The recent death of South African icon and Apartheid activist, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has thrown up interesting conversations about a woman’s place in the context of African society. These conversations aren’t in any way new, but they have achieved renewed urgency in the wake of the battle for who is ultimately responsible for outlining the nature of Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy.
Should she be remembered as the face of the struggle, the mother of the South Africa that emerged from the rubble of Apartheid and the ultimate icon of resistance, or must her contributions to a post-racist and colonial South Africa be cast under a foreboding cloud of controversy, violence and hate speech?
At the heart of the arguments for both sides, lies an underlying factor, one that has been played out repeatedly in the lives and times of great women who have dared to step into their power, and owned it convincingly. By refusing to find her fulfilment in domestic happiness, and choosing not to cloak her ambitions and appetites under a pious veil of motherhood and compromises, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela became an outsider. One whom the patriarchal and dominant gatekeepers did not expect, let alone try to understand.
The resultant treatment meted out to her in her lifetime, by her former husband, by high ranking officials of the African National Congress (ANC), and by her political enemies is hardly surprising. Resistance, shaming, dismissal and erasure. These methods come in various different forms and have been deployed from time immemorial to silence the voices of women considered to be stepping out of line. That drawn for them by male gatekeepers.
For contemporary proof of this, see President Muhammadu Buhari’s visit to Germany in October, 2016. Like many Nigerians who voted for Buhari in 2015, wife of the President, Aisha Buhari about a year into his presidency, found herself unimpressed. The Buhari presidency had admittedly arrived with lofty expectations but the man at the centre made it his business to dash every single one of them. Unlike most Nigerians, Aisha Buhari was in a position to speak out and when she did, she was unsparing.
The presidency must have been embarrassed by Aisha Buhari’s public approach to criticism and Buhari chose a moment when he was on the world stage to put his wife in her place. Responding to a query by a foreign journalist, Buhari offered a thorough dismissal of his wife, who was constantly at his side while he was on the campaign trail.
According to President Buhari, the first lady isn’t a card-carrying member of the political party, and thus had no reason to meddle in the very masculine world of hardcore politics. He then went on to utter the ugly words that would forever define him in terms of gender relations. “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room,” Buhari threw up, while sitting next to the all-powerful and very female German chancellor, Angela Merkel.
There are many Nigerians who were embarrassed by Buhari’s outburst, and they should be. Not simply because it happened on foreign soil. Even though that was bad enough, it should worry Nigerians more that instead of choosing to engage with his life partner mentally and politically as an equal, instead of granting her the respect she deserves by virtue of her being a human person, the President chose to sink into the sewer of assuming that on account of her gender, Aisha has no right to weigh in such manly matters as politics.
In Buhari’s world, Aisha is merely a nuisance to be tolerated during election period as she smiles for the cameras and poses merrily with Akara sellers. Having an opinion of her own, let alone one contrary to the party line, decided upon by a roomful of men must be considered radical and retribution handed swiftly. In simple terms, women must never be encouraged to speak out of turn.
In March, Nollywood actress and producer, Rita Dominic, a veteran of over fifteen years, majority of them spent as a top-flight movie star, took the occasion of the release of her latest film, Bound, to advice that not all films should be screened in cinemas. The statement, put out via an innocuous enough Instagram post, was at once, rebuke and indictment. Her comments didn’t go down well, especially among those who considered themselves ‘’movers and shakers’’ of the industry.
The reactions to Ms Dominic’s post were not surprising. Nollywood, after all, is an industry not known to take well to criticism. But the response of film producer, Don Pedro Obaseki who made Igodo back in 1999 and hasn’t mattered in a long, long, time took the misogyny to another level. Brandishing his PhD, Obaseki thought it fitting to put Dominic in a place he considered hers. Obaseki reminded Dominic of her days as a struggling artiste ‘’roaming from one set to the other’’ and advised her to take a lesson in humility.
The irony was stark and reflective of a larger problem that even successful women are forced to contend with. That a filmmaker who hasn’t scored a hit in years considers himself superior to an in-demand actress just because they crossed paths at the early stages of her career. It didn’t matter that the actress has since gone on to co-star and produce her own film, the critically acclaimed The Meeting in the years since both last made contact.
It also didn’t occur to Obaseki in his rush to shame, and with his intent to punish, that Dominic like most contributors to a functional society, could actually take pride in her humble beginnings. A woman could be beautiful, wealthy, successful, and the average man still considers himself superior. Just because.
