A Brief History of She Called Me Woman: A Dialogue With Chitra Nagarajan & Rafeeat Aliyu
She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak is a stirring and intimate collection bringing together 25 captivating narratives to paint a vivid portrait of what it means to be a queer Nigerian woman. Covering an array of experiences—the joy and excitement of first love, the agony of lost love and betrayal, the sometimes-fraught relationship between sexuality and spirituality, addiction and suicide, childhood games and laughter—it sheds light on how Nigerian queer women, despite their differences, attempt to build a life together in a climate of fear.
(She Called Me Woman, here, is represented by Chitra Nagarajan & Rafeeat Aliyu.)
This conversation happened between a green bedroom in Gaborone, Botswana and Abuja and Maiduguri, Nigeria.
Gaamangwe: First, I must congratulate you again for the powerful work you did with She Called Me Woman. I have been deeply shifted and moved by the experiences archived in your book. Let’s start at the begin. What was the driving force that inspired you to start this project?
Chitra: I’m so pleased to hear that you have been touched by the experiences of our narrators. They had that effect on us too! She Called Me Woman was inspired by Bareed Mista3jil, a similar project conducted by Meem, a Lebanese LGBTQ women’s group which put together narratives of queer women in Lebanon. We were so moved by this book and wanted to do something similar for Nigeria. One of the major issues we want to address is the extent to which queer people themselves are completely erased from political, media and public discussion about queerness. These conversations tend to be completely dehumanizing, with queer people seen as predators set on converting others, pedophiles preying on vulnerable and innocent children or corrupted by outside influences. This feeds the perpetuation of the myth that queerness is un- African and against tradition and culture when actually, we know there is a long history of different ways of being, not just across the continent but home in Nigeria. We wanted to do something about this. We believe that stories can humanize and counter myths and that documentation can create what is known as history by future generations.
Gaamangwe: The one important aspect I appreciated with the stories was that there were real, vulnerable and honest. It was absolutely powerful to finally read queer narratives that were unapologetic and absolutely human. How was the process of documenting the women? How did you ensure that you actually capture the narratives in this honest, vulnerable way?
Rafeeat: When we set out to document queer women’s stories, we wanted to keep them as honest and as authentic as possible. As editors, we also didn’t want our voices to outshine those of the contributors.
So Azeenarh, Chitra and I traveled across Nigeria and conducted face to face interviews with women who were willing to share their stories in this anthology. All interviews were recorded and transcribed to keep them as honest as possible. Then we made slight edits based on earlier interviews and shared them with our contributors to ensure that they were comfortable and happy with how their stories looked.
This process kept us in constant communication with our contributors and ensured that each story retained the voice and vulnerability of the woman that shared it.
Gaamangwe: Yes, each story was distinct with its own voice, vulnerability and psychic imprint. I felt that each story also reflected and allowed me to experience the different parts of Nigeria.
Such that, even as someone who’s never been to Nigeria, I could afterwards describe the beliefs of each city/town/village in relation to queer individuals. Of course, stories alone do not necessarily reflect how a city treat queer women but I noticed that cities were more open to queer women than villages. That places that were religious and traditional were more violent to queer individuals.
The violence that the women experienced was jarring and heartbreaking. But most of the women were really open to share. Was creating an emotional alliance with the women an easy process especially because there is danger in sharing their experiences? How long did it take to create this alliance? And how did you navigate the vulnerability that comes with sharing the women’s traumas?
Rafeeat: Creating an emotional connection was a key factor of getting these narratives. When interviewing contributors, it’s necessary to provide a safe space for them to share their often vulnerable stories. For me, I usually met up with the women I interviewed in informal settings before meeting again to share their life stories. This meant that we’d already either met for drinks or lunch, or gone out to a park so a level of comfort and familiarity was established. It’s also important to note that our contributors wanted to share their stories with us, they understood the need to have such a collection from Nigeria and knew that they were going to be part of something groundbreaking.
