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Women Can’t Be Heroes The Erasure of Female Pain and the Nationalization of Male Suffering

In the beginning, according to a version of the Yoruba creation story, Olodumare, the creator of the universe, sent 17 Oriṣas on a mission to establish the earth. 16 of them were male and one was female; her name was Oṣun. Without informing Oṣun, the 16 male Oriṣas made decisions about the ways in which the Earth would unfold. They picked out the textures and the colours of this new world without considering that Oṣun might have her own views about just how brown the sand should look or how fine it should feel. Essentially, 16 male Oriṣas fashioned the order of the world without asking Oṣun how she wanted to live; or, even, what she needed to stay alive within it.

All of a sudden, rain stopped falling on Earth. The male Oriṣas watched the earth crack in the dry heat. But 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 Oriṣas.

“17” one of the Oriṣas 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 Oriṣa 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 Oṣun, who controls the river. And it is the river that controls all the water in the earth. Her body is the ocean that sends water into the clouds to fall as rain that quenches Earth’s thirst. 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 Oriṣas begged Olodumare for a solution. He refused. Instead, he left them with a warning. “If you ignore life,” He said, “life will ignore you.”

In Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe wrote, “there is no story that is not true.” No one is certain that Olodumare actually said any of those lines in the preceding drama. But just like the Christian story of Adam and Eve has, for centuries, revealed the patriarchal culture of the societies that endorse it, the Yoruba creation story reveals some of its people’s old cultural values. The Yoruba creators of this myth believed that Olodumare only needed to send one female Oriṣa, and they also believed, strongly, that she was the only Oriṣa with the power to restore or end life.

Panic-stricken, the 16 male Oriṣas rushed to Earth to beg Oṣun to forgive them. They wanted to live and they knew that they would die without her forgiveness. Pained and by this time pregnant, Oṣun made a promise: if she gave birth to a son, he would act as mediator between the male Oriṣas and her. But, if she had a daughter, there would be an impasse. In her book, African Wo/man Palava: The Nigerian Novel by Women, Chikwenye Ogunyemi simultaneously describes the collective panic of the male Oriṣas and the subtle strength of Oṣun. She writes:

“The male Oriṣa, 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 Oṣun is confirmed to be the Oriṣa 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 female entities at the centre of nurturing, with the responsibility to deliver and preserve life but usually, without the honour of creating that life. Most times, women are seen more as a vessel through which power may come and less like the origin of power itself.

Even though Oṣun is seen to be the source of life on earth, the Yoruba myth has established that Olodumare is a male entity, in control of the design that happens beyond Earth – He is still in control of She. Even though it seems logical to believe that the one who can give birth, is the one who starts the world, the myth is reversed so that He who cannot form the child in His womb is the one who designs She who can.

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We all want our lives to be magic, where the want of magic implies that we want the values we adore in our real lives to be fully represented in the stories we tell each other about ourselves. This explains how the stories that people proclaim, about the beginning of human life, are usually filled with traces of what they hope human life should live up to. Myth may refuse logic in order to create a rationale for the world as is, even if that world as is, is not rational at all. And when one has the authority, one’s preferences can become standards through the retelling of myth that works in one’s favour.

If those in charge of the world think the world is created by men, the storytellers will invent stories about the man who created the world. If we looked more closely into each culture’s creation myth, we might discover just how much the legend-makers used the ideals of their lived era to make myths about their unlived past.

Yet, through the sanctification of these stories—usually through religious affirmation—these mythical pasts present themselves as ahistorical and omniscient; as Truth that always is and always has been. But, making time-sensitive preferences appear ahistorical and sacred are some of the ways humans make infinite claims of virtue and unassailable power that are beyond our competence, if not our reach. According to Toni Morrison in her 2004 commencement speech to Wellesley College, such unfounded but authorized certainty to say “the world is so,” simply because one (with power) believes “so,” is an attempt by “finite humans to make decisions of infinite damage”.

