Philomina Okeke-Ihejirika’s research is partly the story of her own life. As a young woman pursuing higher education in her homeland of Nigeria, her experiences triggered an interest in the struggles of African women to balance their career ambitions with the cultural importance placed on marriage and children.
“It led me to rethink the privilege that African women have when they enter high education,” says Okeke-Ihejirika of that time in her life. She began to question the utility of higher education for women in a culture in which a PhD could render a woman “too qualified to get married”.
“A culture that encourages women to pursue high education must be ready to change,” says Okeke-Ihejirika, adding that the society must begin to look at women as individuals, not just as mothers and wives. She points out that African societies look to women as wives and mothers to build community. But those societies should also recognize women as nation builders and equal partners with men in order to make strides economically, socially and politically.
Now a professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, Okeke-Ihejirika’s research interests include gender, higher education and work in Africa, international migration and settlement, and transnational perspectives on violence against women in African conflict zones. She completed her PhD in 1994 and joined the Faculty of Arts in 1997. Once again, her life mirrored her research interests as drought, economic recession and conflict in Africa spurred increasing waves of migration. Many of the African women arriving in Canada were highly educated, and Okeke-Ihejirika began to take an interest in the very serious challenges they faced to rebuild their identities, their communities and their gender relationships in their new homeland.
“It gives me meaning to know that my research is not gathering dust in some library.”
Okeke-Ihejirika also works with Sophie Yohani, an associate professor in educational psychology at the U of A’s Faculty of Education. They examine the experiences of women from Africa’s conflict zones who have suffered sexual violence. “The health-care system in Canada is just not prepared for people like these,” she says. “Our hope is that our research, among others, would influence health policy in that regard and give rise to new approaches that will address these women’s situations more effectively.”
Okeke-Ihejirika’s life and her work continue to straddle two continents. Most summers she returns to Nigeria to spend time on her research, but also to help develop programs in universities and perform humanitarian work. “I love going back to Africa. I believe that I owe the continent a big debt, one that I can never fully repay. And it gives me meaning to know that my research is not gathering dust in some library.”
“We need to build an African identity so that they can understand what it means to be African-Canadian.”
Far from it — Okeke-Ihejirika also works with diverse African communities here in Canada to help bring them together. Until she came to this country, Okeke-Ihejirika never thought about her identity as African, or even Nigerian, instead seeing herself as an Igbo woman from southeastern Nigeria. “You could very easily stay in a cocoon with your fellow Igbos,” she points out. “But my children do not know what that means. We need to build an African identity so that they can understand what it means to be African-Canadian.”
For Okeke-Ihejirika, part of that understanding has been a new appreciation of elements of her own culture that she once struggled with: extended family systems, respect for elders and care for the community. “These are things I now teach my own children and encourage them to hold on to,” she says.
Phil Okeke-Ihejirika’s WGS webpage: