The Concept of Women’s Rights and the Fight for Equality: The Nigerian Perspective

The Concept of Women’s Rights and the Fight for Equality: The Nigerian Perspective

On the morning of December 3rd 1929, Nnayereuwa, a woman from the Aba region of Southeastern Nigeria, alongside roughly ten thousand other women created a landmark in the country’s history as it relates to the rights of women in the nation and by extension, throughout the African continent. That morning, after a scuffle with a tax collector, Nnayereuwa proceeded to the market square and along with four other women ignited a massive female protest that would later come to be known as the Aba Women’s Riot of 1929. 

The women were protesting the attempt of the British Colonial government to impose personal taxes on them, predicated on the background of their exclusion from the politics of the region by that same government. After the scramble for and partition of Africa, the British Colonials encountered in the region now known as Nigeria, a somewhat democratic structure where everyone (including the women) had a say in the affairs of the society. Failure to check this loosely established order would have made the region unmanageable for the colonialists and so, they proclaimed it chaotic and proceeded to set up a government stuffed full with Warrant Chiefs and District Officers all of whom were men.

The personal tax later imposed on the segregated female population was the last straw and the women came out in massive numbers to fight back. Their victory heralded the offset of female political participation in Africa and forms a vital part of the Nigerian political history to this day.

All of these events happened many years ago and one might think it safe to declare that the war for women’s rights in Nigeria have been long won. The aftermath of this protest was expected to be a steady consolidation on the victories of Nnayereuwa and her comrades, but I have begun to wonder at the true face of that consolidation.

Cassava processing is a source of employment for Nigerian women. Credit: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture

When I decided to write this article, I asked my girlfriend (who is a brilliant lawyer by the way) her stance on the issue of female rights in the country. In response, she asked me just how concrete I believed the rights of women were in Nigeria. Surprised, I made dismissive references to the Constitution of the country as well as a few current notable female figures; and her response was that each of those women has fought thrice as hard as their male counterparts to attain the exact same heights. To further buttress her point, she referred to an article she read in a British newspaper not too long ago, where Theresa May’s husband, Philip May, was described as a man who has taken the backseat and allowed his wife to shine. 

Allowed! I silently wondered at the absurdity of that remark and could not come up with any one ‘acceptable’ scenario in any society today where that same remark may be used to qualify the ‘humility’ of a woman. Men have wives who support their dreams, not allow them and I began to wonder whether female rights at its core have remained a concept allowed only when convenient.

She admitted there were laws in place –all evidence of optimism and growth- but maintained that when all is said and done, women from one generation to the next have had to tug and pull at the grips of their societies to thrive because there is a lot to be said about coming into a man’s world through the cracked pelvis of a woman.

Women in Nigeria. Photo credit: Sonii David / Community Eye Health Journal

I decided to explore the topic with more women and during the holidays, I pitched that same question in a conversation to my mother. Her response was a smile, a raised brow and a query of her own, “You are the lawyer so do you believe women have rights in Nigeria?” These are two generations of women on one consensus; the fight for women’s rights here is still far from won. 

My position- as a man who has directly or indirectly been a part of and benefitted from a patriarchal society- was that women had rights. While the situation is far from ideal, there has been a marked shift for the better and I argued that women now had the opportunity to be whatever they wanted to be; soldiers, pilots, politicians, judges, or contest for the presidency. My mother grudgingly agreed that the situation had indeed improved but was quick to liken said improvement to a very terrible situation which had only become a little less terrible.

The fights for the rights of women here have come a long way, progress of which is evidenced in part by the fact that the challenges faced by women today are no longer as systemic as they used to be. For instance, there were laws that addressed women as actual properties of their men in the past. But today, such policies have generally all been rolled back or rendered unenforceable by the courts. Put simply, there are nearly no laws in place (well, at least in Nigeria and many countries anyway) which dictate to women what and how they can or cannot be. My mom mentioned that the Beijing Conference helped in this regard. 

The hallmark of the fight for women’s rights though, is the fact that these issues have finally taken center stage all across the globe. Once upon a time, these topics were casually brushed aside, relegated to the background as white noise. It was taken for granted that the woman knew “her place” but all that has begun to change. The challenge of women here today is a tougher, different one.

Women collect water from a community well, New Bussa region, Nigeria. Credit: WorldFish/David Mills

Women now face a Great Wall of gender-based social bias because while there may be none of such rules left by law, there are myriads of laws and norms set by society. The wall of social bias is firmly rooted and backed up by religion and long years of patriarchy. From marriage to career, from sexuality to dressing, these bias attempts to (and has largely succeeded) in setting out the limits and scope of the rights of women in Nigeria. 

New crops of Women’s Rights activists are generally labeled “Feminists”, and in a patriarchal society such as mine, this label is often seen as a disturbing protest against the established order. These women push their ethos primarily online through the social media and their activities have been largely responsible for the new wave of women’s rights awareness in Nigeria and in most parts of Africa. Young empowered women who believe that sex should not be a limitation to a woman’s ambitions have mostly been inspired by this class. Some of the typical issues these groups address bother on a woman’s freedom to dress as she pleases; and whether or not to mandatorily take her husband’s name upon marriage.

In writing this article I discovered that this new form of activism, admirable though it may be, does not appeal to the average woman on the streets. The average Nigerian woman agrees with the ideals of this movement but is more concerned with activism of a more practical nature. They battle daily with their rights to be allowed to inherit their late husband’s properties to better care for their young, and they fight for the right to run their businesses without being compelled to remit all earnings to their husbands.

A Nigerian woman plays with her granddaughter. Credit: Jenny Matthews/Sightsavers.

In most cases, they fight for their rights to leave abusive marriages (which sometimes border on life or death); and at other times, they struggle for their rights to freely accept and pursue opportunities of personal growth without worrying that it might make their men feel less.

Women of an older generation- mothers like mine- have fought both idealistic and practical battles. They have fought for their rights in village meetings, and in government offices and by simply being the best at everything they did. Now they applaud how far they have come and are happy for the snippets of freedom their daughters have found, as they in turn pick up and continue these good fights. 

The conversation on women’s rights has gone global and with this comes tinges of sadness and fear for older African women. Women like my mother who perceive that the tides may actually turn have begun also to worry that radical change isn’t always a good thing. Empowered and independent daughters in pursuit of their careers somehow translate to unmarriageable women in my society to the perpetual anguish of their mothers. It’s as though women where birthed primarily to make good wives, but that’s perhaps a topic for another day.

International Women’s Health Coalition (IWC) in Nigeria. Photo: Nsoedo O. Ndubuisi for IWHC.

Even when they do marry, their mothers fear the young marriages may not endure because a direct consequence of the fights for the rights of women as far as they know, would be the incapacity of their daughters to stomach and live through the various marital and societal horrors their mothers survived. Because marriages in patriarchal societies depend to a great extent on the silence of a woman regardless of how painfully her back bends.

I will have a daughter someday, and all these have begun to worry me. I am not a woman, so I do not claim to fully appreciate the depth of issues here. I only know that now, I see these issues through a clearer lens. I believe that a society that seeks any price from a woman in pursuit of her rights must be a defective one. 

I’ve heard some people declare that the future is female and I agree. I have heard others proclaim, almost in protest, that the future is for everyone and again I assent. The best future we could ever build though is a society where no gender would have to fight for their rights to grow and thrive. 

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