Gender Essentialism (Part I)

An encyclopedia entry of mine, “gender essentialism,” was just published in the Encyclopedia of Diversity and Social Justice (2015) by Rowman & Littlefield. The entry stemmed from my research on the motherhood trope common in African women’s protests. During Occupy Nigeria in January 2012, women’s reverberating chants were always about needing jobs to provide for their children, or how they needed oil spills cleaned up so they could grow food for their children.  They regularly framed their resistance in terms of their role as mothers, thus essentializing their gender and their role in the resistance. Here is the text of the encyclopedia entry to offer further background:

Gender essentialism is the view that people have inherent and immutable personal characteristics based on their sex, and that these characteristics give rise to gender-specific experiences. This notion is often linked with the “difference” model of feminism (contrast with the “equality” or “social constructivist” model), both of which posit that fundamental dissimilarities between men and women explain their material and social differences.  Some gender essentialists may argue that women are naturally more peaceful, nurturing, communicative, and moral than men, thereby affecting their personal relationships and careers. Other essentialists focus on women’s shared social conditions rather than their attributes, and emphasize their marginalization within the economy and family unit, e.g. the gender wage gap. More specifically, some essentialists find that women’s childbearing alone fundamentally defines their social role and status.

Gender essentialism has been espoused by those who wish to undergird and explain role differentials among men and women, as well as by gender-equality activists wishing to create solidarity among women. The latter claim that certain generalizations can be made about “womanhood,” “motherhood,” and “the family,” and that these serve to further global standards for the status of women. Gayatri Spivak unintentionally began a movement towards “strategic essentialism” when she speculated that marginalized groups may find it advantageous to temporarily act as if their identities are stable and homogenous in order to achieve their political goals.

In response to essentialism, anti-essentialists maintain that all aspects of gender are socially constructed. Particular contexts create the class, race, and cultural differences among women’s interests. They charge that essentialism is marred by ahistorical, racist, classist, and heterosexist elements. Postmodern and particularly Black feminists emphasize that every perspective is socially situated, and charge that essentialists fail to see the “intersectionality” of discrimination.  Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, the study of “intersectionality” examines how biological, social, cultural, and economic categories interact on multiple levels in order to create inequality; intersectionality is at odds with gender essentialism. Some Postcolonial/Third World feminists have charged that, in trying to avoid gender essentialism, anti-essentialists have in turn actually engaged in a form of “cultural essentialism,” defining women’s identities and experiences not by their gender but rather by their nationality or culture.”

The encyclopedia can be found on google books.

diversity

The Spillover Effect of Occupy Nigeria

The powerful emergence of Occupy Nigeria could have profound implications for the human rights mobilizations that previously existed here. There is an extensive women’s health movement that focuses on lowering maternal mortality rates through building women-only hospitals and conducting public health education campaigns (a darling cause of several First Ladies here). Child rights campaigners have aligned with government agencies to try to stop the use of child labor, namely families sending young children to work as vendors and beggars. Several civil society groups focus on improving accountability and transparency among state officials, a challenging feat in a country where corruption pervades the highest levels of the federal government. To a lesser extent, there is also a nascent LGBTQ rights campaign by groups such as The Initiative for Equal Rights that have received virulent criticism, creating an anti-gay rights legislative backlash over the last year. How will Occupy Nigeria, far more poignant and widespread than any of these other movements, impact previous human rights causes?

The strength of the anti-oil campaign in the Niger Delta has fluctuated since it emerged twenty years ago. It was at its strongest in the mid-1990s under the direction of Ken Saro-Wiwa, but it then faded after his execution and with the increased repression of the Abacha regime. After the implementation of the new democratic constitution in 1999, it revived itself when women in Rivers and Delta state became increasingly involved in largely peaceful protests against oil companies. The most well-known is the occupation of Chevron’s Escravos site by 600 Itsekiri and Ijaw women who halted production there for 10 days in the summer of 2002. The following January dozens of Ijaw women in Warri blocked a river leading to a proposed Naval base in protest against government neglect and as recently as 2010 Shell closed two flow stations for several days due to a women’s sit-in. In January 2012, women from the Kolu-Ama community protested by setting up a roadblock to a Chevron office, demanding the company put out an offshore platform fire.

