By Toyin Falola
Since the formation and evolution of humans into a sedentary lifestyle organized into clusters of families, lineages, compounds, and later, nations and nationalities, culture and religion have played integral features as the custodians of human civilizations. This is not to imply that the so-called early humans of the hunter-gatherer stage of human evolution lacked culture or were oblivious of some cosmological and metaphysical thought systems that governed their daily life experiences, encounters, and relationships. Instead, it speaks to humans’ inability to institutionalize or weaponize these structures to distribute roles and social stratification at this stage. In simple terms, culture and religion became institutions, instruments, and agencies of creating and justifying Otherness as human society evolved into state formation in the face of increasing population incommensurate with (material) resources on a spiral decline.
Fast forward to the nineteenth century when gender discourse began to take center stage, especially in the United States and Europe. These history and herstory put gender roles at the table of culture, religion, and political economy. Of course, as all-encompassing bodies that define the functionality and roles of other superstructures of the state, including those on the economic scene, the political-economic factor cannot be divorced from the influence of religion and culture. Since the time of the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a leading figure in the campaign against gender structure in America in the nineteenth century, to the Beijing Conference of 1995, and others at various levels and dynamics, feminists and gender rights campaigners could be seen striving to disabuse the extant organizing philosophy and principle of the human society. Again, culture and religion act as the artists of these ideas.
In a way, this tells on the differences and nuances with which women’s and gender issues have been discussed, treated, and understood by scholars, gender advocates, and the general public in time and space. Put this discussion in another paradigm, this time in the area of human psychology, a crystal ball could be seen mirroring the inherent nature and propensity of humans to find a weakness in the Other to justify the domination of this entity. Otherness in this regard could refer to sex, color, height, culture, state, religion, and many more human compositions that differ from the experience of the person making the classification. Otherness, therefore, comes in the standard form of, at least as it is known in the Western universal epistemology, race, ethnicity, religion, age, class, dis/ability and gender.
Social class differences further compound this situation that perpetually comes with some set of prejudice. For instance, there is a biblically derived description of women as the weaker vessel in this same context. The problem with such conceptualization of the woman’s body and being is that it fundamentally leaves no room for the known complexity of homo sapiens. Interestingly, women tend to maintain some sort of ambivalent relations with this type of conceptual frame of their person. For example, the idea that women should be prioritized when it comes to resource distribution or interest contestation, regardless of the circumstance, is ostensibly due to their fragile nature, which should be appealed to. In most cases, a “gentleman” is expected to open the door for his woman-counterpart, carry her bag and make other concessions based on the construction of the fragility factor. While all of these are constructed as noble acts, patronizing in some ways, they are premised on the frail nature of women rather than on but mutual compassion and empathy.
And on an instructive note, the dynamics of gender relations between the two sexes can be seen playing out in either scenario. In the days we live in where, among other things, the socioeconomic climate of the modern state leaks faster and precariously so than the ozone layer, it is not uncommon for traditional gender roles to be reversed, to find men in the conventional conceptual frame of women, and vice versa. This is understandable to the extent to which the society has changed, been organized and the magnitude of cases of violence against women and the girl-child. But then, owing to the trajectory of the gender debate, gender discourse has been dominated by feminism and feminist notions. Talking about societal morphology and the nuances of gender discourse, it goes without saying here that given the ontology of African peoples and cultures, the epistemic interpretation of women and the concomitant structural space they occupy in these civilizations exhibit some sense of decorum and order sometimes absent in western civilizations. Without the intention of arousing the intellectual anger of Africanist scholars, one should quickly add that this dichotomy is never permanent with either of these races but a function of their histories/herstories and trajectories to the nation-state. Again, coming to play in this respect is religion, culture, and the political economy that they jointly produced.
