To what extent does contemporary Nigerian feminism reﬂect Nigerian women’s realities?
I grew up in 1980s Lagos, in a chaotic but exciting city in a country which I love, but which struggles with a deeply ingrained male supremacist culture. Already as a child, I took notice and issue, that men had all the so-called “head” positions in our society; they were heads of state, heads of companies, heads of the army and heads of families. In school when we learnt about Nigerian history, we did not learn about notable people such as Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Margaret Ekpo, Charlotte Obasa, Oyinkan Abayomi or Queen Amina of Zazzau, or the many notable Nigerian women who played vital roles in shaping our nation. We learnt about great men like Herbert Macauley and Sir Tafawa Balewa. We also learnt about westerners such as the Scottish explorer Mungo Park, who was falsely attributed with discovering The Niger, the river which had sustained bustling kingdoms long before Mungo Park was even born.
In 1985, when I was seven years old, Ibrahim Babangida, a man who was then chief of army staff, staged a coup against Muhammadu Buhari who himself had taken power in a military coup. Babangida managed to ruin the socio-political infrastructure in Nigeria; he destroyed labour- and student unions, and implemented debilitating World Bank- and IMF-led Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), which set strict rules for gaining loans. All together these policy changes created a culture of demise in an already fragile system.
Thanks to Babangida’s regime, by the early 1990s, large numbers of Nigerians – those who were privileged to have had foreign passports or permits – left the country. In 1990, as life got politically and financially unstable, my mother and I have also decided to temporarily relocate, leaving my father, who would not leave Nigeria no matter what, behind. Although our heritage is Finnish, we headed to Sweden because we had family there. My mother had eventually returned to Lagos, and I continued to visit home frequently, but it is only in the past three years, twenty-five years after being uprooted from my hometown, that I gradually began to end my exile.
I share all this because people who know that I lived in Sweden sometimes ask whether I would be a feminist had I not moved to Sweden from Nigeria. The answer to this question is an unhesitating yes. As far as countries shape our politics, it is not Sweden but Nigeria that made me feminist. In fact, I was barely aware of the strong feminist movement in Sweden as a young woman living there. Not only was I dealing with the complexities of early adulthood, I was also grappling with, at times violent, racial attacks that I suddenly faced on a regular basis. Feminism was not at the forefront of my mind in those years.
By contrast, it was during my formative years in Nigeria that my feminist consciousness developed. It was predominantly planted in me by my mother and her close friends; however, also by women from underprivileged backgrounds such as our house help, Margaret, who was a second mother of sorts to me. Margaret taught me so much of what I know about surviving in this world as a woman. She was vulnerable to the harsh realities she had faced and yet she was also sharp, tough and empowered in ways that few middle-to-upper-class Nigerian women were. The society I grew up in makes the foundation of my feminist work today.
Does Nigerian feminism today speak for women like Margaret, who work in an industry with no regulation and few rights? Or is feminism in Nigeria a middle class movement? Does it include the voices and struggles of the masses of women who do not have economic freedom? Does contemporary Nigerian feminism reflect the realities of all Nigerian women? I will attempt to answer these questions in this article.
However, I must immediately add that the answers to these questions are hardly straightforward. First of all, because the Nigerian feminist movement is not easily definable. The majority of Nigerian feminists have contributed to the movement as African and/or black feminists rather than as Nigerian feminists per se. Consequently, their contributions have had a continent/diaspora/global perspective rather than a specifically Nigerian one. While this is an approach that benefits the pan-African agenda, it means that there is no clear-cut Nigerian feminism in the way that there is a US- or German feminism, for example.
Another reason that Nigerian feminism is challenging to define is because there is an inseparable overlap between the feminist movement and what is nowadays referred to as ‘Women Empowerment’ in Nigeria. An organisation such as D’Angels, to give an example, an all-female Nigerian biker group providing poor women with free breast cancer screenings, does not explicitly term itself as feminist. However, I would argue that D’Angels are part of the feminist movement, not because the relationship between feminism and women empowerment is always harmonious, but rather because the shapers of women’s rights have tended to be involved in both movements, employing the same ideological lexicon. There are countless examples of such overlapping agendas in the Nigerian women’s movement.
Bearing these two factors in mind, I will attempt to provide a brief background of Nigerian feminism: An essential task, which is part of the naming process of a Nigerian feminism that is simultaneously pan-African.
A brief history of Nigerian feminism
Women’s liberation – the ultimate goal of feminism – has always been part of the narrative of Nigeria. The very same year that Nigeria was formed in 1914, women staged a significant protest, which the scholar Nwando Achebe has referred to as the “Ogidi Palaver”, against both indigenous and British men who had jointly side-lined them in decision-making.
In 1925, the “Nwaobiala Movement” saw women forcefully rejecting colonial values culminating in 1929 into what is known as the “Women’s War”, where 10,000 women participated and dozens lost their lives fighting back against a drop in female authority.