Although these women’s anti-oil movement has been overshadowed by Occupy Nigeria in the last month, I think that ultimately the Niger Delta mobilization benefits from collective action for other causes because of a “spill over” effect.

The Spillover Effect of Occupy Nigeria II

No social movement exists in isolation. Social movements constitute and are constituted by sympathetic and oppositional mobilizations. One movement can alter subsequent movements externally by affecting cultural and political conditions, and internally by changing the individuals, groups and norms within the later movement.  Organizations with hybrid identities – those whose organizational identities span the boundaries of two or more social movements – are especially vital to creating this spillover.  Thus, Occupy Nigeria is in part a product of the anti-oil movement and a comprising force of it as well.

Social movements cannot be labeled as “successes” or “failures” aside from their impact on policy.  Even when a movement is inactive like Occupy Nigeria, it may still function as a training ground for activists and as well as an engine for shaping ideologies. First, all collective action allows participants to “practice” resistance. Organizing for various related social changes over several decades is the rule rather than the exception for activists, as studies of the American civil rights and African independence movements illustrate. Not only do movement veterans continue to mobilize at higher rates than nonveterans for other causes throughout their lives, they carry their political lessons and perspectives that shaped their collective identity with them. An early social mobilization may act as a training ground for participants and leaders who bring their experiences and expertise to a later mobilization that may enjoy success as a result of their know-how. Additionally, an early mobilization not only teaches participants, it can also refine new leaders who become key players later on.  A low-level participant in an early movement may become a leader in a subsequent one, e.g. Malcolm X was a member of the anti-Korean War mobilization before leading the radical wing of the civil rights struggle. Such spillover in expertise furthers tactical innovation as well, as activists learn which methods of activism are most useful. The 2002 peaceful takeover in Escravos led to oil labor strikes by men in various sites of Delta State, as activists had learned that impeding production was the most powerful tool in gaining the attention of the state and oil companies.

When several different campaigns necessarily interact, even those that eventually end or become dormant, a stronger social movement community emerges. In Nigeria, the Kebetkache Women Development and Resource Center has programs for environmental protection, local conflict resolution, and human rights awareness campaigns, with the idea that all three causes help to improve the status of women in southern Nigeria.  Hybrid organizations such as Kebetkache are well-positioned to use inter-organizational networks in order to allow activists from one movement, e.g. environmentalism, to participate in another, e.g. peacebuilding.  This transfer of individuals reifies a collective identity and serves the organizational maintenance needs of the movement. This social movement community also gives activists a more structured way of staying involved in future campaigns.

Second, nearly all collective action shapes both internal and external ideologies to some extent. An early social mobilization may make intangible but important strides in altering participants’ consciousness about the salience of its cause and the causes of other movements. Even a mobilization that does not stimulate policy change can still heighten prospects about what sort of change is possible; the act of shared rights-claiming can raise expectations of future success.  This rights-claiming is also a process through which activists ossify their shared identity and relationship with one another, relationships that are pivotal in other mobilizations.

Aside from affecting the consciousness of movement members, even short-lived movements alter popular consciousness about reform on a larger scale. They have an ability to alter public discourse regarding their cause and frame the way outsiders view their issue. A series of challenges to the status quo, even challenges that have no direct effect on policy, may make some outside of the movement more open to change. Additionally, collective memory is such that contemporary ideology provides us with the lens through which we view the past. A later success for the same or similar cause may lead us to believe that a past “failed” movement was more “successful” than it really was. This can be seen in the way that history may heroize movement leaders, Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni rights mobilizations for example.

