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The Politics of Cooking and Traditional Roles in the Nigerian Family

The Politics of Cooking and Traditional Roles in the Nigerian Family

Realistic African American Woman Cooking In Kitchen 50426581 1 e1706608509524

The ideal prescription would be for a family to seek balance. Real balance can only be attained when all the arms of the family lever are in their place and burdened with weights whose responsibilities they do not grudgingly carry. 

By Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera

Typically, in Nigerian society, when a man looks out for a woman he wants to marry or court with serious intentions to do so, her ability in the kitchen is one thing he looks out for.  The average Nigerian male is compelled by societal convention to seek in a woman, the qualities that make her a good home-keeper, the chief of which is how well she can cook. These are qualities that are traditionally assigned to the wife, and in the Nigerian marital parlance, women who have these qualities are described as wife material. 

Calling a woman wife material used to be a term of endearment. However now that in many social circles the traditional role of a woman is a subject to various controversies, the term is under scrutiny, as it is now debatable whether it is acceptable praise for a woman, or an invented term used to massage the ego of women as they are subjugated in marriage.

In most cultures around the world, gender roles are clearly defined, and the home-keeper is the woman, while men have the role of providing for and protecting their families. Gender roles are omnipresent in global culture, though they vary from place to place. And they have often been explained by a variety of cultural determinants, ranging from religion, biology, sociology, and even psychology. 

There are also doubts about the absolute nature of gender roles since in some households, women are providers, and in others, men are not very consistent with the role of providing for their families. Moreso, in the recent structure of society, providing for the family has become a shared responsibility. Many women now leave home for work in the same manner as their men do. But in the politics of domestic work, the most debated role especially in popular culture, is the role of who should cook for the family, and whether or not it is truly a gender role, as perceived in indigenous traditions in Nigeria. As more women go to work now, is it still exclusively (or even majorly) the duty of women to cook for the family? One of the often asked questions in this context hence is, if both couples go to work, who should cook if the man returns earlier than the woman? 

woman cutting vegetable
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The cultural roles of women seem to have evolved, and women no longer primarily stay at home. They now have careers and are often primary earners. But men do not seem to be adjusting – in an equivalent proportion – to take on more domestic roles. In recent times, too, due to the rise of the internet freelance culture, there has been an increase in men working from home, but does this translate to more married men doing domestic duties at home? There seems to be a cultural lag in the lack of consensus often prevalent in social media discussions of how cultural roles should be defined in the wake of women becoming primary earners. It should be noted, too, that in historical context, especially in indigenous Nigerian cultures, women have always been providers in addition to being homekeepers. Women partook in farming alongside men and they were also traders. The “housewife” culture adopted by some is more a colonial construct than an indigenous one. From a historical lens, that more women go to work today, and still contribute to taking care of their families is not new.

There are people who have devoted their social vocations to making sure that gender roles are preserved. Men who are adamant that they are natural providers and women the homekeepers. Some women advocate along these lines, too, declaring that they are at home with their feminine traditional roles. However, there are reformers who think that domestic roles like cooking should not be seen as the woman’s duty as it is something that men can do too. And providing for the family should also not exclusively be the role of men. The novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, once the face of feminism in Nigeria, was a champion of this perspective. In her book, Dear Ijeawele, or, A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, she argues that cooking is not the woman’s duty, suggesting instead that it is a survival skill that should be learned by everyone. About who provides for the family, she wrote, “In a healthy relationship, it is the duty of whoever can provide.” This is an attempt to decentralise gender roles treated by those who support it as something of a sacred ordinance, and by those who oppose it, as a social construct created in favour of a patriarchal culture. 

While these theories are relevant, are more women likely willing to take on the role of providing for their families when the man is very much present, even when they earn more? Are women even attracted to laid-back men who allow them to take the reins of the affairs of the family and relationships? What are the experiences of men who have tried to act according to these new progressive theories? In Nigeria, what is the percentage of women who would agree to split the bills when they go on a date with a man to those who don’t? 

Concerning gender roles, psychiatrist, Norma Babieri, in her paper, “Psychoanalytic Contributions to the Study of Gender Issues” argues that gender identity in a particular culture is a result of a complex interaction between genders, in a way that is related to a global interaction between genders. “Masculinity and femininity are largely constructed by interpersonal transactions by the intersubjective field at any given time in any particular culture.” It is very credible to argue that gender roles are a social construct. However, social constructs are often a manifestation of the conscious orientations of social animals with their society and interaction with other animals. Social constructs, it could be argued, are as valid as natural tendencies, which is why they are often deeply ingrained in culture, like the tenets of masculinity and femininity. For a progressive society though, culture, while it is rigid enough to conserve its blueprint of experiences, should be flexible enough to accommodate change. And when there is an advocacy for change, it is important to highlight the groups behind such advocacy.

