Interview: Titi Arowolo On Feminism and The State of Women's Rights in Nigeria
Nigeria-born, U.S.-based activist Titi Arowolo on feminism, women's rights in Nigeria and the people who inspire her work.
Hey Titi! To begin with could you give some insight into who you are and why you got involved in activism?
I am Titilayo Arowolo, a second year student at the University of Chicago. Simply put, I am a girl with a voice who wants to use it to elevate the voices of other girls just like me. I am passionate about women’s rights and I am constantly thinking about how I can increase opportunities for women in my home country of Nigeria, most of whom have been marginalized by women’s rights movements in the past.
I became socially engaged as a reaction to the sex-based discrimination which I encountered everywhere I went. When I heard that one of my aunties was hit by her husband, I knew I had to speak up. It was only then that I realized that almost every woman I knew personally had been either sexually assaulted or harassed by a male figure in their lives.
As a Nigerian, you must feel an immense sense of pride regarding the recent anti-SARS protests against police brutality. The protests have received a lot of international attention. What impact do you think they will have on Nigerian politics and discourse moving forward?
I do. I feel very happy, inspired and hopeful. I think the END SARS protests have shown the strength and resilience of the Nigerian people. We have come to realize we deserve more than what we are being given: from the government, from society and from within our own communities.
The protests mark a shift in the collective psyche of the Nigerian people: we can now dream of better lives and collective wellbeing, and seek the solutions needed to get us there. I am not overly optimistic because most of the issues plaguing Nigeria – the ones being protested at the END SARS rallies - are deeply rooted in existing systems of oppression and injustice, which will take hard work and continued dedication to solve.
As a self-described “budding feminist”, what would you say are the biggest challenges facing women’s liberation in Nigeria today?
The challenges facing women’s liberation in Nigeria today are mostly cultural and generational. A lot of Nigerian women don’t know that it is possible for a woman to be independent, and confident in her fullness.
We are taught, from a young age, that the only way a woman can thrive is if she clings onto a man. And note my use of the gender binary (woman and man) here. In Nigeria, rigid gender constructs mean there is little space to exist outside of them.
Girls can still go to school and get good jobs, of course, but education and success are always secondary to the idea that a girl should settle down, marry a man and have children. Because of this, relationships between men and women are often fraught. Men of authority have this false sense of superiority over women – and they believe that women must submit to them. This manifests itself in many ways: rape, domestic abuse and sexual harassment, namely.
"Men of authority have this false sense of superiority over women – and they believe that women must submit to them. This manifests itself in many ways: rape, domestic abuse and sexual harassment, namely."
How can the international community support the Nigerian people’s political movements from afar?
There is this speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche – the Nigerian feminist – called “The Danger of a Single Story.” Chimamanda delivered this speech to an American audience, and yet so many of my friends in Nigeria have told me about how that speech affected their lives and the way they tell their stories as Nigerians. So it would be helpful for non-Nigerians to listen, create space and award opportunities to experts on Nigerian issues in the U.S. and beyond to tell their stories.
A lot of the response that we saw from the government in Nigeria regarding the END SARS movement came because celebrities and leaders globally united to put pressure on the Nigerian government to act. Change has definitely started from within Nigeria, but it is important that we have support from the outside as well, from countries with means and resources, especially.
Who are some political leaders, activists and organizers who inspire you and your work?
I recently just started gathering the courage to speak up on issues that mean a lot to me. I am inspired first and foremost by my mother – in fact, she is the reason why I do what I do today. Her courage as a single mother, who left behind a high-position in Nigeria to move to America with her three children, is beyond inspiring. I am eternally grateful to her, and everything she’s sacrificed for me.
Yara Shahidi was the first activist I really started learning from. Her favorite quote is by James Baldwin, and one which I’ve come to relate to a lot: “The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” It made me think about the different ways I behave, and ask myself if I’m acting authentically, or if it’s some culturally-imposed norms which are guiding me to act in a certain way. Nadya Okamoto is another activist who I look up to. Learning about her life and the work she has done pushed me to do great things.
Finally, what do you have planned for the future?
I just recently dropped out of the pre-med track at my university because I wanted to focus on elevating the important work that my organization, Fe-Unite, aims to do. Fe-Unite is an organization that works to empower every individual to care deeper for women. We are re-vamping our focus to concentrate on uplifting women in Nigeria and I am very excited for all we have planned this year. We are working to gather resources and create opportunities for women to start businesses and build life-enhancing skills that will give them financial freedom and independence. We are also working on gathering funds through crowd funding to start public awareness campaigns about women in Nigeria through social media. I am beyond honored to be able to do this work and I hope to continue to create the space for women to thrive.
BIOGRAPHY: Titilayo Arowolo is in second year at the University of Chicago and is passionate about women’s rights. Born and raised in Nigeria, Titi came to the U.S. when she was fifteen and is currently the leader of Fe-Unite, an organization that aims to empower individuals to care deeper for women.