Lastly, for two social movements that co-exist simultaneously, the emerging salience of one may leave the struggling other with more time to devote to re-assessing strategy and resources. In other words, it can take the heat off a movement that has received backlash. LGBT activists in Nigeria have said that Occupy Nigeria has beneficial to them because it has shifted attention away from their cause as they still try to recover from the passage of a federal anti-gay marriage bill last year, one that enjoyed widespread support across the country. The Executive Director of the Improve Male Health Initiative has called Occupy Nigeria a “blessing” because it has bought the organization more time to shore up resources while attention is focused on the fuel crisis.

So, simply because Occupy Nigeria is not on the streets does not mean that it is not functioning.  Those who have “practiced” resistance will carry with them those experiences in future political activism. They constitute a larger community of activists with a collective identity. Ebbing overt activity and influence is sometimes helpful in giving movements the opportunity for re-assessing strategy, tactics, and collective identity. Moments of inactivity provide special impetus for movement-to-movement linkages as beleaguered activists and organizations pool their strength against powerful opponents. Even during periods of low activity, movements both endure and impact other movements through organizational forms that maintain culture and ideology.

NLC Strike Suspended While Soldiers Clamp Down on Protesters

There are two major developments today.  First, the NLC has asked for a “suspension” (i.e. end) to the nation-wide labor strike and encourages all Nigerians to return to work tomorrow, despite that the price of fuel was not returned to its previous price. The federal government had  stated last week that the N141 per liter price was non-negotiable but agreed with the NLC over the weekend on N97. The NLC also reiterated its call for an end to street demonstrations (although the demonstrations began before the NLC became publicly involved and most were planned and implemented independently of the NLC anyway).

Second, although the number and intensity of protests across the country lessened, today saw the strongest suppression of demonstrators yet. Police clamped down harshly on marchers (led by the former governor) in the northern city of Kano and President Jonathan deployed soldiers to disperse the remaining demonstrators in Lagos.  Soldiers fired live rounds into the air and around the crowds.  There were no fatalities. Additionally, state security forces stormed the CNN and BBC offices in Lagos, presumably to stop those news sources from reporting on the protests.

The Joint Action Front, the organizational force behind Occupy Nigeria in Lagos, has promised to sustain their protests.

Occupy Nigeria is over for the most part I think, and it is due to relative deprivation. Relative deprivation occurs when expectations (e.g. of standard of living) outpace capacities (e.g. to earn an income). In the long-term, the removal of the subsidy pales in comparison to other hardships this country has endured, and cannot be compared to many other injustices under previous regimes. Today’s Nigerians may compare themselves to Nigerians living under the economically inept administration of Obasanjo or the oppressive dictatorship of Abacha and be comparably thankful for Jonathan.  Nigerians have low expectations of their government because the government so frequently under performs, thus rising fuel prices are not shocking enough to galvanize prolonged resistance.  In the short-term, Nigerians spent last week bracing themselves for doubled fuel prices, making it easier to accept a 50% increase this week.  So long as expectations remain low, the state will not disappoint its citizens enough to incite  sustained opposition.

 

Fuel Prices Down to N97, NLC Suspends Street Protests (Jan. 16)

Just over an hour ago, President Jonathan announced that the federal government would reinstate a portion of the fuel subsidy, reducing the price at filling stations to N97 per liter. Although this is not the previous pump price of N65 that the Occupy Nigeria movement, the National Labour Congress (NLC), and the Trade Union Congress had requested, it is a significant reduction from the N141 price from the past two weeks. The President asked all Nigerians to return to work today, citing the economic hardships that the past week has caused to the country.  In response, NLC called off the public demonstrations but continued with the strike, urging workers to stay off the streets and continue striking at home. I am waiting to hear back from the civil/human rights groups who had coordinated with the NLC to plan the protests, as the former may or may not continue with their marches that had been scheduled for this morning at Isaac Boro Park in Port Harcourt. Here is the text from the President’s broadcast:

“Dear Compatriots,

This is the second time in two weeks I will address you on the deregulation of the downstream petroleum sector. In the last seven days, the nation has witnessed a disruption of economic activities.  Although, the economic imperatives for the policy have been well articulated by government, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) went ahead to declare a nationwide strike.

