Nigeria’s legislatures’ continuing war against women and the way forward for equality activists

In a move that seems almost calculated to remind Nigerian women that no season, month or day in which their oppression will not find gleeful support from a majority of men, Nigeria’s legislature voted roundly against 5 bills specifically aimed at improving women’s lot exactly a week to International Women’s Day.

The year is 2022. Nigeria’s ‘nascent’ democracy is a grown adult at 24 years of waddling existence, Nigerian women have faced a brick wall, at every attempt to push for the actualisation of the promise of the 1999 constitution for the equal treatment of all citizens regardless of gender, from every one of the six consecutive legislatures to date.

As if to punctuate this affront to women across the nation by dispelling any doubt that this isn’t a deliberate vendetta, representatives in the lower chamber voted resoundingly against each bill will gleeful cackle like a gaggle of witches delighted at the wickedness the wrought.

Where bias defines nationhood

If you are to listen to what men who fashion themselves progressive enough to stand on the right side of history with women clamouring for a more equitable Nigeria for all regardless of gender, the gleeful rejection is less about gender bias and more women’s approach to the issue.

Columnist, Tonie Iredia, captured this rhetoric in his vanguard piece published on March 6, 2022.

In his words, as published, the writer claims that “women need to note that what is playing out now is not necessarily male prejudice but greed.”

He further argues that until women have mobilised the female population across the country up to some arbitrary critical mass he exemplifies by pointing to the ultimate passage of a bill for the electronic transmission of election results – which the legislators initially fought against till they couldn’t withstand the influx of support for the bill and against their rejection of it, women’s fight for equality will continue to hit a brick wall.

The argument is both tired and wrong. Even the most surface investigation of prevailing attitude among largely men, but also a host of women who drum up support for what the legislators have done, will reveal how prejudice is in fact at the heart of this latest attack on Nigerian women.

The legislative history of rejecting bills that seek to actualise the promise of the constitution for the equality of all citizens regardless of gender belie any claim to the contrary. Representatives are on record about how they feel regarding women’s equality and why they will continue to reject any attempt to bring it to reality.

For instance, Senator Yusuf Abubakar Yusuf ( Taraba Central – APC) is on record saying, “I will not support the passage of this until the word ‘equal’ is removed. If we now have debate on the gender opportunities bill, fine. But when you bring equality into it, it infringes into the practice of Islamic religion,” after the senate chamber stepped down a bill for gender and equal opportunities on Wednesday, December 15, 2021.

The sentiment is enduring and deafeningly loud even where it isn’t outwardly spoken, and bias, whether rooted in religion, culture or both, is defining Nigeria’s nationhood 61 years after independence.

The streets are in tandem

Following the rejection of the bills, women groups across the nation called for a protest to #OccupyNASS until the bill are reconsidered by the house. The scene, as witnessed by this writer on the first day of the protest in Abuja was lacking the presence of male allies, a testament to the prevailing attitude across the country regarding the issue of gender equality.

Commenting on the insidiousness of the legislators’ cackling rejection of the bills like a gaggle of witches, Writer and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights advocate, Emitomo ‘Nimisire’ Oluwatobiloba noted that the lack of male allies mirrors the predominantly male legislative houses.

“Look around you,” she said, “the lack of male allyship you see here is a reflection of the prevailing attitude towards women’s autonomy, and the legislatures is all too gleeful to ensure the defeat of key laws that will begin to change this by letting women into the room and guaranteeing our rights as enshrined by the constitution.”

The 5 bills considered and rejected are:

  1. Bill to provide special seats for women at national assembly; which seeks to increase female representation in the legislative arm. Presently, women make up only seven out of 109 senators and 22 of the 360 House of Representatives members, and it is not for lack of capacity.
  2. Affirmative action for women in political party administration.
  3. Another bill sought to grant citizenship to foreign-born husbands of a Nigerian woman. Already, a Nigerian man’s foreign-born wife is automatically a Nigerian citizen.
  4. Another bill also sought to allocate 35 per cent of political positions based on appointment to women and creation of additional 111 seats in the National Assembly as well as at the state constituent assemblies.
  5. Inclusion of at least ten per cent affirmative action in favour of women in Ministerial appointments.

