Navigating Feminism and Romantic Desire

Nigerian Women Discuss Relationship Expectations, and offer tips for Dating in a Highly Misogynistic Society

It’s a daunting experience to be sexually attracted – through no choice of yours – to those who oppress you. By this I refer to the individuals belonging to the group responsible for your ongoing suppression, both personally and systemically. This challenge is amplified when living in Nigeria, a country ranked one of the most dangerous to live in as a woman. As a heterosexual feminist striving for individual and romantic improvement, navigating the dating field and building meaningful connections becomes exponentially difficult within such an inhospitable environment. 

In this interview condensed for length and clarity, seven Nigerian women discuss the complexities of dating and nurturing desire as feminists. They  explore effective strategies for dealing with misogynistic men, and how feasible it is to foster intimacy with men who oppose our fundamental freedoms.

“Feminism is my religion,” says Aliyah, a ghostwriter and bookseller. “I have zero tolerance for men who oppose it. ‘Decentering men’ may be a phrase that’s been thrown around a lot, but its significance cannot be overstated. Heterosexual relationships can only be fulfilling for feminist women when men are completely decentered.” Reflecting on a past encounter, Aliyah recounts a fling that lasted over three months. “After I posted something one day, he replied with a crudely misogynistic remark. I blocked him in the next breath and moved on.”

Aliyah believes that many feminist women compromise in their romantic relationships. “I believe the key to a successful relationship with a man as a feminist is being prepared to walk away when his actions or words contradict your beliefs. Eventually, feminist women end up settling. It’s not a wise choice.” According to Aliyah, if women aren’t afraid to end relationships, they can stay true to themselves and build relationships that genuinely align with who they are.

Ingrid*, a journalist and researcher, shares that she’s never had to struggle with dating misogynistic men. “It’s one of those things where something becomes your standard so much that you’ve never considered otherwise,” she says. “Think of super rich kids who just never had to engage with people who were not super rich, because they were going from their super-rich private school to their super-rich holiday vacations. Dating out of their social class isn’t something that would even occur to them as a possibility.”

Ingrid believes that dating as a feminist follows a natural course, much like water finding its level. “In dating, we feminists can afford to be more honest with ourselves,” she suggests. “When a feminist woman marries a non-feminist man, it’s likely because she values other aspects of the relationship more, right? Does that make her the weakest link? Maybe. But does it strip her of her feminist identity? I don’t believe so. She remains a feminist, even if she occasionally or frequently prioritizes certain aspects over her feminist principles.” For Ingrid, successful relationships with men hinge on identifying and prioritizing your wants.  “If you’re in a sexual relationship, you probably want somebody who is going to respect your body and respect your right to consent. If that’s what feminism means to you, then don’t accept anything less.” 

She also emphasizes the importance of being kinder to ourselves and allowing space for mistakes. “Many of us are still in the middle of figuring out what we want, what we like, what we desire in life. We’re bound to make misjudgments,” says Ingrid. Still, it’s important to remain true to yourself. “In doing so, you not only protect your own well-being and sanity, but also serve as a source of inspiration for others who are struggling to authentically live their lives,” she says. “I believe it’s our civic duty to inspire others to love and courageously live their lives through our own loving and courageous actions.”

Jasmine*, a freelance writer and blogger, says that she simply cannot develop feelings for men who lack open-mindedness. “Sexism is prevalent among men, but it’s like, what level of sexism can I deal with?”  says Jasmine. “That’s the kind of question you have to ask yourself. Education subdues sexism to a point, but I don’t believe it eradicates it entirely.”

Jasmine finds it relatively easy to filter out men in the dating pool because, in her view, their inherent sexism permeates their actions and conversations. “They aren’t born sexist, but it’s a result of social conditioning,” she explains. “You can detect it. You just need to be aware of your boundaries, and understand the level of sexism you’re willing to tolerate.” Jasmine shares a personal experience to illustrate her point. “I once had a man tell me he wouldn’t eat chicken and chips because he considered it ‘women’s meal’” she recounts. “To refuse a meal solely because it’s associated with women – that’s a sexist statement.”

