When Beyoncé performed ‘Drunk In Love’ at the 2014 Grammys my Facebook feed
was alight with commentary. Some of my friends loved the bold sensuality that oozed from her performance, others wondered how could she perform such an uninhibited display of sexiness “as a mother”.
In my opinion, her self-titled album, released the year after giving birth to her first child, showcased an assertive grip on her sexuality that we hadn’t seen before. The coy flirtation and performative innocence was gone, and in it’s place was a lip-licking, rocket-riding woman aware of every curve and crevice of her body, owning her pleasure and desire, her confidence and her second-guesses with no disclaimers or even a PR-ready album title to package it in. But still the critique that I heard from many was “she’s a mother now, how dare she?!”
It’s funny how once you become a mother, this saintly and pious role is somehow meant to strip you of the sexual part of your being. There can be upsides to this: I’ve experienced a significant decrease in street harassment and catcalling since the day I became visibly pregnant.
But still this flattening of the multi-dimensional nature of our identities as women and mothers is another function of patriarchy. We are expected to stay within fixed lanes of identity and self-expression.
This is why when I was browsing the books published by Ankara Press, the romantic fiction imprint of Nigerian publishing house Cassava Republic, one particular story stood out to me. It was called ‘A Taste of Love’ by Sifa Asani Gowon, and told the story of Adoo, a single mother living in Jos, Nigeria exploring desire and romantic possibilities. I found a story like this fascinating, especially in the context of a society known to be very conservative in its view of sexuality and women.
While Sifa considers herself personally to be quite conservative, she recognises the double standards often present in her community. “There is a thin line between a conservative view and a hypocritical one,” she says. “Nigerian society many times excuses behavior in men that women are derided or even punished for. You will hear of men insisting on marrying ‘good girls’ while giving themselves license to ‘explore’ the daughters and sisters of others!”
While she believes that the basic expectations of mothers haven’t changed from
generation to generation, Sifa does see views on women’s sexuality evolving over time. “I think that the view of sex and women enjoying it is changing and in many ways that is a good thing,” she says. “However, I am of the opinion that change ought to be holistic and beneficial for not just a specific gender, but society as a whole.”
“With the evolution of sexual ideals, there are pros and cons,” she continues, “[and] it’s up to people to interpret these changes and imbibe them as they decide [best] based on their ideas and beliefs.”
But ideas about the sexuality of mothers in particular, often seem quite rigid and unforgiving, not just in Nigerian society, but across most cultures.
“I think that to a great extent ideas about sexuality come from a combination of tradition, religion and societal norms,” Sifa replied when I asked her about it. “Because a mother is seen as a nurturer and family pillar, many would relegate her to a place where she is ‘undefiled’ by such ‘base’ desires. The irony is that if she didn’t give in to those desires the children wouldn’t have appeared in the first place!”
Sifa’s response reminded me of the way that our lives as women are compartmentalised; Childbirth is separated from the sexual act of conception, a devoted mother is distinct from a woman with desire. Somehow we’re meant to exist in this disjointed way, ready to shapeshift into whatever form society may need of us in that moment.
“I think that because society demands so much from mothers, and mothers demand so much from themselves, there is a sense of ‘guilt’ that comes when mothers now begin to want something,” Sifa expands on her earlier point. “A mother who desires and enjoys sex is sometimes looked upon with mild to raging disgust, irritation or impatience – as though caring for children somehow erases those needs. That isn’t so. As women, mothers can and should enjoy sex.” In a society whose conservatism is underpinned by religious devotion, Sifa points out that “even the Bible encourages husbands and wives to enjoy sex together, there’s an entire section devoted to that.”
Talking about the themes of her novel Sifa says “I think it was more about the theme of ‘second chances’, forgiveness and the inner strength that comes as a result of hard circumstances bolstered by faith.” As a writer she likes to challenge herself by writing characters from different backgrounds and life experiences, but ultimately she loves writing romance fiction in order to explore the dynamics of relationships.
Of the heroine at the centre of ‘A Taste of Love’ Sifa says: “I wanted a female character to embody vulnerability but not weakness; desire underlined by wisdom; freedom but not license.” So much of the canon of heralded African literature – similar to literature across the world – is the work of men. It’s vitally important that authors like Sifa and the other storytellers at Ankara Press are writing the multidimensional lives of African women, immortalising their reality, struggles and desire in ways that are true and familiar.
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Jendella Benson is a photographer, writer and filmmaker based in London. She writes about issues of faith, race, identity, feminism and the arts for various publications online and offline, and is also an occasional public speaker and workshop facilitator. She tweets regularly from @JENDELLA and more of her work can be found at www.jendella.co.uk.