Chitra: I agree with Rafeeat that creating an emotional connection and building relationships of trust and confidence were really key. In addition to meeting and talking with narrators beforehand, we also consciously made sure to approach the interviews in a way to encouraged people to open up. We shared information about our own lives if asked and had very general questions at the start of the interviews so narrators could choose what they wanted to start of by telling us. We also had services to which we could refer narrators if needed. Although I found many aspects of some stories heartbreaking, particularly those centered around violence, I really enjoyed the whole experience. It’s a real privilege being invited into people’s lives in this manner.
Gaamangwe: And what was groundbreaking for you on a personal, individual level as contributors? What moved and shifted you during the curation of the book?
Rafeeat: For me, it was being part of something that I felt was not only necessary but overdue in the coming because there hasn’t been a collection of Nigerian queer women’s stories to my knowledge.
Chitra: For me, the book itself is groundbreaking, the first time there has been a collection of narratives in this way that focuses on queer women in Nigeria. On an individual level, it was the first time I have worked in this manner – interviewing narrators, drafting their narratives then working with them until they were happy with them. The range and diversity of experiences was marked and it was so moving to hear then work with people on their stories.
Gaamangwe: I agree, the experiences were so diverse and unique. I wonder though if there were any themes that you personally found central and similar in the stories shared? Essentially, what are the collective experiences for the Nigerian queer woman? If there are, why do you think these collective experiences exists as they do?
Chitra: We need to be careful not to generalize too much when we talk about collective experiences as every narrator—and, indeed, every queer woman’s experience—is different. One key theme that we found was just how Nigerian the stories were. Narrators spoke of childhood memories – whether this is the joy of eating mangoes or pressure to study hard – that a lot of Nigerians can relate with. They spoke about how much they enjoyed work or conversely about how difficult it was to find and keep work. They spoke about religion with many struggling between their religion and sexuality and some breaking away from religious practice altogether due to the hateful preaching and pressure to conform to gender norms they experienced. They spoke about love and sex, about their longing and desire for other people, about relationships with family and friends and how they changed over time, and about unequal power dynamics and abuse in relationships. They spoke about their struggles with gender norms and roles. Sometimes this was due to having gender identities different from those they had been assigned. Other times, it was due to the reality of living in a profoundly patriarchal society, the pressure to conform and the violence that many women and girls speak. The stories are also full of resistance, support and joy. While these narratives are those of Nigerian queer women, there are many themes that are resonant to all Nigerians and especially to all Nigerian women.
Gaamangwe: I understand and resonate with steering away from generalization. If there is one thing I learnt from reading your book is how diverse and unique queer women experiences are. And yes to some aspects of the stories resonating with other women, especially because patriarchy is a long winding monster that exists in all spaces across the world. My last questions: what kind of dialogue has your book opened? Any impact that happened that you were not expecting? And lastly, what are your future plans with the book and all the women who participated in it?
Chitra: Responses to the book have been really affirming. People have generally been very welcoming and appreciative of our efforts to document and bring to light the experiences of queer Nigerians. They love reading such a diversity of narratives from all over Nigeria and have found the stories to really resonate with them. They speak about how the book has opened their eyes, educated them and made them change their minds. I’ve actually been surprised by all the positivity and the little backlash we have received. We were expecting more negative reactions but largely, apart from one message that was going around social media, this backlash does not seem to have happened (yet!). For me, this reaffirms my understanding that Nigerians actually hold a diversity of attitudes about sexual orientation and gender identity in contrast to the hateful nature of what tends to be in the public space. In fact, some people who have read the book with whom I have spoken say they plan to be much more open in the future about their own views and to challenge discriminatory language when they hear it. Which is fantastic. Going forwards, we want many more people to read the stories in the book. Currently, the book is available in Nigeria and the UK. It will be published in the USA later on in the year.
Thank you so much for the interview. I loved talking with you!
Gaamangwe: Amazing! Thank you for joining me in this space.
Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker, interviewer and founding editor of Africa in Dialogue.