44: Alexis Okeowo
Alexis Okeowo joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2015. She is the author of “A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa.” Her work has also been anthologized in “The Best American Sports Writing” (2017) and “The Best American Travel Writing” (2017). She has been awarded fellowships and grants from New America, the Alicia Patterson Foundation, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and the International Reporting Project. She has previously contributed to the New York Times Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the Financial Times.
Elena Mudd is a Brooklyn-based photographer who explores the relationship between individual and social identity from a feminist (or humanistic) perspective. The intimate portrait, conceived as collaborative process with her subject, is her specialty. Her subjects range from family members to strangers she meets on the street. She works with film media, both 35mm and medium format, and with digital.
This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on July 12, 2018. Elena Mudd photographed Alexis in her Brooklyn apartment.
Many thanks to the Mythos reader who anonymously suggested that we interview Alexis.
SOPHIA: Tell me about your experience of girlhood.
ALEXIS: I feel like my girlhood was a time when I was free from a lot of the pressures and expectations that are later put upon young women as they become themselves. I thought about this the other day as I was talking to one of my brothers. We were reminiscing about how much time we spent together when we were young, playing video games and playing sports. I read a lot. I wrote. I made up worlds with my friends.
I didn't care about things like sexuality. It wasn't even on my radar. I wasn't thinking about boys or romance. I wasn’t really thinking about self-presentation that much. I remember my mom and my dad begging me to comb my hair and look more presentable before I went to school. That just wasn't a thing that I cared about. That would come later.
I had another stage where I was convinced that I should have been born a boy, because I realized a lot of the things I wanted to do would be easier if I were. I wanted to go out to the world and see different places. I grew up in a community in the South that was representative of a lot of places in the United States. I was raised to think that you're more vulnerable as a girl, and girls don't go out on their own because it's not safe. You have to protect yourself from men. I just thought, “Man, if I were a boy, it would be so much easier.” [laughs] I wouldn't have to deal with all my parents’ worries about what I wanted to do.
SOPHIA: How has that vulnerability proven true or untrue as your life has grown to resemble the one you imagined, in a lot of ways?
ALEXIS: There is truth to it. In ways that are no fault of our own at all, it is harder to go out into the world as a woman. So much of the work that I’ve chosen to do is solitary. So much of it is trusting people that you don't know, but whom you want to get to know and whom you want to spend time with, and trusting that they won't hurt you in any way. I’ve only realized in the past year or so how dangerous it’s been.
That makes me angry because, at the end of the day, I feel like it forces the age-old conversation about how women should modify how they are in the world in order to protect themselves, when of course, the burden shouldn’t be on us to make sure that we’re safe in the world. The burden should be on men not to hurt us.
I have been lucky in that I haven’t had seriously bad things happen to me. I have been in situations where I have felt nervous, uneasy, or harassed, but it could be a lot worse. It makes me sad that safety is still an obstacle to women who want to go out and do stories and talk to people—stuff men have been doing forever—but who have to contend with the fact that the world still really doesn’t like us.
SOPHIA: Reading your accounts of the women in your book [A Moonless, Starless Sky], I was reminded of something that Jia Tolentino told me when I interviewed her a few months ago. She said, “I do think the near universal condition of being a woman is getting consistently reduced to your reproductive body, your sexual value. and there are things that are close to universal experiences that revolve around the use and the misuse of the body.”
Could you talk about that in the context of the reporting you’ve done in Africa? I felt that the stories you tell, which are really centered around the threat of bodily violence, supported this definition of what it is to be a woman, but I also wanted to cast that off because it’s so depressing!
ALEXIS: In nearly all the stories I wrote about in my book, the women were resisting this effort to control their bodies, whether it was literal sexual slavery, or Aisha [a female Somali basketball player] facing men who didn’t want her to be athletic, be physical, or show her body in certain ways. I think a lot of it does come down to the threat of bodily violence. Because women (not just in Africa, but also in the West) are often reduced to their reproductive value, their aesthetic value…their material value in a way. And in order to find their freedom, women have to resist this very specific oppression as a way to assert their personhood and their equality.