The kids aren’t alright
Men like Buhari and Obaseki did not just happen, and in their different backgrounds, lie a common denominator. It is one rule for men, another for women. That is the fulcrum on which Nigerian society has run for the longest of times.
Starting at birth, gender roles are swiftly delineated. Boys are encouraged to explore and get adventurous, girls are only allowed to be prim and proper. Masculinity is a small, closed off box that all boys must exist within and girl children are raised in service of that shallow box.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said it best when she observed in her now famous, Beyoncé approved, TED talk. She proclaimed ‘’We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man.’’
With this kind of teaching, carefully, consciously and unconsciously indoctrinated, it is no wonder there are loads and loads of Nigerian men walking around, easily threatened at the first sight of a successful woman.
If the long and sustained process of socialisation starts in pre-school then it is obvious that the Nigerian child is ideally set up to fail by a series of uncoordinated attacks on the legitimacy of the girl child. Female children are still not as valued as their male counterparts and in some homes, are less likely to be raised as equals to the boys. While a lot of progress has been made in terms of getting parents to realise the value of educating the girl child, gains are steadily being reversed in large swathes of the North East by a protracted nine-year insurgency mounted by Boko Haram.
The New York Times last week, published a positive-leaning follow up feature put together by West African Bureau chief, Dionne Searcey who was allowed significant access by the American University of Nigeria, Yola to the still-in-rehabilitation Chibok girls now housed within the institution’s walls.
The purpose of the New York Times piece was to share updates on the progress of the Chibok girls, at one time the most famous group of secondary school students in the world. With finely lit photographs of the girls, over a hundred of them, striking dignified poses, accompanied by interviews with a cross-section of them, the piece does a fine job of positioning the young ladies as victors in the battle against Boko Haram.
But for every parent inspired by the positivity of the Chibok girls to send their daughters to school against the odds, there are dozens discouraged by subsequent attacks on soft spots like the Dapchi school kidnapping. The alternative to this clear and present danger? Keep the girl child at home, domesticised, and marry her off at the earliest opportunity.
Away from war-affected regions, in the country’s most modern of cities, the quality of education isn’t exactly much to write home about. Biases picked up at home are hopelessly reinforced within school walls, and this includes the most exclusive of centres.
Nursery rhymes appear innocent enough and are great for making learning fun for kids but many of them are simply a product of their era and have failed to stand the equality test. The popular rhyme, Jack and Jill, for instance, has been criticised in many Western cultures for its sexist leanings and France has notably been in the news for recent advances in making its language – and learning – gender inclusive. This campaign led to the release in 2017, of a gender-neutral textbook for children in the third grade.
In Nigerian schools, however, it isn’t unlikely to witness children singing songs about fathers in sitting rooms, watching television while mothers busy themselves in the kitchen, cooking. The role of the school in helping kids form and adopt gender roles has never really been investigated in terms of studies and research papers here and so a lot of biases are simply imbibed from the West, hook line and sinker. The situation hasn’t been considered bothersome enough though to warrant interventions by the ministry of education. In the meantime, the schools keep churning out girl children who imagine their future selves not as governors or presidents, but as first ladies and significant others of influential persons.
A history of violence
The Obafemi Awolowo University professor of Accounting who was caught on tape demanding for sex – at least five times – from a student of his to upgrade her scores is only the latest episode of the gross abuse and disregard meted out to women’s bodies by members of the opposite sex. Such behaviour is considered par for the course in Nigerian universities and countless women have often found themselves left with no choice.
A significant part of being female in Nigeria involves fending off unwanted advances from men. These experiences encompass various spheres of life. In schools, in the workplace, at the cinemas, public parks, roadsides, parties, there are no safe spaces.
Media coverage of women’s issues these days often feels restricted to rape, domestic violence or sexual assault. Trending topics on social media platforms are the same. It is a wonder there are any sane women left. In the past year alone, a scroll through some of the big news and trending stories involving women involves instances of violence and battery. Any right thinking society should be worried that these things are allowed to go on. The same society should also be considering institutionalised preventive measures.
A shocking practice in some Lagos state schools was brought to light when a (female) bystander came across a group of male students attempting to rape their erstwhile female counterparts in broad daylight. Apparently, this ugly practice has been going on for years and is considered a rite of passage for secondary school girls who have just completed their school leaving certificate examinations.
