Like most other patriarchal societies, the Nigerian woman is socialized into a culture of female subordination. She is not only subordinate to the husband and men in her own family but also to the entire members of the husband’s family–male and female. The patria lineage structure in most Nigerian ethnic groups enhances the superiority of the male. Indeed, it is the primary determinant of an individual’s social, economic and political roles.
With marriage, a woman becomes part of a new patria lineage where seniority becomes an additional factor that determines her rights and duties in the new home. Seniority is not defined according to age; it is according to the length of the time that a given wife has been married to her husband.
The senior wife enjoys higher social prerogatives over and above the other co-wives. All the children in the family from the toddler to the older ones become senior to the new wife. Amongst some of the Yorubas, the new wife dares not call some of the children directly by their names without prefixing some terms of deference, which emphasizes her very subordinate position in the family.
The husband is of course the “owner of her head” since some form of bride price was paid to her family as part of the marriage contract. In the traditional Yoruba, while men show off their wealth by the number of children and wives they have, “husband regard their wives as perpetual and life-long slaves.”
In other societies, the position of a woman is no less the same. Among the Tivs for example, according Ityavyar, leadership role is assigned to men only while girls are treated as “parcels” to be exchanged in marriage – girls were forced into marriage most often with older men, sometimes ugly and disabled without being able to make a choice. It is noteworthy that some Islamic injunctions which were said to have supported and heightened the subordinate position of Hausa muslim women during the colonial era have reappeared in “modern” Nigeria in the form of the Sharia legal system in some parts of the Northern states, thus further subjugating the women. Women cannot freely mix with strange men and they are therefore constrained from pursuing careers outside their homes so that they are not exposed to the whims and caprices of other men, especially non-muslim men and women and their non-islamic ideologies amongst others. Apart from the agonies of male supremacy, the general preference for a “male child” also determines the status of the woman in the family. It is not unusual for marriages to break down on account of lack of a male child. In Igbo societies, a woman who has three boys in quick succession is honoured by her husband by slaughtering a goat to celebrate the feat. A barren woman is regarded as a total failure. Not only will the woman lose prestige formerly accorded her by her marital status, she may also be thrown out to allow another younger wife come in.
In essence, culture has defined a very subordinate role for the woman in the family and in society. Her status and family ties dictated her property rights, her economic, social and political roles. In turn, society’s perception of her is dictated by these cultural practices as noted above.
However, contrary to the basic assumption of the modernization theory, the reality of the contemporary Nigerian society shows a high correlation between patriarchy and capitalism in that they are both exploitative of labour. Patriarchy exploits female labour while capitalism exploits male and female wage earners. Some feminist have argued that “Colonialism brought about division into superior male and inferior female.” It divided social and domestic labour, introduced cash crop farming techniques and provided machinery for males to use for large scale farming.” (H.R. Hassan–1992).
Today, the pattern persists somehow. Majority of the women are still subsistence farmers producing relatively small-scale food crops and livestock and engaging in trade to sustain the family. Although modernization (transition to modern industrial economy) has altered roles and definitions of women’s work, societal perception of roles remains the same and has largely dictated developmental policies to the detriment of the status of women. Policies such as Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) have served to exacerbate the increasing phenomenon of feminization of poverty, male dominance. Far reaching economic policies are made without due recognition of women’s domestic work, in accounting for the nation’s gross domestic productivity. Similarly, social development policies tend to ignore the increasing number of female-headed households and intergenerational transmission of poverty. Thus social policies, housing, social infrastructures including education and health are directed mainly at predominantly male-headed households.
Jobs in modern industry, trade, organized public and private sectors are held predominantly by men. Even with the steady incursion of educated females into these areas, productivity, attitudes, outlook and policies are perceived in the light of the dominant power the skilled and supervisory positions for male, the unskilled and subservient positions for the female.
This male dominance perception is reflected in sexual stereotyping in terms of mostly negative or frivolous representation in literature media especially news reporting, music, drama, religious etc.
Thus, a woman who has successfully made it to the top and broken as it were, the “glass ceiling” in industry, commerce academia or any chosen career (not usually regarded as female work) is seen as “iron lady” “man-woman”, a “man” more powerful than the average women, if she is in public or political life, she is sometimes portrayed as a witch, more so if she happens to be middle aged, single or a widow.
Historical anecdote of the Ondo people of South Western Nigeria records how a female Chairman of Council-Oba Pupupu, was so powerful that she could only be removed by a carefully orchestrated palace coup while she went to perform her “domestic duties” (arranging feeding of her house hold members as well as her poultry and domestic livestock).