However, the explicitly feminist movement in Nigeria finds its roots in WIN (Women in Nigeria), an organisation, which was founded in 1983 with a clear agenda to establish an “ideologically feminist movement” in the country. WIN has since been replaced by the Nigerian Feminist Forum (NFF) in 2008. Today. organisations such as Stand To End Rape, Afri-Dev Info, The Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund, Coloured Africa and As Equals Africa are emerging as pronouncedly feminist platforms.
Besides, the African feminist movement at large insists that creative expression such as plays, poetry, art and fiction are sites where women can challenge male-dominance as a form of political and intellectual intervention. This stance is a direct critique of Eurocentric and male-centric notions of intellectual work. In this vein, arts and culture play a significant role in shaping the contemporary Nigerian feminist agenda. Artists such as Peju Alatise, Nike Ogundaike Davies or Otobong Nkanga who use art, sculpture, textile production and performance art pieces to raise issues about tradition, polygamy, and the oppression of the female body are some of the key shapers of Nigerian feminism. Theatrical interventions such as Christine Oshuniyi’s “The Cut” or Bikiya Graham Douglas’s “WAIT” are also shaping conversations about female genital cutting and a lack of education of girls respectively. Books from authors such as Chimamanda Adichie, Molara Wood and Ayobami Adebayo have similarly had a significant influence on the Nigerian feminist narrative. These are just a few examples of art and culture crafting a feminist voice.
Moreover, like everywhere in the world, new technologies play a significant role in contemporary Nigerian feminism. Thanks to the internet; blogs and social media, Nigerian feminists have been able to propagate an unprecedented feminist awareness revolutionising social relations in our times. The Me Too hashtag aside, there have been strong hashtag movements such as Female In Nigeria, which encouraged women to give voice to the harsh realities facing women in the country; Bring Back Our Girls, a campaign to rescue hundreds of girls kidnapped by the terror group Boko Haram; and most recently No More, a hashtag movement founded by Nigerian activist, Ireti Bakare-Yusuf, calling to end sexual abuse and impunity.
Is contemporary Nigerian feminism inclusive?
Nevertheless, is Nigerian feminism – to the extent, it can be named as such – inclusive? Or are feminists in Nigeria championing issues of middle class or elite women, and neglecting the concerns of less privileged women?
The notion of a middle class has become a popular metric in a Nigerian context only recently, arguably thanks to a first of its kind study in 2014 entitled “The Rise of the African Middle Class” by the Standard Bank Group.
Furthermore, unlike in the West, where the depoliticised middle class tends to shun tradition, middle class values in Nigeria are reversed.
On the one hand, they are more conservative than in Western societies. Gender roles are pronounced among the Nigerian middle class, and although Western cultures influence them, traditional customs and religious ideals play a significant role, too. While modernisation and economic growth tend to go hand in hand with secularisation in most parts of the world, religious commitment in Nigeria has not waned with modernity. According to Renaissance Capital, 96% of Nigerian middle class regularly attend a place of worship or religious service.
On the other hand, Nigeria’s middle class is more socially conscious than the middle class in the West. It is perhaps no surprise that in a country marked by poverty, ethnic tension, insurgency and corruption, the middle class is politicised in ways that the middle class in other parts of the world is not. For example, in recent years, the middle class has been at the fore of struggles such as Occupy Nigeria and Enough is Enough, both campaigns fighting for the rights of the less privileged. Therefore, insofar that Nigerian feminism is a middle class movement, the complexities of the notion ‘middle class’ in Nigeria should not be ignored.
That said, the best way to answer the question of whether Nigerian feminism reflects Nigerian women’s realities, is by looking at the types of issues that feminists are concerned with in the country. Moreover to do this, I find it useful to think of issues as either political or personal, albeit with the understanding that the personal is political!
When it comes to “the political”, some of the critical issues that Nigerian feminists are involved with include law reform. For instance, feminists lobbied for the ratification of the Maputo Protocol, an African feminist charter of women’s rights adopted by the African Union in Maputo in 2005. It is in my view one of the most radical feminist charters, not only in Africa but in the world at large. Nigerian feminists also drafted the Violence Against Women Bill and the Gender Equality Bill, of which the latter was unfortunately not ratified. because it was seen as too provocative by male politicians. The bill tackles questions of domestic violence, girls’ education, child marriage and sexual violence. It became especially contentious because of the reproductive rights it granted women.
In a country where only 27 out of 469 legislative seats are filled with women, feminists have also pushed for affirmative action alongside issues such as agricultural reform, maternal health and women’s access to financial loans. Since its launch in 2008, the Nigerian Feminist Forum (NFF) has made strides in ending policies that enabled discriminatory practices such as HIV and virginity testing in universities, and state impositions of dress codes for women. In the cultural sector, films, books, plays, songs and art by Nigerian women tend to tackle social issues such as female genital cutting, witchcraft, ethnic conflict, poverty, war, motherhood, widowhood and marriage.
