“Whenever I was with her, I was open. I could talk ... my sexuality does not define who I am.”
These words are from a new book, "She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak."
The new book, released this week, is a collection of interviews with two dozen women. It offers an unprecedented window into what it means to be a queer woman in Nigeria, where homosexuality is illegal.
The book recounts a series of intimate interviews with 25 lesbian Nigerian women of various religious and socioeconomic backgrounds.
“I’m really nervous and I’m also nervous about the reception of Nigerians to the book,” Woman A, as she asked to be referred to, told VOA.
Woman A, one of the women featured in the book, said most queer Nigerian women are like her, living in the closet.
In 2014, Nigeria banned same-sex marriage. The law is far-reaching. It also bans any cohabitation or public displays of affection, like kissing or hand holding, between same-sex partners. Anyone who breaks the law could face up to 14 years in prison.
There is also a 10-year prison sentence for anyone who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs or organizations.
Human Rights Watch said with the law, Nigeria effectively criminalized being LGBTQ — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.
That’s what makes this book so groundbreaking.
One woman reveals she lives with her partner in Abuja, which is illegal. She says it's nice to wake up in the morning and have a cup of tea ready for her. Another woman speaks with anguish about the religious dilemma she faces being queer and Christian in Nigeria.
Azeenarh Mohammed, one of the book’s editors, helped capture the one-on-one interviews. She said discussions of homosexuality in Africa focus on men. Lesbians have been excluded.
“There was an erasure of them. We said they really need to be heard and the reason why they hadn’t been heard is because the mic had not been passed to them. So we tried to do that with the book to let them be heard in their own voice with their own words,” Mohammed told VOA.
Bracing for a backlash
The book has garnered buzz on social media. Many people say they’re worried that homosexual lifestyles may become normalized in Nigerian society. Others say they have already pre-ordered the book in anticipation.
The book was published and released in the U.K., but the book’s editors say it will soon be available in Nigeria. They are bracing for backlash. In the past, the Nigerian government has banned controversial art, including books.
“Personally I’m curious, and I’m definitely going to read this book. To hear that there’s women talking about the fact that they’re queer and what they want to do is get with other women I think, to even be talking about it, I’m excited that we’re talking about it. I think this book is needed,” said Rosemary Ajuka, a feminist and media professional based in the Nigeria’s business hub of Lagos.
The book’s release comes as authorities in Kenya ban the new film by celebrated Kenyan director Waniru Kahiu. The film, called "Rafiki," is a coming-of-age story about two girls falling in love. It will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the first feature-length Kenyan film ever to do so.
"Inxeba," another controversial film won six South African Film and Television Awards in March, despite campaigns to ban it by community groups and political leaders. The film portrays two boys developing a sexual attraction for each other while participating in a cultural rite of passage ceremony for young men from the Xhosa ethnic group. The film was removed from some cinemas in the South Africa.
Optimistic but cautious
An oft-repeated sentiment is that homosexuality is un-African.
“Which is ridiculous, before just look at Nigeria for instance," Mohammed said. "Homosexuality and queer identity is portrayed in the cultures of many ethnic groups and even across Africa, there is evidence that pre-dates colonialism that people were involved in same-sex romantic relationships."
She said she’s hopeful that attitudes will change.
Asked what impact their book may have in Nigeria, Woman A is cautious.
“I wish someday I will be able to live openly, but until then…”
Until then, she said, she will keep living “in the closet.”