Two reasons account for this article. The first was the brouhaha generated when the Sunday Telegraph chose to headline the appointment in 2014 of Rona Fairhead to lead the BBC this way - “Mother of Three poised to lead the BBC”. Commentators argued that the Sunday Telegraph failed to take into consideration the fact that she was a former CEO of the Financial Times with profits of £55 million a year, that she holds a double first in Law from Cambridge, and MBA from Harvard. She had also worked at ICI, Bain Consulting, Morgan Stanley and serves as a non-executive director in large corporations such as HSBC, The Economist Group and PepsiCo. It is difficult to determine whether the Sunday Telegraph was trying to be disingenuous with its headline; I suppose this was probably their way of celebrating the first woman appointed to lead the BBC. However, what is not in doubt is that the headline would have been different had a man been selected to head the BBC.
The second event that propelled me to write was the release of the video that showed Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens player hit his then fiancée, now wife, Janay with a ferocious punch that made her pass out inside a hotel lift. What was more galling about the video was his indifference to the almost lifeless body of the woman he professed to love.
These two incidents got me thinking, not about American Ray Rice’s behaviour or a British newspaper’s subtle chauvinistic headline, but about the very serious level of misogyny and domestic abuse in Nigeria. I have no doubt that this is not uncommon to other countries, but in many of them, the law protects women. Almost in every culture and sub-culture in Nigeria however, there is a subtext that encourages putting women in their place. There appears to be a vicious and routine habit of de-personalising women and stamping on their rights. This subjugation of women has been successfully perpetuated partly because, from childhood, we let boys know they are more important than girls. Girls on the other hand are made to believe their worth is measured in their ability to cook and take care of their husband and children. For example, in some parts of Nigeria women still do not have inheritance rights to their father or husband’s assets. Incredibly, in some tribes, a wife is made to drink from the bath-water collected from washing her dead husband’s body. Worse still, family members often chase a wife out of her marital homes soon after a husband’s death.
Knowingly or unknowingly, we consistently send out the message that women are primarily objects, first for men's gratification, and secondly their possession. Because of this tragic narrative, our society is rife with wife battery, domestic assault, child marriage, extreme control and rape. Talking about rape, if a woman should visit a man, it is generally accepted that he is within his rights to force her to bed. Many people would not consider this as rape. What was she doing in his house if she did not want it? The twisted logic is that a woman that visits a man must be morally bankrupt. In that case she deserves whatever happens to her, never mind the horror and emotional damage of being raped. In Nigeria, rape happens everywhere. Male students rape female students in our universities and schools, male domestic staff rape female domestic staff. Because of our sheer indifference, neither of these two is ever taken seriously. This creates the mind-set that women are for the taking. The victims also usually do not know what to do or where to report.
As you can see, the scales are heavily weighed against women in Nigeria. We treat the unmarried ones as if they are diseased. We define the married ones as someone’s wife, not usually by their name or personal achievement. This is an institutionalised phenomenon that is often done impulsively, even by women. Among the illiterate male, women fare even worse. A friend’s driver derogatorily referred to women as ‘people who pee from behind.’ Apparently this, in his view, makes women sub-human and certainly inferior to men. I was stunned, and forced to admit we have a big problem.
Many of our men take decisions without consulting their wives, because unlike siblings, a wife is not fully considered as family. These men love the respect from their wives, but could never countenance their wife calling them by their first name. For many men, the exchange of animism or idol worshipping for Christianity is acceptable, the exchange of patriarchy for equality is however beyond the pale. They just cannot stomach it. Incredibly, many of these men are leaders in their churches and mosques. How a person derives fulfilment from the misery of a fellow human being is beyond me, none the least a woman he marries.
In my opinion, five things stand out in the systematic way women are subjugated in Nigeria:
- · Ownership - Women are psychologically abused by their husbands and are often kept in the dark about assets and properties. Their views are also totally disregarded because wives are themselves regarded as part of their husband’s chattels.
- · Violence - Nollywood films routinely show women being beaten by their husbands – a tacit admission, and one may add, approval that beating a wife is not out of place. Some men are quick to say ‘I have never laid my hands on my wife’ as if they should be awarded the Nobel Prize for being different from the norm.
- · Control - Women who are lucky to escape physical abuse suffer from aggressive control by their husbands. This includes what they can wear or not wear, whether they should take up a job or not, the type of business they are permitted to do, who they talk to and friends they could keep etc. Some children suffer too in the process of their dad trying to ‘teach’ their mum who is boss.
- · Sexual Exploitation – Many of our anecdotes, stories, proverbs, sayings and actions promote and encourage the objectification of a woman’s body, and the chronicle that they are to be sexually exploited.
- · Workload - Many men hide under the covering of culture, and sometimes religion to overwhelm their wives with excessive work, not minding if they are able to cope. almost as if they are slaves
Other behaviour that we instinctively adopt without realising to be misogynistic include:
- We instinctively call a woman 'asewo' (prostitute)
- We instinctively do not trust women with driving, leadership, emotional intelligence, and we are unable to see that this is linked to our treatment of women.
- We instinctively suspect women when their husbands die.
- We instinctively demand that a wife appease her husband even when it is clear she had been wronged and her husband is blatantly being nasty. The belief is after all, men would always be men.
- We instinctively blame a woman for the misdemeanours of a wayward child.
- We instinctively task mothers with the educational progress of their children.
