March 8th was International Women’s Day and I attended several women’s events across Rivers State throughout the month. There was the women’s march of the Roman Catholic Church in Ogoniland, the worker rights training for the women members of PENGASSAN (the national labor union for oil workers), an awards dinner for a gender-focused Nigerian NGO, and the NLC Women’s Committee International Women’s Day Celebration. The first event represents rural mobilization, the second workplace, the third non-profit, and the last state-sponsored, since the NLC has close ties with the government and there were many state representatives there. All in all, I was able to make observations about the public rhetoric surrounding women’s rights in quite varied environments.
I had intended to compare and contrast my observations to see how they differed, but instead I couldn’t help identifying commonalities among all the events. Like all meetings in southern Nigeria, they were opened with an enthusiastic prayer asking Jesus to bless the day, which was led by a male speaker who reminiscent of a Pentecostal preacher. Nigerians are avid church attendees and everyone identifies with a denomination, so the opening prayers seemed second-nature to most of those present. I don’t know if there were Muslims or other non-Christians there.
I have some mixed opinions on invoking Christianity at secular women’s rights events. There is of course the concern how this affects the non-Christian attendees, perhaps marginalizing them from the discussions. Additionally, believers in gender equality have a right to mobilize at such events outside of religious parameters, and when nearly every speaker references God then one’s religion becomes the gateway through which one must mobilize. This makes one’s belief in a certain type of Christianity a sort of precondition for her involvement in the gender movement.
Conversely however, church services are a familiar platform for most Nigerians, and presenting the day events as such has immense power to communicate a message to attendees. Nigerians embrace the singing and dancing of lively church services here, as they did at the women’s events too. Framing the improvement of women’s status in religious terms may also make mobilization acceptable for women who would otherwise see it as “looking for trouble,” as my interviewees call it.
Along with Uganda, Nigeria is arguably one of the most overtly anti-gay countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with parliament passing a very strict bill last fall that allows for ten year in prison for anyone who even aids same-sex unions. There is a common belief that homosexuality is a Western import, with Europeans and Americans “spreading it” to Nigeria. My observations last month made me wonder if the LGBT cause wouldn’t be strengthened if some of its messages were presented in a way more compatible with the strong religious sentiment in the country, since respect for the LGBT community and religion need not be totally incompatible (as they are here). The nascent Nigerian LGBT movement could perhaps take a cue from successful women’s rights campaigns in this regard.
The second observation I made is there were no men in the audience, yet the emcee and over half of all speakers were male at each event. In a room of over 100 women in support of the improvement of their own status, it is paradoxical that men were the interlocutors the majority of time. What message does this send? It may convey that men’s voices matter more than women’s, or that women should mobilize with men leading the way. It makes men the gatekeepers of the gender discussion. It furthers entrenches the idea that it is men with the confidence and education to speak to large groups of people, and women are best as the listeners. Disturbingly, all but a few of the male speakers made jokes about women’s role in the kitchen or bedroom, one even remarking that empowered women make better lovers. It is probably logical to assume that more female speakers would have meant less objectification of women’s bodies as a form of humor. When I asked an organizer of one of the events why there were so many men speaking, she essentially said that men’s presence validates the legitimacy of the event. Since she wanted powerful people as the speakers and most powerful people are male, naturally there is male dominance on stage.
Lastly and most importantly, the gender movement in Nigeria has a long way to go in respecting women’s rights simply because they are people and not because of their role as wives, mothers, or caregivers. The single most dominant message that was conveyed by speakers, well received by the audience, and then reiterated during discussion sections was that we should help women access improved political participation, education, health care because of their role in the family. Women should go to the polls more so they can vote for policies that benefit their husband’s industry or their children’s well-being. Women should have health care so that they live long enough to raise their children and care for their husbands in the home. Women should be educated so that they can help their children with their homework and be more responsible with the household budget. One of the most charismatic male speakers at the NLC event conveyed the principal message that women should complete secondary school so they don’t embarrass their husbands with their ignorance, “When your wife no speak English-o when your friends are in the house, then the shame is for the husband like the wife.” I think he was trying to convey that educating women is everyone’s responsibility, but he did so in a paternal way.
Two elements of this last point are important I think. First, women’s rights must be based on the fact that they are human beings, on their humanity, and not on their relationship to men and society at large (See MacKinnon’s Are Women Human?). Often times in a effort to protect women, and I use the word “protect” purposefully, they are granted special or distinct rights that I think further remove them from the realm of basic human rights. Thus, human and civil rights end up being “male” while separate women’s rights are “female.” This spreads the idea that women matter only in terms of their relation to the family, and limits their importance in the outside community. Where does this rhetoric leave widowed, barren, or unmarried women? To be meaningful and enduring, women’s rights cannot depend on their relation to men in order to legitimate their status. Such rights must be rooted simply in their status as human beings.
Second, by further reinforcing women’s role in the home, the private sphere, they are moved even farther away from the roles of men in the public sphere. All of the gender events I went to last month buttressed the perception of men and women’s inherent differences. One of the longstanding debates in gender studies is about the sameness-difference versus equality model (See Frug’s Postmodern Feminism). Supporters of the sameness-difference model argue that there are clear distinctions between men and women, e.g. physical strength and childbirth, and that there is nothing wrong with acknowledging those distinctions. The problem with society is that we privilege the male condition over the female one, male qualities over female ones. They find that if we could just enhance respect for what women bring to the table, then there will be gender equality that benefits all. However, the equality folks, one of which is me, find that by validating such differences between men and women we provide the context in which prejudice takes root; for it is only by acknowledging inherent differences that we can justify unequal treatment. Differences provide an excuse for discrimination. “Separate is inherently unequal” whether one is referencing racial segregation in American schools fifty years ago or African women’s access to public office today. And although I realize that the equality model will probably never been culturally accepted in most places in the world, it is still a noble ideal towards which societies should strive.