In the traditional African setting, as in other parts of the world before the dominance of Judeo-Christian and Islamic rites, women played integral and leading roles in the society. The contrary could not have been the case since the cosmologies of these cultures accommodated female gods, female priests, and in many some cases, female rulers. The relevance of women had nothing to do with their ability to wear crowns but in controlling the crown. They were respected to the tune in which they constituted the pillar of the state, community, and family. As queens, priestesses, regents, warriors, mothers or wives, no “strong man” could wave aside their inputs in governance and administration without “eating his breakfast at night for it” when trouble came knocking. In most cases, the stake was so high that they served as the support and the final voice the “strong man” needed to hear to make a strenuous decision.
Consequently, when gender discourse became a paradigm for contesting a system shift in Europe and America, African women were with their husbands farming, trading, and fortifying the home. Although their public roles were sometimes indirect, they had almost unrestricted access to the socio-economic fronts. Considering the cultural factor in gender designation and the measure of the biodiversity of the African population, gender practices and roles are percolated with many contours within and across these differing cultures. To this extent, a generic pronouncement needs to be taken with caution.
Nevertheless, no intellectual police would apprehend one for adducing the changing dynamics of gender relations in Africa to colonial impact. Added to the influencing factors mentioned above, upsetting conversation on women’s biological makeup came further to the fore of gender structure in the emerging states in Africa. Traditionally, this has been in consideration in gender roles. However, the political-economy and social milieu of the colonial state exacerbated this as the economics of opportunity cost was enthroned. The self-sufficiency of the pre-colonial days was on a gradual decline, the population was on the rise, and new opportunities were in the offing, all recalibrating the societal morphology and landscape. Disparities emerged in the privileges, opportunities, and earning power of both men and women.
Bringing with them their cultural traits considered universal, agents of colonial domination prioritized men in their negotiations and power distribution. Whereas Islam had already made a clear-cut role for both men and women in many of these polities, with the effect of reducing women to a sort of museum not accessible to the general public but with filial currency, the baptism of the society in Judeo-Christian traditions brought other nuances to this emerging trend. Part of the earliest success of the decolonization process in Africa thus was the “remembering” (apologies to Wa Thiong’o) of African women in leadership roles in African churches. With the colonial economy and enthronement of western education, which is tightly linked to the former, parents had to choose which child to send to school and the extent of investment on each child. Already, the economy had ensured that the family size was cut to a moderate size of an average of a husband and a wife with four children; additional ration had to be taken for all to survive.
Herein lies the dilemma of the girl-child in obtaining the only tool with which she could navigate the developing society. Since the beginning of time, social mobility has been predicated on relevant knowledge and applying this in different situations and circumstances. The changing structure and system of acquiring this knowledge have put many girl-child at a disadvantage of moving up the social ladder. The male counterparts fare better because when priority is to be taken, it often goes to them. Among other factors noted above, this is primarily adduced to the fact that the girl-child would grow to marry and take up the identity of her husband, with limited gains for the family; whereas, the male child would continue with the traditions, multiplying their investments.
Patriarchy has been deadly. Women are meant to be passive, and all they could achieve is thought to be in the kitchen and labor room. Hence, the clamour against Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), illiteracy, limited avenues for social mobility, sexual harassment, rape, independence, domestic violence, political marginalization, and other aspects in which they have been marginalized. More than half a century since Nigeria became a sovereign nation-state, several treaties and agreements have been signed and ratified with the view of curbing this situation that has become a menace. But as with other issues, the problem is not so much the absence of framework and principles to follow as it is the lack of the political will for implementation. This in itself is culturally laden. Hence, the protection of the child’s rights, as espoused in the United Nations Charter and recently reinforced by the African Union and other regional and international conventions, is delayed. In Northern Nigeria, where Sharia is practiced, the situation is far worse, both legally and practically.
However, postcolonial Nigeria has seen the rise of rights advocates on virtually every aspect of life as it affects the population. Thanks to the dark days under military rule, the civil society organizations in Nigeria have been fortified and their relevance reinforced with global network building and structures. Though still a muscled space heavily barricaded by state power, the Nigerian civic space has witnessed a robust engagement in recent times. And in addressing the existential threat to women, it is only plausible that these voices are heard. Structurally, these voices have been featured on radio and TV programs, social media and conferences, workshops and seminars, book publications and journals, as well as in tracts and pamphlets. In the Toyin Falola Interviews, these voices are made louder since the only way to reorder and enhance the current positions of women, as in other vulnerable and marginalized members of the society, remains in relentless public advocacy and orientation.
