On Black Sisters Street
My target audience is people who do not know enough about the sex trafficking industry and make negative judgments towards women who choose to sell their bodies for money. My purpose is to humanize women who are often dehumanized.
In a house on the Zwartezusterstraat, the women Sisi was thinking of — Ama, Joyce, and Efe — were at that very moment preparing for work, rushing in and out of the bathroom, swelling its walls with their expectations: that tonight they would do well; that the men who came would be a multitude; that they would not be too demanding. And more than that, that they would be generous. ― Chika Unigwe
I feel in love with Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche in my English 302 class when we watched a TedTalk about the danger of a single story. Some of my classmates are currently reading Americanah, which I have promised myself I would read whenever I get a break from the tornado that is college.
In another TedTalk that Adiche held, We Should All Be Feminists, she talked about the different goals that society sets for men and women:
“A Nigerian acquaintance once asked me if I was worried that men would be intimidated by me. I was not worried at all. In fact it had not occurred to me to be worried because a man who will be intimidated by me is exactly the kind of man I would have no interest in. But still I was really struck by this. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now, marriage can be a good thing. It can be a source of joy and love and mutual support, but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same?”
Adiche has a lot in common with the author that I chose to read, Chika Unigwe. Both of these women were born in Nigeria and share a comparable cultural background, Igbo. Adiche works primarily in the United States and writes exclusively in English, while Unigwe lives in Flanders and sporadically writes stories in Dutch alongside her English. Both authors write in the hopes of shedding light on the lives of women and society’s expectations of them. In order to write her novel, Unigwe had to spend time persuading four women to tell their stories of their time in Antwerp. The four women are unmarried and participate in pre-marital sex with men for money.
Globally, sex workers have a 45% to 75% change of experiencing sexual violence some time during their careers. They also have a 32% to 55% change of experiencing sexual violence in a given year.
Unigwe’s novel, On Black Sisters Street, is a captivating story that uncovers the lives of four very different women who left Africa in the hopes of making it big in Europe. Sisi, Ama, Efe and Joyce work in Antwerp’s red-light district, and sell their bodies to men during the night:
Thrown together by conspiracy of faith and allowed man called Dele, they are bound in a sort of unobtrusive friendship, comfortable with whatever little they know of one another, asking no questions unless they are prompted to, sharing deep laughter and music in their sitting room, making light of the life that has taught them to make the most of the trump card that God has wedged in between their legs, dissecting the men who come to them (men who spend nights lying on top of them or under them, shoving and fiddling and clenching their brown buttocks and finally [mostly] using their fingers to shove their own pale meat in) in voices loud and deprecating.
Unigwe does an amazing job explaining the lives of the characters. She weaves the lives of the four women seamlessly into the storyline, giving each woman their own space to explain their story, always returning to the women in their apartment they share in chapters titled “ZWARTEZUSTERSTRAAT”. This book is recognized as being a work of modern African writing and is unlike any book I have read in the past. It opens the readers eyes to the hardships and the sacrifices that many women make because of poverty. It shows what people are willing to do to provide for their loved ones. This book is a must read for people who see prostitutes as unworthy of empathy because the stories of these four women provides the reader with a deep understanding of the thoughts of these women and the things they had to sacrifice just to make money to support their families.
Unigwe has a unique perspective on the lives of these women because of her dedication to her novel. She gives a voice to the voiceless and comments on the lives of women who society usually looks down on. One man on a bus tells a pregnant women out of wedlock to:
“Go and tell the man that got you pregnant to look after you. Anu ofia. Wild animal. If you spread easily like butter you get what you deserve.”
Society is programmed to look down on women who have sex before marriage and despise women who have sex for money. In my favorite television show, Criminal Minds, prostitutes are considered high risk victims:
“Victims in this group have a lifestyle that makes them a higher risk for being a victim of a violent crime. The most obvious high risk victim is the prostitute. Prostitutes are high risk because they will get into a stranger’s car, go to secluded areas with strangers, and for the most part attempt to conceal their actions for legal reasons. Offenders often rely on all these factors and specifically target prostitutes because it lowers their chances of becoming a suspect in the crime.”
This is a very interesting idea to keep in mind because people assume that prostitutes are easy targets of murder, which does occur in Unigwe’s book. Although Sisi was murdered because she tried to leave the trafficking community rather than being murdered by a serial killer, her murder was overlooked by the community due to her career choice. Her death was not tragic to anyone besides the other African women she lived with and the police officers were paid to cease their investigation. The reasoning behind someone being a high risk target is a bit disheartening to me because it makes prostitutes seem like they have no regard for their own life. In many of the Criminal Minds episodes, prostitutes that get murdered do not raise much question, but when the offender becomes more confident and murders a middle-class white woman, the community speaks out in outrage.
Rates of sexual and physical violence against sex workers have been proven to be lower in contexts where decriminalization occurs. A relatively recent academic journal found that decriminalization is the only framework that would ensure human rights for sex workers. Decriminalization allows sex workers to work together and work in safer areas with increased safety. It also increases access for sex workers to justice and allows them to report violence to the police without having to worry about being arrested.
Many people see sex workers as dirty and unworthy of compassion, but Unigwe sees these women as much more than that. She does not see them as passive victims, she sees them as willing to do what they must to make a life for themselves. The women are wiling to do what they have to in exchange for money. Sisi, Ama, Efe, and Joyce see their time with the men as transactions and part of their job. Reading this book provided me with a perspective that I cannot relate to. I don’t know what it is like to have nothing or to have to support my family. Even though I do not share these experiences, I am able to empathize with these women because of the way that Unigwe portrays them. As women who are just trying to make a living and provide food and shelter for their families. The women get caught up in the idea of Europe being the only way to make money:
“Five hundred euros was a lot of money. If she converted that to aria, it amounted to more money than she had ever dreamed of making in any single month, even working in her bank of first choice. That was five times her father’s salary. Surely, if she was expected to pay back that much, it meant that she was expected to earn a lot more.”
The murdered Sisi, does not have stories of rape, genocide, or incest, but her experience is arguably more disheartening then the rest. She was an example of a women whose hard work and determination was not enough in Africa. She obtained an education and she and her family wanted nothing more than for Sisi to be successful, but she was still not able to succeed. She had followed all of the standard conventions to provide for herself, but still fell short. She is the perfect example of what can happen to even the most educated people: without a job, there is no food on the table. She was faced with a decision and made it as best as she could. This could happen to anyone. You could end up thousands of dollars in debt, but not end up finding a steady job. Anyone could end up in Sisi’s position.
When looking at Golden Dreams: The Immigrant Vision of California in the Hilbert Museum of California Art, there was a photo that I saw that I immediately connected to On Black Sisters Street. Alfredo Ramos Martinez’s painting “Mother and Child” was a beautiful piece that captivated me. It reminded me of Efe because she had a child that she was supporting back in Africa. The woman in Martinez’s painting is longingly looking at her son, which is what I imagined Efe looked like when she was leaving her son to go to Antwerp. The photo stood out to me because I had imagined Efe as the mother instantly.
For complimentary books please read:
The Color Purple