Thenceforth, women never attained such a position in Ondo, although women still have their own political structure and cabinet but never as powerful as they were. The colonial era stripped women of whatever exulted position they had in the public sphere. The British with their own Victorian perception of the place and roles of women in society, regarded women as domestic helpers to the men – women were supposed to be too genteel to be politicians. Thus, while the “Omu” ‘Iyalode’ was not recognized the Obis and Obas were given staff of office and paid salaries.
The Southern women did not accept their relegation with equanimity as evidenced by the ‘Women’s War’ or ‘Aba Riot’ of 1929/1930 which was a spontaneous protest against colonial government taxation– “no taxation without consultation.” In the South West, Funmilayo RansomeKuti organized series of protests against the Colonial Authorities in Abeokuta to protect the rights of women. She carried these protests to national and international levels in the 1950s on the platform of the Federation of Nigerian Women Societies. Together with her team they were able to get the government “to nominate women into local Councils, give the vote to Women in the North and extend educational opportunities to women and generally improve the social status of women.”(Bolanle Awe. 1992) She was assisted by notable women activists of her time such as Mrs Margaret Ekpo,(South East) Keziah Fashina(Lagos)AlhajaSawabaGambo(North)
In Lagos, Mrs. Jumoke Obasa in the 1930s championed the market women’s right against payment of rent for their stalls and taxation on their petty trade which anyway fetched them so little. Also, in Lagos, Lady Oyinkan Abayomi protested the neglect of women in political participation, while Adunni Oluwole actually formed the first female political party in the early 1950s although her campaign against independence for Nigeria at the time was considered not only unacceptable but unpatriotic.
The struggle for women’s rights in the North did not begin until the sixties with SawabaGambo and the few progressive females who were encouraged by equally progressive political parties such as the Northern Elements Political Union (NEPU).
Nigerian women activists have been truly courageous. Now, in modern Nigeria, the struggle continues. Currently,Women, particularly Human Rights based non- governmental organizations (NGOs) are engaging government to include affirmative action clause and other amendments relevant to the status of women in the ongoing review of the 1999 Nigeria Constitution. Significantly, Gender and Constitution Reform Network (GECORN) has been consistently active in all the Constitution Review process as well as collaborating with other groups in keeping close surveillance for gender issues in citizens rights Bills at the National and State Assemblies The National Assembly is being lobbied to domesticate the UN CEDAW – Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women – through the passage of Affirmative Action Act. The States Assemblies on the other hand, are being lobbied to pass the Equal Opportunities Bill, all in a bid to promote effective participation of more women in political governance and other socio- economic development issues.
Currently, women have raised public awareness and outcry about the adverse effect of ‘child marriage’ indirectly contained in the Constitution and the need to lobby the Senate for the removal of Sec 29, (4b) of the 1999 Nigeria Constitution in order to correct the anormally. Significantly, it took over 7years of struggle, mostly by women NGOs for a National Policy on Women to be signed into acceptance in Year 2000. This had since been revised as a National Gender Policy (2007) taking into account the emerging issues of globalization and the attendant changes in gender relations
The patriarchal nature of the Nigeria society has largely determined the imagery of women, the way they are perceived and represented in popular culture, the media and tradition. Women have been socialized to accept their subordinate position with all the attendant oppression and marginalization in all aspects of life. The situation was aggravated by the norms and values of the colonial era, although there were pockets of resistance by the women, especially in the area of economic and political rights. Sexual stereotyping and abuses continue to be reflected in popular culture, drama, music, and the media even when education and modernization was visibly changing the status of women. The changing situation has enabled women to enter the labour force at professional and managerial levels in both the formal and informal sectors of the economy. However, the female gender, no matter how highly placed continued to be portrayed as weaker sexual objects for entertainment (or ridicule in some cases) commercialization and exploitation. With the advent of democratization, women, now better educated have come out in large numbers to aspire for political positions, elective and appointive – but the pace of progress is still painfully slow in the face of some entrenched adverse cultural practice and traditions. These must change.
There is a need to re-examine the socialization process in our society so that recognition and respect for her self esteem will be accorded the female gender in the domestic and public spheres. One way of doing this is by reviewing school’s curriculum from nursery/primary levels upwards to reflect a better understanding of gender relations. Schools and communities must be sensitized on the issues involved in the National Gender Policy in order to call for a change in harmful and backward cultural attitudes and practices. Women themselves should mobilize and organize to claim their rights and to lead the discourse that would effect change on their own behalf.
Dr Ms. Keziah Awosika is the coordinator
Women,Law & Development Centre Nigeria
Based in Lagos State