“Feminism has definitely limited the dating market for me,” Jasmine says. And she wouldn’t have it any other way. There are things she cannot tolerate, and what wearing  the feminist badge does is filter all of that out for her. “I prefer it that way.” 

Meadow*, a B2B consultant, echoes Jasmine’s sentiments. “I wouldn’t consider dating a misogynistic man. It’s out of the question for me,” she says. “Even if I’m initially attracted to a man, any interest fades once I observe behavior that contradicts my values.” For Meadow, identifying a sexist man is straightforward, based on how he interacts with others. “You can also tell from his social media activity, especially on platforms like Twitter,” she explains. “Recently, a guy I was talking to responded to a widely retweeted, blatantly misogynistic tweet about ‘hating your girlfriend.’ His comment made it clear that I couldn’t even be friends with someone like him, let alone consider dating him.”

The desire for companionship can be overwhelming. However, Precious, a writer, doesn’t see it as justification for partnering with men whose beliefs could directly or indirectly harm us. “I can’t prescribe a formula for successful relationships with men,” she says, “but in my three-year relationship, clarity on our values has been incredibly helpful. We understand each other’s principles. He supports ambition in women, and he roots for my career development.” 

Angel Nduka-Nwosu, a journalist, voice actress, and podcast host, shares Precious’ sentiment, emphasizing the importance of feminist women being comfortable with solitude. “It’s crucial not to endure negative relationships under the guise of trying to reform men,” she says. While some women attempt to educate and transform sexist partners, Nduka-Nwosu personally prefers to date men who already embrace feminist values. “I was actively feminist when I began dating during my first year of university,” she recalls. “It wasn’t easy being feminist, and navigating the conflict of a man I liked openly deriding feminism.” While she eventually left him, it wasn’t an easy thing to do. 

“I don’t engage in teaching feminism or persuading men about women’s humanity,” Nduka-Nwosu says. “In my view, in relationships, our focus should be on ensuring that as a team, we work towards achieving our goals together. That can’t happen when more than half the time you are trying to convince your partner that listening to misogynistic musicians makes you sick in the stomach.”

“Go for someone who’ll be instrumental to your growth,” Precious says. “Someone who doesn’t diminish you, your expectations, your beliefs, and your success. I think those are ingredients to any meaningful partnership.” 

I agree that men born and raised in a society that historically coddles maleness and continues to center the male gaze, while upholding harmful values and institutions on the backs of women, cannot be completely free of misogyny. There is a lifetime of unlearning to do, a lifetime of self-benefiting lies to intentionally and actively dispel, internally and on the outside. However, there is also something to be said about the simple beauty of a kind and thoughtful romance, where two people strive to rise above societal norms and create a fruitful partnership. Joanna, a writer and editor who has been in a long-term and stable relationship, speaks to this, offering some practical guidance. 

“I don’t think you can find a man without an iota of misogyny in him,” she says. While she notes that most decent guys are benevolent misogynists, or are mostly oblivious to the struggles that the average woman faces in society, she speaks well of her partner over the past year who has looked out for her, and been her biggest cheerleader. “You have to always come from a place of grace,” Joanna says. “Be willing to see that his blindspots and shortcomings – because there will be blindspots and shortcomings – come from a lack of information, and then patiently enlighten him, rather than assuming that he’s being deliberately malicious or obtuse.” 

She continues, “The trick for me, which I’ll advise, is to have a list of non-negotiable traits you’d like in a person you want to date. For me, it’s being open-minded and agreeable, as opposed to headstrong and traditional.” Other traits on Joana’s list include kindness, empathy, understanding, and having a lot of love and respect for her as a human being. “These traits lay the groundwork for you sharing women’s struggles and feminist values with your partner, and they lay the groundwork for his reception and understanding of them.”

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