Me: “I just resumed school this week”
Friend: “What!? School again?? Which school?? :-S
Me: “Oh, lol! I just started my PhD this week…”
Friend: “That’s rilli (really) nice, congratulations! Ah, Zainab, you too like book o…”
This is just a sample of one out of numerous chats/conversations on my return to school to pursue a doctorate degree (DPhil) in International Development at Oxford University. I’ve had lots of kind words of support, good will and encouragement; few responses have been very curt and indifferent, while fewer still hinted at a barely concealed disapproval: from the “oh okay” to the “do you really think this is what a girl your age should be doing?” and to the “but when are you getting married? It seems it is not on your agenda”. The love, support and understanding of my family and those that genuinely care is what is most important.
It has been a very eventful year. I can still recall submitting the application for the DPhil in January this year, just three minutes before the deadline expired; then hoping I’d get in but not really sure I’d make it; receiving the admission offer and being ecstatic about it; and just when I had started fretting about where and how to secure funding for this 3-year-plus degree, Oxford offers full funding for the entire duration of the DPhil and I am euphoric, and shortly after, moving to Brussels for an internship which I had secured simultaneously.
My 3 months in Brussels was a lovely experience: working with a very influential organization, the International Crisis Group and all the amazing people there. It was an opportunity to really explore some other parts of Europe – from the elegant and regal Parisian architecture, to the bicycle-lined streets of Amsterdam, its coffee shops and other places not to be mentioned 🙂 ; the lovely Belgian cuisine – the famous Belgian frites, the mussels, waffles and pastries. It was an opportunity to meet lots of interesting people and make lasting friendships.
Moving back to the UK was a bit daunting I must confess, not just the thought of relocating again to a new city, finding a place to live and settling back in; but importantly, the fact that I would be part of a prestigious institution almost a thousand years old, where world leaders spanning 26 British Prime Ministers, the likes of Aung San Suu Kyi, Bill Clinton and Benhazir Bhutto have graced its halls, and economists such as Adam Smith and Amartya Sen, and famous writers such as Oscar Wilde and J.R.R. Tolkein have poured over its vast collections of books and brooded in the Bodleain Library. The list of influential people in politics, arts, music, film and industry who have walked it’s cobblestone streets is endless.
Oxford University is an institution steeped in centuries old traditions, rituals and rules that sometimes make you grit your teeth, especially as you try to navigate the complex collegiate system found in few universities around the world. For the most part though, one marvels at these traditions as these constitute one of the reasons why Oxford is the great place that it is today; the hundreds of opportunities that are all around jumping at you, begging to be taken; a place that promises limitless possibilities to be who or what you could be. It is incredible. It is overwhelming. It is intimidating, yet it is an amazing opportunity.
In all of the travelling, moving, and relocating – from Birmingham, to Brussels to London and now to Oxford, I am acutely aware of how “lucky” someone of my demographic: black, African, Nigerian (Northern-Muslim in particular) woman is, to have such opportunities to pursue their dream, and to have the constant flow of love and support from those whose opinions matter, coming from an environment with a lowly constructed glass ceiling society has erected for women like myself and which surprisingly, some of us women willingly choose to reinforce. The common perception is that an “over-educated” woman will not easily find a husband to marry because she’d be regarded as too “wise”, too “liberal”, too Westernized, too opinionated, too strong-headed and not easily tamed.
There is also the common perception that an unmarried female who has chosen this sort of career or academic path has clearly placed more importance on her career pursuits than on “settling down” and starting a family, and that her femininity is somehow displaced by these pursuits. It doesn’t matter if some of us have loved reading and writing and were book worms right from our pre-teens, love research and are deeply passionate about what we do; it doesn’t matter if circumstances of life have made us or even forced us to tow this path, it doesn’t matter that maybe there’s a hidden hand of destiny nudging us ahead. All these are inconsequential to this line of thinking, because women like myself are too “exposed”, we’ve chosen our career over a “stable” family life, we’re “losing” our meekness and frailty and are “doomed” to an agonizing lifetime of spinsterhood, loneliness and “feminism” (feminism in this context assumes a different meaning)!
Interestingly, out of about 20 new DPhils that started in my department this year, about 65% or so of us are women – and these are not some old, wrinkled, sad, tired, dishevelled and miserable women – these are beautiful, young women mostly in mid to late 20s (about three of my fellow DPhils could easily pass for supermodels).
Choosing to have a career (whether academic or otherwise) doesn’t take away one’s femininity, doesn’t mean you’ve sworn-off relationships and marriage, doesn’t mean you’ve resigned yourself to a life of perpetual spinsterhood and is not an automatic one way ticket to hell. It is all about taking an opportunity to do what it is you love doing, to explore and exploit your God-given abilities, to be useful to society and make good use of your time and contribute your own quota to the betterment of yourself at the very least, and the people around you. This doesn’t deprive women like myself of our ability to smile, to laugh, to be warm and caring, to love and to be loved, to start a family and to be there for them, to gossip with friends or to cook.
On another note, certain situations over the past few months have truly restored my faith in humanity and the intrinsic good within most human beings. I have found myself, several times, in relatively distressing situations and I was and still am amazed at how complete strangers go out of their way to help one in need, whether by helping to push one’s trolley loaded with several suitcases just in time to catch a train booked in advance or just someone giving a helping hand when you need it the most. There are still good, kind-hearted and generous people left in this world, and this is probably why the world still hasn’t imploded on itself with all the evil and wickedness that abound elsewhere daily.
As I resume school in earnest, only time will tell in the next three years or so as I continue my academic and career pursuits, whether I will acquire more masculine attributes and perhaps, grow a beard, or whether life will just go on as usual. Until then, I can’t wait to plunge into my research fully, with relish.