A leading African writer has transfixed the internet with her comments on gender – but fellow Nigerians say they feel hurt.
Transgender women in Africa have benefited from “male privilege” because they grew up as men. With this argument, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie kicked off a vexed discussion, trending everywhere from Facebook to Teen Vogue.
But a less noticed discussion has been the pained one among gay and transgender Nigerians. BBC Trending has been speaking to the leading voices.
It all began last weekend when Adichie, a best-selling Nigerian novelist and outspoken feminist, was asked in an interview with Channel 4 News whether a transgender woman was “any less of a real woman.”
She replied: “trans women are trans women.”
“I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges the world accords to men, and then switched gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.”
The interview has sparked a passionate online debate around the world. But specifically among Africans, one of Adichie’s most vocal critics is London-based, Nigerian transgender model , who runs an online support community for transgender women called transvalid.org.
Writing on her Facebook page she said Adichie – who has written several essays and given a viral TED talk on feminism – was divisive in her comments.
“Ahhhhh, I am fuming, these TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) feminists always think they are above all women who don’t fit into their narrative of what a woman should be.”
“What happened to being inclusive and tolerant of all women, no matter their life histories?”
“I get a lot of online messages from Nigerian trans girls who are there now and they find it so difficult. A nightmare,” Sahhara told BBC Trending, “there’s no male privilege for trans women in Africa.”
Growing up in rural northern Nigeria, where homosexual activity can be punishable by death (although no executions by law for homosexual activity have been verified), Sahhara says that it was “obvious to all” that she was “a girl in a boy’s body”.
Nigeria is one 34 African countries that outlaws same-sex relationships, and since the Nigerian government tightened its anti-gay laws in 2014, punishments have become much harsher.
“My uncles beat me up for the way I behaved,” Sahhara says. “It’s the way it’s done in Africa.”
Sahhara moved to the UK 13 years ago, but is in close online contact with the LGBT community in Africa.
She says that social media is a vital lifeline for the transgender community there, who often live in secret. Sahhara lives openly as an LGBT activist in the UK, and many of these women get in touch with her through her Facebook page.
“I’ve had transgender women from South Africa get in touch with me and ask what hormones I recommend,” Sahhara says, “or women from Nigeria saying ‘listen sister, a friend of mine has been locked up, can you raise awareness online?’.”
“They communicate with me on my Facebook page, or secretly through private digital groups I refer them to”.
Mike Daemon (not his real name) who runs an LGBT advocacy website called No Strings Nigeria told BBC Trending: “Africa’s transgender women rely on a secret digital life involving Whatsapp groups and closed Facebook groups.”
“People are added through referrals and recommendations when they are trusted.”
However he reflected the nuanced response Chimanda Ngozi Adiche’s comments. Many of those commenting acknowledged Adicihie’s feminist contribution and that the issue is complex. Daemon said Adichie was being “realistic” and that trans women and biologically born women have “different journeys.”
Miss Sahhara, for her part, is hesitant when BBC Trending asked her if she identifies as a feminist.
“I believe in equal rights and pay for women,” she says but, “when I start hearing the ladies from the TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist), it discourages me from wanting to be part of feminism. We are fighting for equality and yet you say other women are not equal because you don’t feel comfortable with who they are or who they used to be.”
Chimanda Ngozi Adiche, a vocal advocate of LGBT rights in Africa, declined an interview with BBC Trending and referred us to her statement on Facebook.
“I think the impulse to say that trans women are just like women born female comes from a need to make trans issues mainstream,” she says there. “Because by making them mainstream, we might reduce the many oppressions they experience. But it feels disingenuous to me. The intent is a good one but the strategy feels untrue. Diversity does not have to mean division.”