There was also near-breakdown of law and order in certain parts of the country as a result of the activities of some persons or groups of persons who took advantage of the situation to further their narrow interests by engaging in acts of intimidation, harassment and outright subversion of the Nigerian state. I express my sympathy to those who were adversely affected by the protests.

At the inception of the deregulation policy, Government had set up the Justice Alfa Belgore Committee to liaise with Labour and other stakeholders to address likely grey areas in the policy, but despite all our efforts, Labour refused the option of dialogue and also disobeyed a restraining order of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria.

However, following the intervention of the Leadership of the National Assembly, and other well-meaning Nigerians, Labour accepted to meet with government, but this yielded no tangible result.

It has become clear to government and all well-meaning Nigerians that other interests beyond the implementation of the deregulation policy have hijacked the protest. This has prevented an objective assessment and consideration of all the contending issues for which dialogue was initiated by government. These same interests seek to promote discord, anarchy, and insecurity to the detriment of public peace.

Government appreciates that the implementation of the deregulation policy would cause initial hardships and commends Nigerians who have put forth suggestions and credible alternatives in this regard. Government also salutes Nigerians who by and large, conducted themselves peacefully while expressing their grievances.

Let me assure you that government will continue to respect the people’s right to express themselves within the confines of the law and in accordance with the dictates of our democratic space.

Government will continue to pursue full deregulation of the downstream petroleum sector. However, given the hardships being suffered by Nigerians, and after due consideration and consultations with state governors and the leadership of the National Assembly, government has approved the reduction of the pump price of petrol to N97 per litre. The Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) has been directed to ensure compliance with this new pump price.

Government is working hard to reduce recurrent expenditure in line with current realities and to cut down on the cost of governance. In the meantime, government has commenced the implementation of the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment projects: including the Federal Government- assisted mass transit programme which is already in place, and job creation for the youth.

Furthermore, the legal and regulatory regime for the petroleum industry will be reviewed to address accountability issues and current lapses in the Industry. In this regard, the Petroleum Industry Bill will be given accelerated attention. The report of the forensic audit carried out on the NNPC is being studied with a view to implementing the recommendations and sanctioning proven acts of corruption in the industry.

Let me assure Nigerians that this administration is irrevocably committed to tackling corruption in the petroleum industry as well as other sectors of the economy. Consequently, all those found to have contributed one way or the other to the economic adversity of the country will be dealt with in accordance with the law.

My dear compatriots, I urge you to show understanding for the imperatives of the adjustment in the pump price of petrol and give government your full support to ensure its successful implementation. I further appeal to Nigerians to go back to work and go about their normal duties as government has made adequate arrangements for the protection of life and property throughout the federation.

Government will not condone brazen acts of criminality and subversion. As President, I have sworn to uphold the unity, peace and order of the Nigerian State and by the grace of God, I intend to fully and effectively discharge that responsibility.  Let me add that we are desirous of further engagements with Labour. I urge our Labour leaders to call off their strike, and go back to work.

Nigeria belongs to all of us and we must collectively safeguard its unity.

Thank you. God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”

The demand that the liter price be reduced back to its original price of N65 per liter was one of the clear and consistent demands common among all agitating groups this week.  It will be up to the involved civil society organizations to decide if they want to join the NLC in calling off streets protests but continuing the strike, or if organizations want to continue to demonstrate in order to meet their original price goal.