With spiritual backing, myth uses storytelling to confirm the rightness of societal values; and in a bid to be on the right side of society, people believe myth as fact and then, choose to live their lives in accordance with the storylines of those myths. Unfortunately, it is usually a vicious cycle because most of the historic myths were made more on elite convictions than tested evidence. The story of how Galileo was killed for saying the world was round—not flat—is famous and tragic, but that same story is neatly tucked away when we cling onto other laws and traditions made without evidence, usually made to preserve power, more than broaden thought.

But, before analysing the general tendencies of mythology, reconsider the moment in our Yoruba creation myth where the female divine entity is only consulted when crisis has become unbearable for everyone; and particularly, the male Oriṣas. It is their own personal discomfort that drives them into Olodumare’s palace. Whereas they ignored her input on creating a beautiful world, they consult Oṣun to fix a problematic one. This practice of disregarding the feminine runs behind that of centring the masculine; and it is along a similar vein that the dismissal of female pain follows the frequent nationalization of male suffering.

The stakes for male and female pain are quite different: one gender of pain is made to seem at odds with the very idea of its gender while the other pain is presumed synonymous with and inseparable from its gender. While the physical pain women go through is categorized as ‘female pain’, the pain men go through is nationalized and made to stand alone as just pain. Male pain is displayed as epic tragedy while female pain is normalized as a psychological inconvenience and, further, trivialized as an inconvenience that women choose to complain about. Male pain is a threat to the strength and endurance of masculinity while female pain is femininity.

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For a long time, the modern world has been obsessed with frail women. Women who are unable to hold their own, and so, need men to save them. By modern, I mean a world that has within it patriarchal colonial histories and tendencies. In this world, women are often described as potential hysterics which is to say that if a woman speaks in a way that isn’t understood, the burden of being incoherent lies with her when the fault of not understanding could be the listener’s. In the film Changeling, Angelina Jolie’s character, Christine Collins, has been lied to; the Los Angeles Police Department has attempted to rescue her kidnapped son but they have brought back a boy that is not her son. She knows that her son has not been circumcised and this boy is. She is frustrated because the police are doing nothing to find her own son because they believe he has been found.

Throughout the film, Ms Collins speaks like she is afraid to hear her own voice. So, in fact, when she breaks through her quiet shell to scream her frustration, the police—much like the audience— is shocked. In response to his shock, the director of police sends her to the psychiatric ward, where she befriends a woman bruised by a policeman who wouldn’t pay for her sex work. Both women, like many others, consistently have their pain dismissed as psychological overreaction, driven more by a schizophrenic illusion than an intelligent, objective assessment of reality.

Based on a true story, the fabrications of the Los Angeles police could thrive under the strength of the perception of women like Ms Collins as crazy, driven more to exaggeration than realization. This, too, has a history: the word ‘Hysteria’ is derived from the Greek word Hysteria which translates to Uterus. For Hippocrates (who coined the term), the prescription for “hysterical maidens” was marriage “for they are cured by pregnancy.” This historical conflation of women’s physical pain with women’s psychological well-being is not ancient at all. In a collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, the American novelist Leslie Jamison articulates the consequences of this conflation perfectly:

“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.” Perhaps he meant, simply, that women are troublesome, 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 metonym for ‘Pain’ is to give Woman little 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 wed Woman and Pain in such a way that the union cannot be easily argued against, or the pain treated away.

And even if female bodies may undergo a substantial degree of physical pain, the frequency of pain does not override its intensity. For instance, that menstrual cramps are repetitive does not mean women become numb to menstrual pains. The 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 women, once-every month, we literally don’t know where to put our bodies. I once found a friend in a bathroom stall where she had thrown up so much that she fainted on the cold floor. The cause 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

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The erasure of female pain and the simultaneous prioritization of male suffering are not only historical but also persistent. During wars of national independence, women were often asked to keep their problems on hold while they—the men—fixed bigger problems. It was almost as if female life and public life were mutually exclusive concepts. Even today, national movements such as #BringBackOurGirls and #BlackLivesMatter were created and led by women. Yet fights for issues regarding women’s rights or 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.