Recently, in the Nigerian Twitter (X) space, a woman named, Deborah whose handle is @_Debbie_OA, posted about how she was often too lazy to wake up and prepare lunch for her husband until he returned home one day and told her that a new female staff had brought two spoons to the office so he could join her. And from then she set her alarm to 4:50 am, so she could wake up every morning to cook for her husband. Her tweet sparked off polar reactions; there were those who commended her efforts as a wife responsible for her husband’s needs and vigilant enough to secure her territory, and those outraged that it was not fair that a pregnant woman was allowed to awake before 5 a.m. to prepare lunch for her husband. From some circles, she appeared to be mocked for what some considered her dignity in suffering. Her viral tweet soon became a bone of contention between those who fight for and against traditional roles. The people (especially men) who commended her efforts began to dig into her old tweets. Finding her consistent tweets of support towards her husbands, and also about needing a small-size refrigerator as a Christmas wish, began a donation campaign to get her, first, the small refrigerator, then a bigger one, and more and more people began to send in money. As her consistent posts about supporting her husband resurfaced, more people donated to her. Her campaign soon became so popular that brands soon began to key into it, upholding her story as an inspiring one of the importance of upholding family values and the resilience of women. 

The often overlooked point of Deborah’s story though,  is that she is an example of how tenets of culture resist changes, especially when they benefit a lot of people and are championed by influential people. The initial argument was about how whether or not it was good for a pregnant woman, who, compelled by her husband’s story of what happened in his workplace, begins to wake up before 5 a.m. to prepare his lunch. There was a lack of nuance in the argument, as many of her detractors did not relate with the underlying social conditions which made her unable to afford a refrigerator to preserve her food, and a microwave and generator to make the food warm and still meet up even if she woke up by 6:30 am.

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Those who championed Deborah on Twitter and made her a celebrity and an example of a good woman did so to champion the traditional functions of the family which they feel is under attack. The belief that in a healthy family, the roles are clearly defined still has its champions. More men can cook now, and know how to perform housekeeping duties, but there are those who still uphold cultural, sentimental, and even moral reasons why the woman’s “office” should be preserved. Some uphold the traditional place of a woman because of tradition, others because they are patriarchs – but there are also women who are in this camp because they are at home with the responsibility of catering to their family and performing maternal duties. 

The politics of food and traditional roles - Afrocritik
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When some argue that it is women’s duty to cook in the home, it is not just about cooking. It is a territorial habit of defending their masculinity and the perception that masculinity is under attack in present times. Women who support this notion do so because they enjoy servitude,  one that they display  by cooking for their spouse, especially as most women like their men masculine in the traditional sense too. Those who say it is not the duty of women to cook often do so from the feverish desire to elevate women from the shadow of men.  They believe that for a woman to be truly liberated, she must leave the kitchen, prioritised being seen at her workplace in the daytime, and advocate for as much freedom as the men who are often free to spend their evenings socialising with their friends if they are not willing to return home immediately. In arguments like this, it is often ignored how men in many families help in carrying out some domestic activities like taking out the trash, washing the car, and in many cases, helping out in laundry and even cooking. There are those who argue that a man cooking is not him supporting, but simply performing his duty. Some in this camp would even argue that a man deserves no flowers for being a provider. In some of these sentiments, what is lacking is a desire for mutual appreciation, but to cut men to the curb of their sentiments, to fight the ‘illusion of masculinity’, to fight male entitlement to care, and affection from women. Those who fight to preserve traditional gender roles, do so in part to resist this. 

The ideal prescription would be for a family to seek balance. Real balance can only be attained when all the arms of the family lever are in their place and burdened with weights whose responsibilities they do not grudgingly carry. Often, it defies ideology, and it is more about the dynamics of a family relationship. How does a typical Nigerian man feel he can best show love? What kind of relationships are women generally comfortable having with their men? What kind of relationship are men generally comfortable having with their women? Surely, the answer varies from relationship to relationship, as there are cases of families that have thrived from doing things slightly differently. Gender roles can sometimes be switched to break the monotony of family routine which sometimes gets tiring, but especially with the change in societal orientation, seeking balance is paramount. The answer for every individual family lies neither in public opinion nor on the internet, but in looking within for what works for them. Every family must, on its own, work for its individual salvation in relation to society, as there seems to be no encompassing answer in the public sphere. 

Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera is a writer and freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @Chukwuderaedozi.

Cover Photo: Creative Fabrica

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