By agreeing to N97 per liter, subsidy supporters show that they are willing to engage in dialogue and compromise with the federal government, possibly increasing their legitimacy in the eyes of state officials and  their chances of collaboration with the government in the future. However, agreeing to a price higher than the original one may also indicate to the public that the NLC is no restraining force on the state, and is simply a collection of “big men” making decisions behind closed doors.

The lesson learned by the government may be that if they want to implement an unpopular decision, all they must do is take a wildly unpopular action and quickly change it to a mildly unpopular one for it to be palatable.  Like a seasoned salesman who knows a buyer will haggle over a price, perhaps the federal government doubled the fuel price in order to ultimately have the price be increased by just 50%, sending the public the message that the state is responsive to the demands of the public.

Goodluck Ebele Azikiwe Jonathan, 14th President of Nigeria

Fuel subsidy protests halted for 2 days, after Government-labour talks paused

“Revolutions” do not typically take a few days off. I am assuming that the NLC aims to end the strike soon. Suspending protests over the weekend is a prudent way to do this because Occupy Nigeria movement members are far more likely to acquiesce to the end of the strike after a weekend of rest. We will see.

Safer Nigeria Resources

On 12 January, negotiations between President Goodluck Jonathan and labour leaders, over the government’s removal of subsidy on petrol, reported some progress but produced no agreement. Labour leaders said the nationwide strike started on 9 January will continue, pending the outcome of another meeting on Saturday 14 January. But they halted public rallies and street demonstrations for the weekend.

The meeting between Jonathan and the labour leaders was the first since the strike began. The President of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Abdulwahed Omar told newsmen that: “We have not concluded discussions yet, but we have had very fruitful discussions. We have to continue on Saturday afternoon… Until we conclude the discussions, we maintain the status quo”.

 The government had come under increasing pressure to make concessions. Over the past four days, tens of thousands of protesters, led by an alliance of labour leaders and civil society activists, had been…

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Day 5’s Anti-Occupy Nigeria Demonstration, Port Harcourt

Occupy Nigeria activists did not take to the streets today.  However, pro-Jonathan demonstrators reacted to pro-subsidy marches by staging their own movement, arriving to Port Harcourt on minibuses in order to show their support for the Federal Government’s decision. Gathering at 9 am, they marched north up Aba road, down to Diobu road, and then to Rivers State Government House (the site of Occupy Nigeria’s protest on Tuesday).

Most of the anti-Occupy Nigeria demonstrators were Ijaws from oil-rich Bayelsa, the ethnic group and home state of the President. They came out with two aims in mind.  First, they announced their allegiance to the current administration. They cautioned that if anyone attempts to assassinate Jonathan then northerners will emerge to testify as to how he died. Their remarks allude to the fear that the protests, in conjunction with the discontent caused by Boko Haram violence, are enough to bring about an attempt on the President’s life. The second purpose of the protest was to criticize the National Labour Congress’ unnecessary national workers’ strike. Pro-Jonathan speakers stated that Nigerians should both go back to work and support the President’s decision to lift the subsidy.  They further accused the NLC of complacency in the period after the extrajudicial killing of Niger Delta human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995, arguing that the NLC had a duty to speak out against the injustice of his execution.

Today’s march was led by the former leader of the Niger Delta Volunteer Force, Asari Dokubo.  Dokubo is a militant-turned-politician who ran for Rivers State office twice in the 190s. He has lived in Abuja since being granted amnesty two years ago. It was the perception of some of the Occupy Nigeria mobilizers that Oronto Douglas, Jonathan’s strategic advisor on the Niger Delta, helped to fund the minibuses that delivered the demonstrators from Bayelsa State, but this is not at all confirmed.

Asari Dokubo

The demonstration was peaceful overall, except for a scuffle over the distribution of free t-shirts. The shirts depicted the images of Asari and Saro-Wiwa along with the message, “Sovereign National Conference Now!” The purposed pan-Nigerian conference would bring together representatives from all ethnic groups to chart a path forward for the country. Such a conference feels far removed from the current crisis here.