Women Who Read

WomenWhoReadA few days ago I came across this post by Bikozulu’s Facebook page where he was talking about his opinion on why it was important for women to read, and why he was making sure his daughter developed reading habits. I commented on it, disagreeing with what he said, and a few people responded to what I had to say. I’m trying to engage less in debates on social media because I don’t think it’s always productive (especially with a post shared among so many people) but then I had a conversation with a friend who suggested that I shouldn’t shy away from expressing a much lengthier opinion on this. So, here we go: 8 thoughts on Bikozulu’s “Women Who Read” post. As a disclaimer, I am writing this as a layperson and as a woman who has always loved to read, not as an academic authority.

A note: I’m not going to link the initial post here, simply because if you’re here you’ve probably read it already, but if not you can look up Bikozulu on Facebook and find it there.

So here goes. A few responses to responses to my response to the “Women who Read” post.

1. “But Wanjiku, it’s his opinion. Can’t you just agree to disagree?” 
Yes, I can agree to disagree. But agreeing to disagree could mean being quiet, or it could mean expressing a different opinion. Conversations are necessary and valuable, and my expressing a differing opinion is not us “arguing our minds out” as a commenter suggested, but simply put, this is what it looks like when people have conversation. Sometimes they disagree and that’s OK. And it’s valuable, because encountering someone who disagrees with you allows you an alternative perspective on the world. Furthermore, I think that it’s important to disagree when well intentioned people are saying something that is problematic given the context in which they are speaking.

2. “So why did you think this was particularly a problem?”
We live in a society that’s very unequal when it comes to men and women and the opportunities they are afforded. While there are exceptions, across the board, women are underrepresented in positions of power. And a part of this is in relation to our attitudes about women.  One of the most damaging of these is the idea that women are valuable in relation to how they are viewed by men, whether this means that they are objectified for their sex appeal, or expected to be a good wife at the expense of pursuing their own dreams. These attitudes are the reason why many girls are denied an education, and it is the reason why many people will not vote for women to be in office: this damaging belief that a woman’s role is only so narrowly defined.

An additional problem is that these attitudes are so deeply entrenched that sometimes we don’t even realize that they are damaging. It’s not only bad people who hold negative attitudes about women; most of us simply have these attitudes because it’s what we’ve been exposed to so far in our lives.

3. “But then isn’t it a good thing that Biko is encouraging women to read?” 
Yes, it is.
Yes because if he is making sure that his daughter reads, that is laudable and should be emulated. I owe my education to a series of men who encouraged the women in their lives to be well read and educated: from my grandfather who insisted on having his daughters go to school and not be circumcised or married off early, to the uncle who allowed me unfettered access to his dusty library when I visited them for holidays. We need men to value their daughters reading, and to have parents and role models who are like that is a blessing.

The reason why I respond to the post is because Biko has a platform that reaches many people, and I think that this kind of platform brings with it a great deal of scrutiny and accountability.

Which brings me to:

4. “But Wanjiku, women who read are sexy.”
 Most of what Biko says hinges upon women being sexy or attractive or respectable to men. He does say that women who read are “ballsy” and “confident”, but even that is useful because it makes them attractive to men and it makes men respect them. If we constantly see what women do in relation to how important it is to men, we miss out on the valuable contributions that they can make outside of that realm.

It’s great if you think that women who read are sexy. I do think that reading is sexy. But it is so much more than that and the question of sex appeal is only a tiny footnote, especially when we are talking about raising young girls.

And guess what? Most– if not all– women who do read would read whether or not men approved of it. It’s the same way that most women dress a certain way not for what men will think or say, but for how it makes them feel. And as a woman, I can tell you that this approach– reading for me and not for any man– is freeing because it means that if tomorrow, another man with a platform put up a post saying the opposite of what Biko says today, it wouldn’t affect me because I know that a man finding my reading attractive has been a non-issue since I was a child and fell in love with the magic of books. 

Also remember that not all men approve of women reading. In fact, a lot of (misinformed and insecure) men are threatened by women who read, precisely because women who read are “confident” and “ballsy”. On one extreme it leads to women being denied an opportunity to go to school, and much closer home, it leads to women being derided for being “too” educated. And while some people might think that solution to this problem is to show that women who read are hip and sexy, a better, more lasting solution is to simply to assign less value to the sex appeal of women.

A few other things:
5. “What about the whole idea that a man is saying that women “should/MUST” read?”
Some people didn’t like that Biko was assigning himself the role of telling women what they should or should not do, and saw that as being sexist. This was not something that occurred to me, but I do see the validity. We constantly assign rules to women that we would not necessarily assign to men. (and that’s exactly what Biko does when he says that “everyone should read but women MUST read”) For instance, some people will say, why wasn’t the post about encouraging his fellow men to value women who read?

6. “What about the boys?”
If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you know that there’s a bit of a looming crisis in Kenya when it comes to our boys and education. I can’t find the Nation article about this that I read a while back so if you know it and are reading this could you link below? I think it just proves how important it is for us to inoculate a love of learning to all of our children, whatever their gender.

7. “You don’t have to read to be smart or intelligent.”
Haha, yes. But I’m a reader and writer, so I’m shamelessly biased. 🙂

8. Well and good that you’ve said all of this. But all of this is your opinion. 
Yes it is, and even amongst women who read, you probably will find very many opinions on this. A lot of women that I like and respect liked that post, because there was something about it that resonated with them. Whether or not this post tickles your fancy, I encourage you to seek out alternative opinions from other women and to engage with them and think about them deliberately. Read books by women about their experiences. Read fiction, non fiction, blogs. I might compile a resource sheet one day but usually what I find works is to start with a famous figure (eg. Chimamanda Adichie, Taiye Selasi, Zadie Smith, Ama Ata Aidoo, Warsan Shire) and to follow the rabbit hole of the internet that will suggest to you other good sources of writing and thinking. Because you know what I’ve found to be pretty incredible? Women who write.

Thoughts? Feel free to sound off in the comments below.

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P.S. I’ve never deleted comments and I really don’t want to, so please make this easy for me by being thoughtful and considerate if you decide to engage. Thank you! 🙂