Even women’s sports are sectioned off as lesser sports. Based on the number of people who watch these games, the “Women’s world cup” is perceived as an appendage to the central (more authentic) World Cup. Compared to the 1 billion viewers who watched the final match of the 2014 men’s World Cup, the 2015 final match of the Women’s world cup only had 20.3 global viewers. While the live matches generated the largest African audience in Nigeria, it was still a viewing of 0.4million viewers as compared to the 10million viewings for the 2014 men’s World Cup.

During the last [men’s] World Cup, the office where I was interning organized collective viewing sessions, providing small chops and drinks, permitting the suspension of all work. On the other hand, I found out the Women’s World Cup had happened by the time the winners had already won. Even if one might argue that sports is a man’s thing, why must the man’s thing be the thing that drives public holidays, religious feasts, and national ceremonies? And even if we choose to oppose masculine energy with the feminine, why didn’t we all gather that way to watch the beauty pageants? These questions are important in a world where these viewings affect how much the players get respected or even paid: when Germany’s team won the 2014 World Cup, they were awarded $35 million; when the US women’s team beat Japan to the 2015 cup, they were awarded $2 million. Whatever opposition happens in this modern world is not just a direct opposition of X and Y, it is a weighted opposition where the further X opposes from Y, the more inferior or superior X is from Y.

According to US daily newspaper, the Washington Post, “Fox grabbed an estimated $17 million in ads from corporate sponsors of the elite women’s matches — a tiny fraction compared to the $529 million ESPN pocketed in sponsorship revenue from last year’s [men’s] tournament in Brazil.” This affects a lot; from the final wage the players get to the quality of the field they play in (while the men got to play in fields of lush grass, the female players had to endure turf burns from playing on artificial turfs throughout the World Cup tournament). Without a doubt, these binaries are more vertically placed than horizontal.

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In a conversation about gender in Iran, Iranian-American historian and gender-theorist, Afsaneh Najmabadi addresses the lingual reflection of this separation of women from ‘normal’. Her book, Women with Moustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity, claims that the “gender-neutrality” of Persian language only means 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 women (and children) as Speaker-Subject. “Men”, she wrote, “would be at the centre of the text; women would mark the margins.”

It is often very easy to claim that women have desired this invisibility for themselves. A man once told me that I didn’t need to learn how to drive because I could easily find a man to do my driving. In his opinion, I failed to know how to use what I have to get what I want. I asked myself, “What do I have? (My hands/my vagina?); What do I want? (To drive/to get to places?).” He told me, over and over again, that he knows that I long for the day when I can sit at home doing nothing but pampering my face. Impotence–the constant consuming without producing–is what that man assumed to be the dream of my life. In the famous Greek play, Medea, by Euripides, Medea, already abandoned by Jason, bites back at the thought that simply sitting pretty in impotent silence is a kind of dignity:

They say that we live a life free of danger
at home while they face battle with the spear.
How wrong they are. I would rather stand three times
in the line of battle than once bear a child.

Many men, from my experience, don’t know that much about women. A lot of men know how women are supposed to appear but they don’t know that what men have constructed and studied (and, sometimes, even married) are not complete beings but objects—flattened and stretched out of the ability to be nuanced and varied: in other words, the women they know are myths that have come to stand in for what women really are. And as a result, many women have also come to know themselves through the eyes that prefer the myth of femininity to the reality of existing wholly and fully in a female body. Then, these men argue, that who they think women are is who women really are.

Instead of acknowledging that issues that greatly affected the quality of women’s lives were being side-tracked, authorities, Professor Najmabadi explains, women in Iran 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.

In Women with Moustaches, Professor Najmabadi uses the 20th century power struggle between the autocratic monarchs and the Iranian parliaments as the looking glass through which she argues that: “Manliness performed by women was a marker of shame by men… National sovereignty and masculine honour 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—and rightfully so—that the male ego, man’s drive to prove himself as saviour, was probably stronger than his selfless motivation to save female life.