Even though a lot of the female protagonists in my book are resisting bodily violence or the threat of bodily violence, I found it so encouraging that they never really bought into the idea that women should be restricted. It’s very difficult not to believe that in deeply patriarchal cultures where you’re taught that reproduction is the female body’s primary purpose.
What was so incredible to me is that, in my reporting from Somalia, it’s literally a battle over a sport. How can that be so offensive to extremists to the point where they’re threatening teenage girls? But I realized that it’s because these girls have agency. It's because they have minds of their own, displayed through the fact that they’re playing basketball, they’re good at it, and they’re choosing to do so even though it’s taboo. By playing basketball, they’re representing all these qualities that demonstrate women are more than their bodies, and that defiance is really threatening to some men. It’s especially when women say, “We don’t care,” that they become targets of violence.
SOPHIA: Having reported on extremism in both Africa and the United States, have you found [extremism as a concept and an action] to be gendered in any way?
ALEXIS: That's a really big question.
ALEXIS: From one narrow angle, I can say that I think there’s a lot to explore in regard to why the leadership and core constituency of a lot of extremist groups are men. I think it says a lot about what extremist ideologies promise their followers, and what kind of life and “purity” they offer.
A lot of extremist ideologies claim to be about a pure version of a certain religion, and offer a way to return to supposedly fair values that would benefit the people. But they end up being a way for people who fit a certain profile to grab power. Those people aren’t necessarily men, but tend to have “masculine” qualities, from my experience with women who belong to extremist groups. Usually, a lot of these women are forced to join. The women who weren’t adapt themselves into a very patriarchal structure that prioritizes the men and subordinates the women.
I’ve seen this in a lot of situations. Not just in Christian or Islamic extremist groups in Africa, but even in far right Evangelical movements in this country. Their leaders also say that we ought to return to traditional roles, where men are leading and women are serving in their supposed “place.” I think that’s part of why it appeals to men—some of whom have felt alienated or disempowered in the past. It’s an attractive way to make themselves feel powerful again.
SOPHIA: Have you spoken to or observed any women who are members of extremist groups? Could you recount any of their positions?
ALEXIS: I spoke to a woman who was part of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Christian extremist group. It was formed in Uganda, and is now rampaging through Central Africa. She spent years in the group and eventually became one of its few female ranking officers. If I remember correctly, she was initially abducted, like many of the group’s members. She told me that, ironically, she came to enjoy the power that she acquired in the group—from an organization that was lawless and didn’t have to abide by the rules. She found freedom in that.
I can compare that with a vigilante group in northeastern Nigeria that was created to fight the terrorist group Boko Haram, but was beginning to exhibit its own extremist tendencies. After enforcing its own law and order, it started to terrorize the people it was supposed to protect. That group also had a patriarchal structure. One of its female members told me that she joined because she was looking for an outlet for her frustration with the violence that was happening in her city. By joining, she felt some sense of control and power.
But I wonder about the limits of how both these women felt. Because at the end of the day, they were still in groups that valued them less than men. This is probably a larger comment on the patriarchy today. There are benefits that certain women can acquire from it, but what are the limits to that? How long can it serve women before they have to seek an alternative that has nothing to do with that structure?
SOPHIA: A declaration of A Moonless, Starless Sky, if not its primary assertion, is, as you write in the preface: “Preserving your way of life amid extreme situations is also a vital struggle.”
Reading that, it struck me how in the current U.S. political climate, a statement like that may be received as complacent or individualistic—that one’s priority is limited to preserving the way one already lives. But then, in a circumstance as extreme as continuing to play basketball despite receiving constant death threats, this statement seems completely appropriate. The belief that the quotidian is political appears across all of your work. I was wondering if you could talk about how it may change in relationship to place.
ALEXIS: I think focusing on life’s daily struggles is especially important in places that are defined by extreme events. I think it’s so important to show the daily hum of Somalia, for instance, since media coverage of it is often distorted by a focus on the dramatic.
