In search of female assertiveness and self-advocacy

THE argument has been made severally that the discrimination and exploitation that girls and women have had to experience and continue to experience under patriarchy, and the associated acts of sexual assault and violence, have much to do with an entitlement culture on the part of boys and men, especially in relation to their conceived superior placement in the society and in the world generally vis-a-vis girls and women. And the canvassed antidote to this entitlement culture has been the need for the family and the entire society to make it a point of duty to reorient men, starting with boys especially when they are still infants, to understand and appreciate girls and women as equal human beings deserving of full respect. This reorientation would ensure that boys grow up to acknowledge the capacity and ability of girls to have control and sovereignty over their own bodies, without being forced to do anything against their will or without their consent. The implication is that boys and men have the responsibility to ensure an end to sexual assault and gender-based violence, such that we do not have to be making reference to how girls and women dress or what they wear with respect to the instigation of sexual assault. To the extent that boys and men are committed to respecting the individuality of each girl and woman, to that extent would it be difficult, if not impossible, to have the urge to impose violence on girls and woman, no matter what they wear or how they dress.

Yet, without detracting from the argument about the responsibility of boys and men to work to end sexual assault on women, there is also the need for girls and women to not just throw their hands up in despair in the belief that there is nothing they could do about gender-based violence until boys and men come to their rescue. We know too that beyond the entitlement culture of boys and men, there is also the issue of power undergirding and underlying acts of sexual assault. Superiority conception of boys and men does not just manifest in relation to physical abilities, but has come to denote superiority in every aspect of human engagement including mental and thinking abilities, even as we know that this is an untruth and a fallacy. Numerous scientific researches have confirmed that girls and women are not inferior to boys and girls in mental and brain capabilities and that there is nothing inherent in girls and women to make them inferior to boys and men in anything. Rather, the scientific truth and reality is that human beings have the same endowment and capability across gender and race and ethnicity with no superior class in any dimension.

It then means that it is the responsibility of girls and women to not only show and demonstrate that they are not inferior to boys and men in any material capacity, but also that they would take exception to being portrayed as inferior in the society. This especially as it is essentially a reflection of the truth to portray and insist that girls and women are not inferior. Now we know that in many schools and in many other instances where girls and boys and women and men compete, girls and women have shown that they could not just hold their own, but that they could even excel over and above boys and men in competition. It would then be a misnomer to have a girl coming first in a class of both girls and boys and thereafter allowing a boy, who is not her equal in the class given her superior performance, to dominate her or want to ride roughshod over her on the pretext that he is superior when it ought to be clear that the girl is even the one excelling above the boys. Within the context of this scenario, it has been said that girls and women ought to practice more the act and art of self-assertiveness in order to properly present and represent their own acumen and ward off the threat of aggressive behavior toward them by boys and men.

As argued by Peggy Orenstein, while men must be held responsible for preventing sexual assault, women should be encouraged to master ‘assertiveness and self-advocacy [as] crucial defensive skills.’ This would be more like putting boys and men in their proper position especially where girls and women have demonstrated superior skills, such that the girls and women are able to point out and remark their own excellence and let this speaks for them against the aggressiveness and errant behavior of boys and men. The importance of this position is that it makes for the demonstration of the equal position of girls and women against the inferior tag put on them by patriarchy. It allows girls and women to also put down their own marks and essence and stand against the machination of boys and men, calling attention to the eminent worth of the girls and women. In this way, girls and women are not just able to put up this as defensive skill in the manner proposed by Peggy Orenstein, but it also resonates, in some sort of extension of Orenstein’s argument, as encapsulating their own personality, telling the society and the world about who they are and how they should be reckoned with. It is about speaking out for themselves and letting the world and particular adversaries know about them.

This is the sense in which Shakti Gawain says that ‘assertiveness is not what you do, it’s who you are!’ Girls and women must, therefore, increasingly speak out and assert themselves. They must not allow their current inferior positioning by patriarchy to continue. And they are the ones to do this for themselves as nobody else could or would do it for them. As girls and women, we must come into our own and call attention to our excellent attributes. In the words of Edith Eva Eger, ‘to be passive is to let others decide for you. To be aggressive is to decide for others. To be assertive is to decide for yourself. And to trust that there is enough, that you are enough.’ We must, therefore, let the world know that we are enough as equal human beings and that we must be given the respect we deserve in terms of our skills and endowments. And given Eleanor Roosevelt’s position that ‘nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent,’ it is time for us, girls and women, to not fall again for or accept the inferior status assigned to us by patriarchy – through which inferior status we are constantly bombarded by sexual assaults – by taking up the shield of female assertiveness and self-advocacy, and using this shield to put up a fight against sexual assault and gender-based violence.

  • Yakubu is of the Department of Communication and Language Arts, University of Ibadan.



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