Tag Archives: religion

African Immigration’s Future in the Age of Trump

The number of African immigrants arriving to the United States has roughly doubled each decade since the 1970s. There are almost 2 million African immigrants currently living in the U.S., accounting for about 4.5% of the immigrant population. Although this is not a large number, they have the fastest growth rate of any immigrant group.  Almost half of all Africans are Muslim, which means a notable portion of the African immigrants arriving to the U.S. each year are too. This is significant considering Trump’s stance on Muslims in the United States.

Under a Trump administration, there would certainly be a reduction in the number of refugee and asylum statuses granted, including to Muslims seeking protection from fundamentalism in their home countries. The U.S. admitted a record number of Muslim refugees in 2016, almost 40,000. Most of them were from the Middle East, however, and I have not been able to find numbers on African Muslim refugees. Trump argues that allowing Muslims into the U.S. puts the country at risk for terrorist attacks, although there is no evidence that this is true.  Anecdotally, terrorist attacks on U.S. soil have been perpetrated by those on student visas or those with long-time ties, including citizenship.

Cutting off a safety route to Muslims who are seeking to separate themselves from the homelands that have oppressed them is exactly the opposite of what a security-minded Trump should be doing to minimize terrorism.  By allowing Muslims to enter the U.S., we strengthen ties to global Islamic communities, improve our image, and separate disaffected Muslims from the places that foster malcontent towards Americans. African countries from which the U.S. would be wise to accept more immigrants include those with growing extremist tendencies, e.g. Sudan, Nigeria, and Mali. Barring such individuals’ entry into the U.S. system keeps them in fundamentalist locations, where they can then live with a much more jaded view of the West.

These are all hypothetical concerns because, although Trump will be arguably the most powerful head of state in the world, bureaucracies are still bureaucracies. He will (hopefully) still have to make such inhospitable immigration changes within the confines of a government slow to change.  He will be bolstered by a Republican Congress, but it is yet to be determined how much GOP support he will enjoy. Since he is divisive among his own party at this point, he may very well get in his own way when it comes to realizing his goals of isolating Muslims from the American mainstream. Let’s hope that is actually the case, that he, and his ill-chosen words, is his own greatest obstacle. If not, if he does what he claims he wants to do, American-Muslim relations can only become more precarious.

 

Dispatches from Women’s Rights Events in Nigeria

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.

 

 The head speaker at the NLC Women’s Day Event.

Prayers and fasting among Ogoni women (I)

I had the lucky timing to arrive to Bane, Nigeria, the hometown of Saro-Wiwa, on a Thursday morning. This was fortunate because every Thursday at 6 a.m. the women of the area, and a few men as well, conduct their weekly prayers and fasting at Saro-Wiwa’s tomb. The event lasts until the afternoon, and includes singing, dancing, reading of bible passages, and even a nap when the temperatures rise.  It is a sight to behold, a completely unforgettable experience to be a part of.

Before Saro-Wiwa’s death in 1995, members of the Ogoni movement fasted with him once a week. After his execution the gathering became more popular and community women incorporated prayers to a greater degree. Today, around 25 women continue to gather once a week and it has become almost indistinguishable from a Christian church service.  The attendees take turns touching the grave, the language used is derived heavily from the bible, and women refer to Saro-Wiwa as a martyred living Christ. Their purpose in coming together is to pray for another “messiah” (their term) to bring them out of their conditions of poverty.  They also spend all day Sunday at church as well, meaning that two whole days per week are spent in worship for some of them. They bring all Ogoni flags designed by Wiwa, all wear matching t-shirts depicting Ogoni pride logos, and some also have matching wrapper tied around their waists.  Because of the high level of Ogoni identity inherent in the prayers, I was happily surprised at how open the worshipers were to an outsider like I am.  I gave a speech about my interest in Niger Deltan history, answered their questions, and they welcomed me warmly.

The two days per year when the tomb is visited most are November 10, the anniversary of Saro-Wiwa’s death, and Ogoni Day on January 4, which attracted a reported quarter million people on its first celebration in 1993. The grave site is kept locked and sometimes guarded on days other than Thursdays and these two holidays, so my arrival couldn’t have been more fortuitous.

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Saro-Wiwa's Tomb.

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Singing hymns.

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Ken Saro-Wiwa's grave.

Prayers and fasting among Ogoni women (II) [video]


 

Here is a video of the weekly prayers and fasting that take place around the grave of Ken Saro-Wiwa in Bane, Rivers State.  After the ceremony, I asked a passerby how the body came to be interred there, since Saro-Wiwa was executed hurriedly and the military regime certainly would not have turned over the body.  The man told me this, almost verbatim:

After he was executed on November 10, 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa was buried in a mass grave in Port Harcourt cemetery, unmarked. The Ogoni people then used their mysterious powers to exhume the body of Wiwa specifically and take him home. His body was brought back only a few days after his execution and burial.  The day they brought his body back, there was very serious rain and nobody could come out, yet some were still able to bring his body back to Bane.  He was given this tomb near farmland so that it could be a pilgrimage site for visitation, but also to respect Ogoni beliefs about death. In the Ogoni tradition, anybody who dies under mysterious causes, like drowning in the sea or because of some accident, the family will bury the body away from home, especially by water. This is because the nature of the death was dangerous, so bringing the body to the family compound for burial, as is usual in a natural death, might affect those who are still living in that house.