Nigerian feminists have only recently begun to strongly advocate for liberation in “the personal” space. The culture of challenging domestic roles and marriage, for example, is especially vigorous among modern feminists who use the internet as a main tool of resistance and consciousness-raising. Outspoken and unapologetic feminists such as Ozzy Etomi and Olutimehin Adegbeye are using online platforms to send a powerful and personalised message to young women about the need to question the status quo, not only in political life but also in the personal space.
One of our current leading feminists, Chimamanda Adichie, has played a seminal role in spreading feminism in Nigeria. She has been accused of focusing only on middle class feminist issues such as chivalry and sexual objectification. These accusations ignore the multiple issues that she has tackled. For example, her most famous book is told from the point of a view of a house help.
In a similar vein, the blog that I founded, MsAfropolitan, which has contributed to popularising African feminism, is a space where the political and personal overlap. Yet as I wrote in 2012 in the Guardian article “African women can blog”: “When people ask me what I do, and I respond that I’m a blogger and that I blog about topics that primarily concern African women, quite often they proceed to either tell me about an humanitarian or developmental cause they are involved with or have read about. Sometimes they ask me how my blog reaches women in African villages. […] I’m tired of people immediately assuming that to blog about African women is to blog about charity work,” I wrote, “I’m tired of this idea that African women can only be objects of pity. I’m tired of the notion that African women can or should only interact on select topics.”
The truth is that African feminists are in the damning position of having to fight back against the effects of patriarchy in our societies on the one hand, and one-dimensional stereotypes and exploitation of African women by Westerners on the other hand. I explored this theme at a later point in a TEDx talk titled “To change the world, change your illusions”. Ultimately, as I argued in an article titled “Seven key issues in African feminist thought”, the primary matters of concern for feminists in Africa are 1) patriarchy, 2) race, 3) tradition, 4) underdevelopment, 5) sexuality, 6) global feminism and 7) love. It is incredibly rare for an African feminist not to have such an intersectional feminist approach, which considers multiple factors affecting African women’s lives.
Class, Sexuality & Sex work
That said, while I hope that this article has shown that especially for a young movement, Nigerian feminism, – to the extent it can be named as such – is inclusive and complex in the manner of issues it addresses, and although I do not believe that focusing on sexual objectification or chivalry, is somehow “less” feminist than focusing on female genital cutting (FGC) or agricultural reform; I do believe it is important to stress that poverty is the most pressing issue facing not only Nigerian women but all of humanity. Anyone who truly desires women’s liberation would therefore automatically understand the gravitas of an anti-poverty approach. In addition, there are three crucial issues the Nigerian feminist movement has somewhat neglected.
The first is LGBTQI people’s rights. A survey led by The Initiative for Equal Rights in 2017 found that support for the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) remains at 90%. This means that only 10% of Nigerian civil society opposes what is a profoundly dehumanising policy. Additionally, the survey has found that only 39% of Nigerians agree that “homosexuals should have equal access to healthcare, housing and other public goods.”
Although attitudes have begun to change (in 2015 only 30% of respondents thought that “homosexuals should have equal access to healthcare, housing and other public goods”), the feminist movement has not been sufficiently vocal about the rights of LGBTQI people. Lesbians and trans women, in particular, face discrimination both on the grounds of being women as well as for being part of a sexual minority community. A new book, She Called Me Woman (2018), has paved the way to include voices of queer women from a wide range of class, religion and educational backgrounds.
Secondly, wherever possible feminists should lobby for sex worker rights in Nigeria. Sex work is challenging work everywhere in the world. There is no country where sex workers do not face harassment, violence and torment by men. But a number of countries have decriminalised it, giving sex workers rights such as pensions, healthcare and protection from violence. To be a sex worker in these countries is therefore a professional choice that increasing numbers of women are making. To be a sex worker in Nigeria, however, is a different story. Following what an activist of the Nigerian Sex Workers Association (NSWA) said in an interview: “Sex workers in my organisation face a lot of harassment from the police and other law enforcement agencies. The health care workers are not friendly with the sex workers too.” These are stories that feminists can ensure to be heard and transformed.
Last but not least, the Nigerian feminist movement will achieve greater successes if it continues to tear down divisions between Nigerian women; they can be of class, sexuality, religion, profession or ethnic group. I started with saying that it was growing up in Nigeria that made me the feminist I am today. My upbringing taught me that women who had access to privilege were not necessarily happier or worthier than those who didn’t. It made me appreciate that women of poor backgrounds would often be my feminist teachers. It showed me that in an imperialist and patriarchal world, African female knowledge systems were always a multiple-way learning stream. We are all teachers and students of one another. The more we appreciate each other’s voices and struggles, the stronger our movement. So long as one group of women is not free, none of us are free.