In this view, five prominent activists have been selected for an in-depth discussion on women’s social and political positions and power in contemporary Nigeria. Chiedo Nwankwor, Ayisha Osori, Ireti Bakare-Yusuf, Nseabasi Ufot, and Ibijoke Faborode will be the guests at the Toyin Falola Interviews slated to hold on the 11th of this month. Not many will argue that the ultimate citadel of learning resides in our infinite social space. True, knowledge resides in books, but it does not take its home only within the four walls of any citadel of learning as we know it today. Experience, as witnessed personally and deduced from others during life, when merged with the wisdom of the past and the knowledge of the four walls of the tertiary institution, is as admirable as it is insurmountable.
In all its ramifications, these great women exhibit a stellar constellation of voices representing the voiceless and those living at the margins of society. Owing to their modus operandi, it would amount to an innocuous distortion to address them merely as gender advocates or feminists. This limited description might blur their roles in other aspects of the civil space still relevant to gender discourse. Besides this point is their realization of the promotion of gender balance through equity discourse. At various times, in multiple fora, and through their platforms, they have engaged with democracy, development, and health issues. In most cases, within these frameworks, they have been the vuvuzela of both accomplished and marginalized women in Nigeria and other parts of the world, reaching the Atlantic capitals and cities. That they are the epitome of power and hope for the current generation of female leaders in the society is stating the obvious.
Chiedo Nwankwor holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and International Relations, teaches at the African Studies Program at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and is a Fellow of its Foreign Policy Institute, while infusing immense knowledge in the areas of Gender Justice and Development, Identities and Politics, Women Participation and Leadership, and Legislature into public advocacy for the emancipation of women and development of Africa.
Ireti Bakare-Yusuf comes as a media person par excellence. Her radio and TV programs are blockbusters on the airwaves as they attract hundreds of thousands of audiences. As the Principal Partner of Nottinghill Management and Media and the founder of NoMore234ng, Ireti spends her days in Marketing Media and Project Management and promoting advocacy movements against Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) and women empowerment in Nigeria. This multi-disciplined professional has held senior executive leadership roles and led transformation projects for blue-chip organizations across the globe. As a result of her impressive CV, she was headhunted from the UK by Celtel Nigeria to head the company’s project management team in 2008. In addition, Ireti Bakare-Yusuf coordinates almost a dozen TV and Radio programs, with documentaries that have been nominated for prestigious awards such as the African International Film Festival (AFRIFF). She is pretty active on social media. Her #NoMore app was awarded second place in the West African regional finals of the Innovating Justice competition organized by The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law, which had over 400 applicants.
On their part, Nseabasi Ufot and Ibijoke Faborode are fully involved in activism through their established platforms like the New Georgia Project and ElectHER, respectively. Both of these women are preoccupied with the challenge of drawing public awareness to democratic practices through voters’ education. Nseabasi was named one of 2021 Time’s 100 Next, acknowledging her activism, including the registration of about 7,000 Georgians to vote in the 2020 United States Presidential election and the 2021 run-off election through her New Georgia Project. In her effort, she is recognized as a leadership council member of the Democracy and Culture Foundation, a 2019 One Young World Dutch MFA scholar, and a 2019 Public Service Nominee for The Future Awards Africa. In the same vein, Ibijoke’s ElectHER supports and encourages women to contest for elective public offices through several means, including the provision of funds for which her organization recently launched a $10 million fund to empower 1000 women and directly fund 35 women in the 2023 elections.
The profiles of these great women attest to what is to be expected during the Toyin Falola Interviews. Undoubtedly, they will bring diverse experiences as scholars, entrepreneurs, media experts, and public advocates.
Join us on Sunday, July 11, 2021, at 5 PM Nigerian time, to be part of an exciting and illuminating conversation.
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