At the same time, as soon as you read that line back to me, I started thinking about how I’ve been feeling since [U.S. Supreme Court Justice] Anthony Kennedy resigned. There has been a resurgence of talk about Roe v. Wade, about women’s reproductive choice. My friends and I are all thinking about how our access to birth control may be under threat, and about the women who already have limited access to birth control in this country. I think it’s a good way to start thinking broader: to identify the essential things in your life that you take for granted. Hopefully that will lead to thinking about other women, other women's rights, our collective rights, and our collective responsibility.
In fact, that is often the most effective way to resist against injustice: for ordinary people to realize what matters most to them, what life would look like if those things disappeared, and what they would do to stop that from happening. Unfortunately, in individualist societies like America, it's hard for people to really consider the plights of those who don’t look like them or who are not in the same geographic area. But if you start from the values or priorities that you consider dearest to you, hopefully that can spur a wider connection.
So I don't think it's specific to place. It is important to show the daily struggles of people from places that haven’t been depicted with the same interiority as a lot of places in the West have. But I think it’s important in places like the U.S., too, because from those daily concerns something larger can emerge.
SOPHIA: Did reporting on Somali female basketball players change your perspective on the politics of gender representation in the United States? Being able to play was clearly so psychologically important to these young women, whereas I feel that most of the coverage here is just like, “Do women account for 50% of x industry?” It’s so stark and cold!
ALEXIS: When I was reporting this, it was pre-Trump. Obama was in office. So I’m reporting in Mogadishu thinking, “We’re still debating the value of a woman.” Not even what a woman could do—which is how I saw the conversation here in the United States—but simply the intrinsic value of women. What is a woman worth? Based on that, how are we going to treat her? What are we going to allow her to do? That's how I viewed what was happening in Somalia. In the United States, I assumed it had been agreed upon that the value of a woman is equal to that of a man and that we’re debating how to make sure that value is reflected in all facets of life. But then after Trump, I realized that the intrinsic value of a woman was not agreed upon at all. So I began to see more similarities.
An interesting thing about Somalia is that the value of a woman actually hasn’t always been under such serious debate. The mothers of a lot of the girls I interviewed there had played basketball in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and walked around in basketball shorts, had afros, were doing really whatever they wanted. Within a span of a few decades, these freedoms disappeared to the point that their daughters had no sense of the liberty that their mothers had. It got me thinking, “Shit, that could happen here.” Within the span of several years, the rights that we value so much could be a thing of the past, to the point that our daughters experience a very different version of America. Life can happen that quickly. The things we value can disappear that quickly.
But one of the things I learned reporting in Somalia is that even though these freedoms were at risk of disappearing, not everyone was just going to let that happen without any kind of fight. I admire these girls who have a sense of entitlement that they really shouldn’t have because they grew up in a society that didn’t teach it to them. I think women having entitlement is so important, because it’s the only thing that's going to save us. It’s hard because in America, Somalia, and most places, women are not taught to be entitled. We’re just taught to be grateful for having the limited opportunities that we have. We have to feel entitled to more.
SOPHIA: These girls who possess this sense of entitlement that there’s no reason for them to have—where do you think it comes from? The media? Their moms or friends?
ALEXIS: I think it’s what they see. I was just thinking about one of the women I wrote about in my book, Haby, who was enslaved in Mauritania. When she was freed by the activist I wrote about, Biram, she was very resistant and scared, because she was living in a specific slice of society that didn’t encourage her freedom. But that changed when she left her master’s household and started living in a city where she saw women like her—free women— walking around. Or there’s Aisha, the young female basketball player, on Facebook, watching LeBron James and women from the WNBA, and seeing photos of her mother, who was playing not so long ago.
When I was growing up, seeing women who did what I wanted to do was really helpful. Like, “I don't know how I’m going to get there, but I see Christiane Amanpour on TV, so I know it’s been done. Technically it's not completely out of the question.” I think that's become increasingly universal. Even people I’ve interviewed in the most remote villages are on Facebook, are on the internet, seeing things that inspire them, seeing things that make them feel entitled.