It is not that women don’t do the work; it is that they are given responsibility without sufficient reward. Often, and 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 honour but loss of female life in the struggle to endure what has been designated “female pain” is not always rewarded to the same extent because loss of female life tends to involve struggles that go unseen. Such struggles are not romanticized because they do not seem to happen at all.

In Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, the King’s horseman, Elesin, is called to kill himself in order to accompany the king who has just died to the afterlife. When a woman asks the Elesin if he is scared to die, he explains that it is in not dying that he loses everything: “Life,” he says, “is honour. It ends when honour ends.” As it is his job is to be with the king in life and in 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 Elesin, you can also understand the mentality of many male citizens who believe it is the core of masculine identity to protect women.

Via his own masculine machismo and bravado that disguises itself as selfless sacrifice, Elesin shows us that there is loss greater than the loss of physical life; the loss of masculine pride. I have seen men get visibly shaken when I refuse to let them lend me their jackets, or pull out my seat. It is not that they care for me so much as they feel a rejection of the very thing that adds substance to their being as men. More than disappointment, there is shame because the rejection from my femininity is, to men, a subtle but significant rejection of their masculinity. There, lies a death that is arguably more excruciating than a physical death because it kills the ego, leaving the person to live while facing questions about what they are if they are not ‘manly’ enough or too ‘womanly’ in a Cartesian world that obsesses about the structure of gender, and the binary opposition of genders.

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We do not know change unless we see it. When we think about revolutions, we imagine visible signs of frustration: people marching; people talking (loudly, on megaphones); people fighting; or, people dead- all signs of active disruption. Change, is usually marked by sacrifice and often requires doing something you would normally, not do. A lot of masculinity is performed in the way that we can see what masculinity is called to do: we see the wars that happen, we see the money that pays the bills every month, we watch more of masculine aggression live at the stadium, in the ring. What does that mean for us women who have—historically—been confined to take up roles in which pain does not wear plain clothes…where pain is mostly internal, mostly invisible, yet real?

I also wonder whether all that pain is actually invisible or hidden. Heroes are people who transcend their ordinary selves to save lives. So, in that case, how can we acknowledge that childbirth revolutionizes the world if childbirth is not disruptive but expected? Since it is expected, the act of giving birth ceases to be impressive. 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. I think of the ancient Greek Menander, Woman is a Pain…She never goes away. I think of Nnu Ego in Buchi Emecheta’s Joys of Motherhood, trying to give birth quietly in the night, so that she does not wake her husband who has to get up early the next morning for work.

For too long, pain has been marketed to women as the joy of motherhood. 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 eclipses Joy. When Pain (in its many colours and textures) stands in front, it often stands misunderstood and misdiagnosed as entitlement, cowardice, childishness, weakness, ungratefulness. At worst, older women spit on the revelation of pain as a foreshadowing of the modernity that always threatens to ruin womanhood; that will turn women into disrespectful wives and spineless mothers who don’t know that pain is cultural, authentic and original.

Once, in high school, when I all-but-crawled into the clinic for some painkillers, one of my male friends saw me looking less like 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 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, during a previous asthma attack, they had only needed one nurse to fix my oxygen tank, get me injected, and put me into an ambulance before I ran out of breath. But now, when I needed to understand how “shameless” I was, about three nurses and a cleaner surrounded me. Saving the 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 teach me a lesson on enjoying female pain by sending me off to class without painkillers. I was hurt but I did not complain; I turned around and all-but-crawled back into a class of fourteen-year-olds already taught to see any and all female pain expressed, as exaggerated.

Erasing female pain is, often, a way to recover, and even hide, from its intensity. It is 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, a woman’s pain is not something of the past tense. It comes and it goes in unexpected and surprising ways. It comes in feminine ways, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s a period cramp, and sometimes it is a major stomach illness waiting to be diagnosed for what it is.

Yet, the systemic dismissal of femininity makes women bury 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, “That’s how they all complain” or “How come it hurts only her? Is she the first?” We are taught to see Woman that is already always a pain before noticing that women are deserving of the humanity that comes in recognising pain⎈