Jogging down the memory lane, the history of the world from women’s point of view is one that is filled with the relegation of women even to the background. While men played active roles and got their names stamped all over the books of history. Women have historically been denied access to equal economic, social, political privileges and opportunities, and as a result are under-represented in the political, economic and social spheres of history. I believe it is based on this that women all over the world began to raise their voices against patriarchy and inequality.
Judging from a cursory glance, women all over the world have struggled continuously with various forms of misogyny and different levels of discrimination. The recognition of historical and global discrimination against women prompted the United Nations Organization (UNO) to declare 1975-1985 as “Decade for Women”. This declaration was made to raise global awareness on the status of women and mobilize the world community to eliminate discrimination against women so that women may attain equal economic, social, political and legal status with their male counterparts.
A Hidden Trend
I believe the term feminism can be used to describe a political, cultural or economic movement which may be aimed at establishing equal rights and legal protection for women.
In fact, the Cambridge online dictionary defines it as; “the belief that women should be allowed the same rights, power, and opportunities as men and be treated in the same way, or the set of activities intended to achieve this state”.
But the reality is that ‘feminism’ can be used both as a belief and as a movement. As a belief, it assumes the equality of the sexes economically, politically and socially. And as a movement it advocates for the establishments of those beliefs. This is quite amazing!
Feminism in Africa has evolved through time. Women like Moremi of Ife and Queen Amina of Zaria who refused to let patriarchal societies limit them from achieving greatness are proofs to the fact that feminism is hardly a borrowed concept but merely a borrowed word.
In the nineteenth century, conscious traces of the ideology were found in the activities of the women living in pre-modern and colonial Nigerian societies. Some of these women and their activities includes Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti: She was a Nigerian feminist, political leader and the leading advocate of women’s rights in her country during the first half of the 20th century. She was one of the delegates who negotiated Nigeria’s independence with the British government.
Also, Margaret Ekpo was a Nigerian women’s rights activist and social mobilizer. She was one of the pioneer female politicians in the country, and a leading member of a class of traditional Nigerian women activists. By the end of the decade she had organized a Market Women Association in Aba to unionize market women in the city and thus use it as a platform to fight for the economic rights of women, economic protections and the expansionary political rights of women.
There are also many other women activities such as Molara Ogundipe, Alimotu Pelewura amongst many others.
A Critical Appraisal
I strongly believe women’s rights are the rights and entitlements claimed for women and girls of many societies worldwide, and this has formed the basis of the women’s rights movement in this 21st century.
Some of these rights include but are not restricted to: the right to education, the right to vote, the right to hold public offices, the right to equal wage pay etc.
While some of these rights have been institutionalised and legalized in some parts of the world, others have been ignored and cause a major strain on the lives of some affected women. Women’s Rights even when institutionalised have suffered violations through culture and traditional sentiment which has result in acts such as:
- Female Genital Mutilation: This is the practice, of partially or totally removing the external genitalia of girls and young women for non-medical reasons.
- Forced childhood marriage: This is the appalling practice of forcing female children into marriage which exposes them to both sexual and domestic violence from a very young age.
- Sexual harassment at school and work: Sexual harassment describes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature including rape and defilement.
I remember an author once said that discrimination is “the effect of statute or established practice which confers particular privileges on a class arbitrarily selected from a large number of persons, all of whom stand in the same relation to the privileges, or a class arbitrarily selected from a large number of persons, all of whom stand in the same relation to the privileges granted and between whom and those not favoured no reasonable distinction can be found. I believe discrimination occurs when a particular class of people are treated differently in an inferior manner than the rest of the people. I strongly believe this is considered a casual factor of violence against women.
Over the years there have been a development of feminist organisations with the purpose of empowering women and overturning patriarchy. A few of these groups includes Women in Nigeria (WIN), Niger Delta Women’s Movement for Peace and Development (NDWPD), The Nigerian Feminist Forum (NFF) amongst others.
Challenges Facing Feminism and Women Rights Activists in Nigeria today
Let us be clear, Inspite of the various hurdles crossed and achievements attained by Nigerian women, there exists various challenges faced by groups or individuals who try to push for women empowerment and gender equality. I am a firm believer that some of these challenges are as a result of factors predominant in the society which we live in and are thus difficult to overcome.
The Nigerian government can be said to be a major challenge faced by women rights activists in Nigeria. With the government being male dominated, there is a large indifference to issues concerning women and even when activists push such issues forward, they are regarded flippantly by the government and its arms. Consequently, laws that should help favour women usually take long before being enforced even after being pushed relentlessly by activists. Sometimes when the laws are passed, enforcement is also a major issue. It is important to note that even though there are laws prohibiting the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), this practice is still widely carried out in rural communities.
Another problem that I believed to be faced by feminists and their organisations is the society’s perception of feminism. Due to the cultural and religious foundation of the Nigerian society which is dominantly patriarchal, feminists are seen as loose women and trouble makers seeking to usurp the balance in the society.
Amongst the feminists themselves and within these organisations there are issues of double standards. Due to the negative press surrounding feminism, we have feminists who would rather not publicly declare their stance. There are feminists who are also held back by cultural and religious constraints and are thus within the movement, they discuss and advocate on feminist issues without restrictions but within the domestic sphere due to the public opinions on the family structure and gender roles, it becomes difficult to fully introduce the feminist belief system in such instances as it is seen to disrespect the family structure.
These are very serious issues that call for the continuous societal sensitization on the benefits of feminism by feminist organisations and women rights activists.
The Way Forward
Today, according to the country’s National Population Commission which estimated the 2011 population to be about 168 million, women represent about 49% of the total population. This means that issues concerning women are basically issues that concern the country.
Feminist organizations and women rights activists are all over the country today, fighting towards achieving an egalitarian society where women are seen as completely equal to men and restrictions aren’t placed on them based on their gender. Feminism is an ideology that is here to stay in Nigeria and it is anticipated that sooner than later its ideals would be fully actualised to better the lives of Nigeria women. However various issues still arise daily which place women at a disadvantage and Nigeria still has a long journey ahead on the road to women liberation.
In light of the present reality of the country, I therefore recommend that feminism, women’s right issues and gender education should be included in the curriculum of primary or secondary schools so as to imbibe the spirit and awareness of equality in young minds and that would gradually rid the society of the practice of patriarchy and gender stereotyping. Also, the government should cooperate with women’s rights activists in the implementation of gender sensitive programmes which would help enlighten and empower women.
There is no doubt that the empowerment of women and equality of the sexes would benefit the nation as a whole, even as the journey which already started gets to its destination.
Oyinlola Abosede, a graduate of Chemical Engineering from Obafemi
Awolowo University is an intellectual fighter for emancipation.
and an advocate on social issues. He wrote in via firstname.lastname@example.org