I was having a conversation with a group of male and female middle-aged professionals recently. One of the men in the group said that feminists like me are always quick to jump to the defence of women, even when they are in the wrong. He said that while he is against any kind of sexual harassment, he is afraid to talk to his female colleagues in the office for fear of getting into trouble. He is too scared to pay them a compliment when they wear something nice.
As he was recounting his experiences, my mind went back to many years ago when I was doing my National Youth Service at Nbawsi Girls High School, Nbawsi in the old Imo State before it became Abia State. There was a male teacher who used to go round the staff room flirting with the female teachers. He would slap them playfully on the back and pull the straps of their bras. They would all giggle at this and probably found it quite harmless. One day as he was doing his rounds of the backs and the bras he came to me, and just as his hand was about to touch my back, I swung around and tried to block his hand but I ended up hitting him in the face. He was startled and he jumped back. I said, ‘I didn’t mean to hit you, I just wanted to deter you from touching me the way you touch the others. Don’t try it with me’. He said, ‘Oh, I am only trying to be friendly’, and I said, ‘Well, that’s fine, but don’t ever come near me again’. And he never did. He also stopped pulling the bras of the other women in the staff room. I did not know that I had become something of a heroine as far as the others were concerned, because I learnt later that they had been putting up with his behaviour not because they liked it, but because they did not know how to stop him without sounding unpleasant. So that is when I probably learnt that it is more important to be respected than to be liked.