line.” Staying in line was seen as prioritizing national freedom over personal freedom. Furthermore, by using narratives of freedom to promise safety and happiness to women, the men were able to disguise their need to express and validate their usefulness as sacrifice and, mostly, goodwill for the women. Professor Najmabadi uses the crises in Iran as the looking glass through which she confirms that:

“Manliness performed by women was a marker of shame by men…National sovereignty and masculine honor became the prizes of a changed regime…Women’s presence on the streets was often viewed as a sign of things gone wrong”

By this, she claims-rightfully so- that the male ego to prove himself as saviour was probably stronger than the selfless motivation to save female life.

Ever so unfortunately, we are convinced we have to see things to believe they are real and true. Loss of male life in struggle wins decorations and honor but loss of female life in the struggle to endure female pain is not always rewarded to the same extent because loss of female life is not the struggle we see; it is not romanticized because it doesn’t seem to happen for any cause.

In Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, the King’s Horseman- Elesin- is called to kill himself in order to be a companion to the  King who has just died. When one of the women asks if he is scared to die, he lets her understand that it is in not dying that he loses everything: “Life is honour. It ends when honour ends,” he says. As it is his job is to be with the King all through his life and his death, Elesin does not believe there is anything worth living for but that which he was called to do as the King’s Horseman. If you can understand a character like this, you can  also understand the mentality of many male citizens who believe it is the core of masculine identity to protect women. Like masculine machismo and bravado that disguises itself as selfless sacrifice, Elesin shows us that there is a loss greater than the loss of physical life: The Loss of Masculine Pride that begets Male Entitlement. It manifests itself in statements or demands that bear this grammatical structure: “I do X for you, therefore, the least you could do is Y” A lot of masculinity is performed in the way that we can see the “X” that masculinity is called to do: We see the wars that happen, we see the money that pays the bills every month, we watch masculine aggression, live, in the stadium.  What does that mean for us women who survive with female pain that is mostly invisible?

We don’t know change when we don’t see it. Think about it: When we think about revolutions, we think of visible signs of frustration: people marching; people talking (loudly, on megaphones); people fighting; or, people dead- all visible signs of active disruption. Change is usually marked by sacrifice; doing something you would normally, not do. Heroes are people who transcend their ordinary selves to save lives. So in that case, how can we acknowledge that childbirth revolutionized the world if childbirth is not disruptive but expected. And furthermore, since it’s expected, it seems like it ceases to become impressive. It’s just like pain when gendered: the pain doesn’t need to be treated as a disruption of your body’s normal functions because it is the normal function of the female body to experience (and therefore withstand) all kinds of pain. For too long, pain has been marketed to us as the joy of motherhood.

But Chinua Achebe cautions any and every single story; “Wherever something stands, another thing stands beside it,” he once said. Where these joys of motherhood stand- supposedly available for all women to enjoy- there is also the pain of motherhood that stands right beside it. Sometimes, (dare I say, often) Pain is the sister that stands in front, and eclipses Joy. When Pain (in it’s many colours and textures) stands in front, it often stands misunderstood & misdiagnosed as entitlement, cowardice, childishness, weakness, ungratefulness. At  worst, older women spit on it as a foreshadowing of the modernity that always threatens to ruin us all; the one that will turn women into disrespectful wives and spineless mothers who don’t know that pain is cultural…pain is authentic and original. That’s why husbands have lost wives because their pastors only allow Hebrew births. 

I remember this one time in high school when I all-but-crawled into the clinic for some painkillers for my horrible menstrual cramps. One of my male friends saw me looking like 100% less of myself and asked me why. “Cramps” I said. He said sorry and moved on to his next class. Almost immediately, the nurses stopped what they were doing and called me in to berate me for being “shameless enough” to tell a man I was on my period. For a while, I zoned out to think about how they only needed one nurse to fix my oxygen tank, get me injected, and put me into an ambulance before I ran out of breath during my last asthma attack. But now, when I needed to understand how “shameless” I was, I was surrounded by  about three nurses and one cleaner. I guess saving my female grace is no small task after all.

“Besides, what is it you’re even complaining about? Is it not menses that everyone has?”

“ Are you the first to have cramps?”

“ Don’t you know that you should even be happy to feel the pain.?”

“ Don’t you want to know you’re a woman?”

Three nurses, and one cleaner, attacked me with these statements, disguised as questions. Then, they agreed they needed to to teach me a lesson on enjoying female pain; they sent me back to class without painkillers. I was hurt but I did not complain; I turned around and all-but-crawled back into a class of 14 year olds already taught to see any and all female pain expressed, as exaggerated.

Why are you complaining, all women have cramps.

Why are you crying, all women give birth.

Erasing female pain is a way to recover from its intensity. It’s like the end of the horror movie when the family looks back- bloodied and tired- at their haunted house and says “Let’s pretend that never happened” Unfortunately, female pain is not something that “happened” in past tense; it happens.  It comes, and goes and comes and comes in expected and surprising ways. A body that can build other bodies is bound to be a bit more complex than jigsaw. Yet, the systemic erasure, fashioned by the matriarch police, makes women hide pain so deeply under their skin, that rumours of its existence float around like myth. So that when a woman is so full of pain that she cannot find any pockets to tuck anymore within her, we don’t know how to accept that her pain hurts her as much as she says it does. We can only say; “how come it hurts only her? Is she the first?”

It’s easy to read the story of Osun and think she wasn’t a hero, she was just a woman. Apparently, women can’t be heroes because they have to be mothers, and what type of mother wouldn’t save life?

Is she the first?



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