In October last year, students of the Federal Government Girls College, Langtang, Plateau state, were reported by The Cable to be preyed upon by adult guardians. According to the distressing report, security guards assigned to the school pimped the students out to willing patrons for paltry sums of money. Enugu state concerts by beloved Highlife artistes, Flavour and Phyno were bogged down by reports of violent and sexual assault. Naturally, women were at the receiving end.
A popular on-air personality and actress detailed a subjective report of a disturbing encounter with a Taxify driver that was reflective of what a lot of women deal with while engaging with the service industry. And a Kannywood actress was banned from earning a living by local regulators after she participated in some (gasp!) public display of affection with a male rapper. The male artiste was unscathed by the drama.
Then there are invisible but effective barriers like the glass ceiling, the bosses who fail to promote female employees until sexual favours are traded, unfriendly labour practices that put women at a disadvantage at the workplace while punishing them for juggling personal matters and the vicious shaming of women who show no signs of domesticity.
A man’s man’s world
Clearly, a lot needs to be done to redress all the assault that constantly targets women. Patriarchy is a chronic burden on Nigerian society and men are the biggest beneficiaries, but women are also culpable in its continued entrenchment. Seeing no other way out, women internalise all they have learnt as girls and find themselves playing the role of defender of a system they have little control over. This explains why women come to see themselves as adversaries, fighting for the affections of men as well as for workplace opportunities. This also explains the thinking behind women who protect their place in the pecking order by victimising subordinates while demonising defiance as a character trait. Ditto the ones who don’t miss any chance to advertise – mostly to men – how submissive they can be. Extra points for shaming the women with a contrary opinion.
Things are so dire that by simply kneeling to the president in public, a wife of a terribly mediocre state governor is hailed for her humility, while an effective chief executive who refuses to tolerate laxity from her team members is vilified for not being a ‘’mother.’’ It matters little what her record looks like. In the important matter of perception, a motherly leader is a great one while a standoffish one is a b_tch. On the contrary, no one expects the man to be the father figure in the workplace. No one has time for that.
However bleak the situation may seem, it isn’t likely to get better soon. The #TimesUp and #MeToo campaigns have galvanised moments of reckoning for powerful men upholding harmful patriarchal values in the United States and around the world but its effects have failed to trickle down to these corners. In the case of the OAU lecturer caught red-handed, there has been a subtle push by both the academia and the clergy, two of his constituencies, to protect what is left of his career. The student, for all intents and purposes is likely left out in the cold. Business as usual.
Education could be a panacea but from primary to tertiary, there is so little that is of quality being passed down to new generations. Even if the content were there, language is a barrier and a lot is still being lost in translation. This goes back to the colonial era.
Pop culture could be valuable in changing mindsets with film and music leading the way via effective imagery and powerful lyrics, delivered in languages that are widely accessible. The worldwide success of Marvel’s Black Panther is proof of how film can play a powerful role in the fight for representation and changing narratives. But these vistas have remained largely untapped. Nigerian pop music is stuck in the basic call and response mode with juvenile lyrics and beats made purely for dancing. Introspective artistes are largely shuffled off to the genre margins with only a core constituency of fans.
Nollywood has proven with each dismal, tone-deaf comedy that hits theatres every week, that it simply isn’t prepared to rise up to the challenge of changing beliefs and inspiring the culture. And it isn’t just a simple case of being a man’s world. The biggest Nollywood stars – Genevieve, Rita, Omoni – are women and many of them have gone on to take charge of their careers by venturing into producing. In this capacity, they join folks like Mo Abudu and Mary Remmy Njoku, as some of the most powerful figures in contemporary filmmaking.
In spite of all this wattage, the quality of filmmaking has simply refused to rise as most filmmakers remain slaves to the profit margins. Asides pockets of genuine attempts here and there, many of the projects these big names partake in, still perpetuate lazy stereotypes of women; women looking for husbands, women settling for mediocre men and women hating on one another. A world where filmmakers realised the power of the medium that is available to them and greenlit films with women in strong, complex roles on the regular shouldn’t be so hard to imagine. Film obviously, isn’t the ultimate solution to Nigeria’s woman problem, but it could go a long way.
A lasting solution would be multi-pronged and cut across all levels of human existence. Political, social, economic, cultural and religious factors must be considered. Acknowledging the problem is usually the first step but it is the year 2018 and that process hasn’t even started yet. The scale of the problem is tremendous.
God help us all.