Barakat Olorunoje is a first generation Nigerian American from a Muslim background. She views her identity as having multiple layers. Her mother immigrated to the USA after a divorce to raise her four children. Olorunoje shares how her mother is an inspiration, having the unbelieveable courage in leaving a patriarchal society and moving to a new country for a better life. Olorunoje sees how the role of women has evolved and progressed over time, particularly in America. This story was recorded in partnership with MALA and StoryCorps.
“My journey begins at a younger age when I realized that I had a lot to my identity. My parents are originally from Nigeria and I was born in America, which already gave me two types of identities. In addition to that I was also Muslim, so further complicates my identity. As I grew older, I started to question my religion a little more. I read the whole Bible and I had to read the Quran because I was Muslim. I usually say that I re-found Islam in my own understanding.
I went back to Nigeria this year in August during the summer, it was a very good experience. I hadn’t been there in about five years. It’s funny because I identify as a Nigerian-American each time I’m here. I do sound African-American as well. However, when I come to Nigeria I feel more like African-American Nigerian. It’s funny because it’s actually you move to certain places, and you feel more American in Nigeria then you come here and you feel more Nigerian.
Coming from Nigeria where men pretty much own, there are laws in which men own a lot of property and woman can’t get it without her husband. So, bringing us here after her divorce with my dad was a huge risk for her, a financial change, because she had to live her life over there and start from afresh, while she had to raise four kids. That in itself leaving your comfortable life and people constantly looking at you like you’re crazy because you left all that and left your husband and came over here started taking care of your kids by yourself where you could have two hands.
My mom does come from a strong woman force so to speak because my grandma, on the other hand, had her at the age of 49, so my mom and herself was a miracle child. We, as women, are supposed to always support our husbands so that strong force of I can do it all by myself and I’m able to do this by being a woman. It’s a different, so to speak, climate right now for us. Women are more expected to do the same thing as men opposed to when she took that risk, so she is definitely my role model in that sense because it was a really, really big risk for her to have done that.
As a parent raising my kids, I would make sure that they can do all the chores, and they can be whatever they want to be professional wise. I’m not going to restrict them to being that these are male professions that you have to do, or these are female professions that you have to do. I think that men and women can do whatever they want to do. The problem comes in is when a lot of women think as though men are at an advantage, and I see a lot of women take it away from femininity in the sense that it almost seems like they want to become men.
Embrace your femininity. We’re equals but we have different roles. Not to say roles but it’s been shown through research upon research that we’re biologically different. There was this little thing we did in one of my Master’s classes where he said, “I want you to write down something if you had a roommate and didn’t talk to you for 7 days straight, what would be your response?” Most of the women in the class said, “I would think she’s angry, and I would be mad,” and most of the men thought it would be okay. As women and men, we react to things differently and as a mother, I’m going to keep that in mind, but that wouldn’t stop me from making sure that my girls know that they are empowered. They can do as much as their brothers, not that that ever happened in my house, but because my mom did come from a cultural background that was patriarchal, so you can definitely see some of it slightly in there.
She did embrace any time that we wanted to stand up for ourselves. She didn’t stop it, but then that extra step of saying, “oh this is what guys do, and this is what girls would do.” I will definitely eliminate it. Being a woman in this world is actually a huge privilege. You get to embody all the abilities of a woman and you get to do whatever you want, so the only limiting thing for yourself in terms of your ability would be yourself. You should always reach your full potential.”