I'm very into women feeling entitled to opportunities because I went to an Ivy League college and it was the first time where I saw entitlement on such a grand scale—mostly in white men. I was kind of appalled, but I also wanted to study it because I just found it so interesting. I saw the effect that people raising their hands in class, going to see their lecturers during office hours, had on how professors viewed them. And I thought, “These people are going to be successful. This is what I need to do to be successful, too.”
I'm a shy, introverted person, but I'm good at studying people and doing things outside of myself when it's for a purpose. Being entitled doesn't come naturally, but I can perform it because I know that it’s necessary in order to achieve what I want.
SOPHIA: The first person I ever interviewed, Alexandra Kleeman, said something very much like that: “Even if I don't feel like it's my right to not take ‘no’ for an answer, I’m just going to act as though I do and see how that feels.” I keep that in my mind because I find it to be very freeing. It doesn’t require some change of your identity. It’s just like, “I'm just going to raise my hand right now,” not that I have to actually become that person.
ALEXIS: That is my whole college experience. And life experience.
SOPHIA: In your piece [on appropriation] for the Guardian, talking about reporting on the American South, you said: “Even though I am from this place, I am still an interloper of sorts, one who will have to constantly wrestle with my own preconceived notions and to try to not lose sight of my subjects’ humanity and complexities.”
There is this authority that one gains from being “from” somewhere that I think obscures the fundamental awkwardness and uncomfortabillity of narrating the lives of people that are still not you and will never be you, even though you’re “from” the same place. And I think this can apply to more “fixed” aspects of identity, like race or gender. For example, your story about moving to Uganda after college, being surprised that people were treating you like an American instead of an African, and having to come to terms with that.
Could you talk a little bit more about the way that we look at who owns certain narratives and who doesn’t? It seems like you’ve argued that everyone is always an interloper no matter what, but how flexible is that and what are its limitations?
ALEXIS: That’s something I have been thinking about all summer as I get into this project about the American South. One of my aims is to portray Alabama, which is where I’m from, as more multilayered and complex than it’s been given credit for. In theory, I could go around and say I’m from this place, I have spent much of my life here, I know what it’s about and I'm going to tell you about it, but that’s not my experience everyday on the ground.
As I report, I’m driving to these small towns and listening to people tell me versions of their Alabama stories that I had no idea about. I thought I knew most of them, but I continue to learn that I don’t. These stories are not in Alabama history books and I don’t see them reflected in the coverage of the state.
But it also does help being from there. The Deep South can be insular and people don’t necessarily open up easily to strangers. It’s common to hear, “What’s your connection to this place?” or “What high school did you go to?” When I can say, “I went to this one,” it breaks the ice. It helps to have a certain knowledge of the area.
I do think we should be wary of people who drop into somewhere for a short amount of time and suddenly become experts. Not to say that you can’t write about a place without being from there, or even living there. I have. But I still don’t view myself as a foremost expert on them; rather as someone who knows a lot and is still learning. I think that’s the way all journalists should see the places they write about.
SOPHIA: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
ALEXIS: I think a lot of journalists who write about the Global South are encouraged to think about the state of women in that region as being radically different from the West, where we usually come from. And what I’ve seen in my work is that it’s really not so different. A lot of our concerns, worries, and priorities are the same. I think that anyone who says differently is just not looking around.
Despite whatever advancements women make professionally or educationally in the United States, that fundamental question of our value, of our worth, is still always at play. I think it’s a mistake for Western women to see ourselves as being better off or being in a superior, more enlightened place than women who aren’t in this part of the world. As I mentioned before, women in the countries I’ve reported from feel entitled to more, and are sometimes risking their lives to get it. In our own moment of extreme crisis, that could be something we learn from.
SOPHIA: I feel like you partially just answered this, but what do you believe that women need or can do for each other presently?
ALEXIS: Patriarchal societies feed off of women distrusting, competing against, and not supporting each other. So one of the most important things we can do is trust each other’s instincts and feelings, think of them as valid, and go from there. If a woman who’s had a different experience from yours is telling you something specific about that experience, trust that it’s true for her and talk openly about it. I think that conversations among women—whether they’re about racism, classism, or Islamophobia—won’t move forward unless we trust each other’s experiences and give validity to them.
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