The intentional error of opponents of the bill

The rhetoric about strategy, as captured by Iredia, is an untruth that serves as a distraction from the core issue, which is that Nigerian men generally don’t recognise the full humanity of Nigerian women.

Women’s groups across the nation, 230 by Iredia’s own estimation, have been going back and forth from one legislative tenure to another for years, failing and learning from it and restrategising to return only to face the same brick wall of opposition rooted in misogyny.

Co-founder of one of the 100s of organisations at the forefront of the clamour for equal opportunities for women, Yiaga Africa, Cynthia Mbamalu expounded on this frustrating reality.

“Nigerian women groups, including ally organisations, have lobbied for years on these bills,” she said, “going from one legislative tenure to another, failing and learning from our failure and restrategising with our new learning, so this is not a matter of strategy.”

She admits the brick wall is a confluence of culture and religion being wielded by the country’s majority male leadership to hold on to their advantage.

“The irony of this weaponisation of culture and religion to reject these bills,” she said, “is that the very culture some representatives cite as the reason that a bill like the one on indigeneship and citizenship for a foreign spouse was rejected is why the bill should have passed.”

The latter would have ensured that women who marry a foreigner can confer citizenship on their husbands. The legislators cited that culturally men don’t adopt their wife’s homeland, it is instead the other way around. Hence there is no need to amend section 26 (2a) of the 1999 Constitution which guarantees only men this right.

By the very same argument, Mbamalu explained, thousands of Nigerian women are rendered stateless in Nigeria. Which is what the former bill on indigeneship sought to correct.

“Culturally women are told when they marry that they have now joined their husband’s family – a state in the case of inter-tribal unions,” she said, “then the law tells them they can’t make this a legal reality, which leaves women on limbo, unable to access opportunities from their state of origin because they are married in another state, and unable to do the same in their husbands’ state because it is a legal impossibility. Essentially, making women stateless.”

The success of the bill, she noted, would have made the two legislative houses heroes of national unity.

“The bill rejection is an assault on national unity,” she affirmed.

The opponents of these amendments aren’t aware of this, they just don’t care.

A random sampling of opinions of men in Abuja, Kaduna, and Kano by this writer finds that at the root of the opposition is the dehumanisation of women.

A top NNPC employee who requested anonymity mentioned that it is okay for men to have the right to confer citizenship to their wives but not women to their men because men are naturally more discerning.

“If this is passed how do we get that criminals aren’t taking advantage of women’s emotional weakness to enter the country and become citizens just to wreak havoc.”

On affirmative action, another man reiterated the empty rhetoric about the need for women to get there on merit and not what he considers favouritism.

Yet Nigeria is no stranger to affirmative action. It can be argued, rightly, that a lot of the representatives in both chambers are only there thanks to affirmative action in federal education provision that provides for varying qualification requirements for states across the nation based on their capacity. So that argument easily falls flat also.

What Nigeria is telling Nigerian women

From the argument rooted in culture to that rooted in religion, what Nigerians who stand in opposition to these bills are saying is that women don’t belong to either unless they willingly submit to their dehumanisation.

Emotional arguments, like the one Mbamalu admits had been employed, imploring the representatives to remember what the women in their lives stand to gain if the amendment succeeds, will not do because these men unashamedly don’t see the full humanity of even the women in their lives. Especially them.

An appeal to the religious rightness of equality doesn’t work either because religious doctrine varies from faith to faith and denomination to denomination.

Yet this is even considering that Nigerian women subscribe to these traditions, to begin with.

What happens to atheist Nigerian women? To women of faiths other than Islam and Christianity that may treat them as equals to their male counterparts?

What’s clear from this recent episode of Nigeria’s legislature’s war on women is that to fix the system, women and their allies may need to burn it to the ground.

Only an argument for equality that makes room for the diversity of being beyond the binaries of Nigeria’s mainstream society may stand a chance.

A forceful reminder that the constitution exists not to serve Muslim and Christian Nigerians, not to soothe the sensibilities of cultures that are devoted to women’s dehumanisation. The constitution exists to protect the interests of all Nigerians regardless of faith or tribal afflictions, from Hausa to Itsekiri land without prejudice.

by Ado Aminu

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