In our society, the subjugation of women is worse than racism. It is ever present, it is rampant and as stated above, condoned by religion, tradition, culture, and very sadly, even by some women. For example, in certain parts of Nigeria, it is culturally acceptable to ‘give’ young girls, like mere presents, as wives to men that are much older; men they neither knew nor love. It has also become an existing part of our culture, partly as a result of our inefficient economic system, that a huge number of our young girls have become sexual preys to ‘moneyed’ men, old enough to be their grandfather. Our political leaders have buried their heads in the sand and feign ignorance of this injustice, forgetting as the Yorubas would say that the person who helps a thief to bring a keg of palm oil from the rooftop is an accomplice in thievery.
We are all aware of the former governor turned senator who brazenly married a 13 year old in flagrant disregard to the law of our land. Even our highly educated and ‘polished’ Senate President, Bukola Saraki doesn't’ see anything wrong with this. We know of southern obas and northern emirs in their seventies and fifties who accept teenage girls as gifts into their ever expanding harem. We turn a blind eye too. On the rare occasions when these are reported, Lamido Sanusi comes up with a sobbing and pathetic pontifical riposte of co-operation between kingdoms, as if the 18 year-old girl he married at 54 really has a say in her marriage. It is clear from the ‘respected’ emir’s statement that the young lady is a mere trading item in the rapprochement between two ancient dynasties.
Regrettably, some of the greatest proponents of misogyny and abusers of women are religious leaders. We hear pastors who preach the subjugation of women and the need for them to know their place in society. The undertone of this assertion is highly disturbing. If it's ever possible to check the mindset of some of the most respected and outwardly gentlemanly Nigerian, one may find he probably harbours the belief that women should be put in their place.
Even agencies of government and some of our laws and regulations are complicit. Until recently, a woman has to seek her husband’s permission before she can obtain a passport in her name. She also has to go all the way to Abuja to obtain a new passport in her married name irrespective of where she lives in Nigeria. We kept quiet about this too.
Given the status quo above, many of our men find it very difficult to respect any woman irrespective of her position in society; after all, a guy once opined about a woman 'is it not a man that mounts her?' I have no doubt that we need to start lancing this festering boil of dehumanising women.
It is highly concerning that we fail to see that the violence and abuse perpetrated against women in our country has roots in religious and cultural bigotry. I am personally concerned by the increasing ruthlessness, wickedness and anger directed by our young men against women. Only four years ago a husband brutally murdered his young banker wife in Lagos. This received widespread media attention because it happened in Lagos. The reality is that there are probably several cases all over Nigeria, aided and supported by a society that sends the message, clearly and repeatedly, that women are sexual objects for men’s gratification and possession.
It isn't that Nigerian men are necessarily worse than others, what is shameful is our inability to acknowledge what happens in our midst, our shamelessness about it and the fact that we are not doing anything to redress it. This sin of indifference is almost as bad as the evil itself.
Given the pervasiveness of this evil, the rights of women in our society must certainly become the civil rights issue of our time and I believe, we men must be in the vanguard of championing this cause. We must begin to speak up for our daughters, sisters and mothers. The injustices they suffer should incense us all and at the same time energise us to want to do something about it. We must preach it from our pulpits, teach it at home, enshrine and enforce it with our laws. We can no longer pay lip service to this anymore. Our obas, emirs, and igwes must teach their people. No doubt, some men have a vicious and maniacal hatred of women and may not want to change easily. Our lawmakers must ensure that our laws are employed to protect women from the hands of such people.
The following are a few steps that can help us on the way to fight for our women:
- The defence and rights of women should be enshrined in law. This will cover harassment, rape, female inheritance, education, inheritance for wives, child marriage etc.
- We should set up a fully equipped enforcement agency present in all the states and local governments with the powers to prosecute offenders.
- We must prosecute all forms of domestic violence
- Given that many of our men do not see rape as a 'big deal', we must urgently develop a process of education on rape and its consequences. This process should also cover what rape victims should do and where they can get help and support.
- All schools, universities, companies, religious, corporate and social organisations, churches, mosques must be made to develop policies on sexual harassment, rape and gender discrimination. This should cover how they wish to educate their members, and what they would do in the event of any contravention. A quarterly report on any incident should also form part of the submission to their respective boards of management.
- We must include respect for women rights in our school curriculum to ensure that we develop a new generation not tainted by the past.
- We must develop laws that punish revenge porn and its publication.
- We must ensure all Nigeria girls go to school and have quality education at least up to secondary school level.
- We must set up a domestic abuse register for people who have been convicted of the crime. Women would be able to find out if their boyfriend or husband-to-be has a history of domestic abuse.
- We must develop a system of educating society through our homes, school curriculum, and religious bodies about women rights.
- We must stop forthwith the very discriminatory practice by the Nigerian Immigration Service that forces women to have to go to Abuja to change their passport to their married name.
- We must definitely stop using religion, tradition and culture to mask our bigotry.
Women rights must become the civil rights issue of our time. Although many will raise eyebrows, however the defence of women should not be seen as a destruction of men. It is not a zero sum game.
Finally, I would like to borrow the words of Jesus encouraging us to ‘do unto others as you want them to do to you’. Let us therefore treat our women with the same dignity and compassion with which we want to be treated. We must do right by ourselves and for the sake of our daughters and sisters by turning away from the hatred and subjugation of women. Whatever your justification, it is evil and it must be stopped. It is time to stand up for our women and their human rights.
I enjoin you all to start from your respective homes. PostcardfromLagos.com
I enjoin you all to start from your respective homes. PostcardfromLagos.com
Picture 1 of Susan Peters courtesy of Nigeriamovienetwork.com
Picture 2 courtesy of Romancemeetslife.com