I guess I have told the story before of a couple driving on the road when another vehicle drove past and nearly pushed their car into the bush. Shaking his head, the husband muttered: “Women! They are lousy drivers”. This was in apparent reference to the person at the wheel of the car that drove past. Not done, the man began to reel out examples of how women usually cause road accidents to the consternation of his wife who felt angry about the generalisation.
As it would happen, in the course of the conversation, they caught up with the car that started the debate only to discover that the driver was actually a man. “You see now that it is a man,” said the wife who wanted an apology but her husband had a ready reply: “Well, his mother must have taught him how to drive.”
The man in the story must be a Nigerian, given the chauvinism and prejudices that drive this society. That much was on full display on Tuesday when the world marked International Women’s Day 2016. Incidentally, to prove a point, in India, their national carrier, Air India, chose the day to set a record by operating the world’s longest all-women flight from Delhi to San Francisco. From the ground staff to pilots and in-flight attendants, the flight was managed by an all-women team. Two days earlier on March 6, the airline also operated 20 other all-women crewed flights on domestic and international routes. It was a significant message.
But what did we have in Nigeria? In presenting a motion to mark the day, Senator Oluremi Tinubu argued, “We represent courage and resilience; without us (Nigerian women) I don’t think this country will move forward.” Unfortunately, the significance of her motion was lost on her colleagues. On a day you expect them to at least remember the roles played by their mothers in shaping their lives, many of them could only think of their concubines and with that, they reduced a serious issue to banality.
Making his contribution, Senate Leader, Ali Ndume, who ordinarily is a very reflective person, decided to insult our women, reducing them to no more than chattels. “I urge men to marry more than one wife. The first care of a woman is marriage. Men should take care of women by not just befriending them, but by going further to marry them. I know there is nowhere in the Bible that prohibits marrying more than one wife. Starting with the senate president I ask him to consider marrying more than one wife.”
Ndume, thereafter, made a formal request to the senate to declare that Nigerian men should marry more than one wife. “As a sign of respect for women, let’s urge men to marry more than one wife,” he said. His prayer was seconded by Senator Suleiman Nazif. But Senator Binta Masi Garba did not allow the insult to go unchallenged: “We are not sex objects. Bible is in support of one man, one woman. We want gender parity where women and men can work side by side,” she said.
That precisely is the 2016 theme for International Women’s Day: “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality”. And the tragedy of it all is that at no time in our history as a nation has gender issues been on the front burner as they are today: rape, early marriage, domestic violence etc. Yet, our lawmakers can only trivialise such an important debate.
In his message on Tuesday, the United Nations Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, said: “We have shattered so many glass ceilings; we created a carpet of shards. Now we are sweeping away the assumptions and bias of the past so women can advance across new frontiers,” while UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka amplified the message further: “Each one of us is needed—in our countries, communities, organizations, governments and in the United Nations—to ensure decisive, visible and measurable actions are taken…” to achieve the objective.
That we have a serious problem in Nigeria is quite evident when those who make laws for us do not consider women as equal but rather as mere consorts. That is the meaning of Ndume’s intervention, which merely reechoes that of Senator Dino Melaye, a week earlier. Yet it is such warped thinking that is responsible for the endangerment of the girl child in Nigeria today, from Chibok to Yenagoa and Lagos.
In his contribution to the motion by Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, which advocated the need to patronise products made in Nigeria, Melaye had said most memorably: “We must reduce the allocation for made-in-Nigeria goods and services to the basics. What are those factors limiting the production of these goods? We must tackle them. We must also begin to look at our legislation, then, we will begin to talk about made-in-Nigeria goods. We will also move in order to encourage made-in-Nigeria products and begin to talk about made-in-Nigeria women…”
The inference of that statement is that Nigerian women are no more than commodities that can perhaps easily be traded on the ‘Abuja Stock Exchange’. Yet a society where leaders see a significant proportion of their population (all available statistics even suggest there are more females than male in Nigeria) that way is not going anywhere. Unfortunately, it has always been like this.
On Monday, Amanda Okoli, a Nigerian lady I presume, posted online a piece published by the (American) TIME magazine on Monday, August 8, 1955 titled “NIGERIA: Wives For Sale Cheap”. And here is the story, very brief but instructive, as published 61 years ago: “In Britain’s West African colony of Nigeria, where men buy their wives and thereafter own them, the price scale got out of hand after World War II when soldiers came home with the Crown’s mustering-out pay in their pockets. Soon they had to pay as much as $600 for an educated girl, $450 for an illiterate. Since this was far beyond the means of the average young tribesman, the Nigerians asked their British rulers to impose price controls on wives. The British stiffly refused. Last week a committee appointed by the Eastern Nigerian government to bring some relief to Nigerian males recommended: 1) a ceiling of $84 per wife, with instalment payments permitted; 2) only one to a customer.”
What that story says very clearly is that the objectification of the Nigerian woman did not start today but the bigger tragedy is that it is now reflected in every area of our national life such that to most Nigerian men, the real “office” of a woman is no more than the kitchen or bedroom. That is also reflected in our law at a time our women are accomplishing great things in all fields of human endeavour. For instance, in a 2013 piece titled, “How Nigeria legalizes discrimination against women”, Aminu Hassan Gamawa, a younger brother and doctorate student at Harvard Law School, wrote that the language used by the Nigerian constitution “is not gender neutral, perhaps because it was written by men. For example, the pronoun ‘He’ appears in the 1999 constitution about 235 times.”
Under government appointment and composition of agencies, Gamawa argued that Section 14(3) of the 1999 constitution is completely silent on gender consideration. On citizenship, whereas Section 26 (2) (a) confers the right to any woman who is married to a Nigerian citizen it denies such right to foreign men married to Nigerian citizens. Again, under our criminal law, a man cannot be deemed to have raped his wife because, as Gamawa pointed out, “Section 182 of the Penal Code provides that ‘sexual intercourse by a man with his OWN (emphasis mine) wife is not rape if she has attained puberty’.” Section 55 (1) (d) even recommends that a man can actually keep koboko in the house “for the purpose of correcting his wife”.
I know we operate a patriarchal society where everything revolves around the “man of the house” but for us to develop as a nation, we must begin to cede to our womenfolk the rights and respect that they are due. And it is not too much to say that all genders be treated equally as enunciated in the International Women’s Day 2016. Besides, in both the private and public sectors, Nigerian women have proven to be as good, if not better than their male counterparts and we see that in many areas, notwithstanding the fact that the system is skewed against them. Indeed, if there is anything that attests to the resilience and strength of character of the Nigerian women, it is in the way the #BringBackOurGirls coalition has evolved over the last two years.
Monday marks the 700th day that the Chibok girls have been in captivity yet I cannot but remember that first day in Abuja when some of us decided (based on an idea initially floated by Hadiza Bala Usman and Maryam Uwais) to stage a peaceful protest. While many of us who demonstrated inside the rain two years ago have retreated, Oby Ezekwesili, (who led from Day One), Bukky Shonibare, Maureen Kabrik, Florence Ozor, Aisha Yesufu (a woman I admire a great deal) and others are still holding the fort. Of course, there are also men like Abubakar Yusuf, Sesugh Akume, Hosea Tsambido, Rotimi Olawale, Abdullahi Abubakar, Jeff Okoroafor, Tunji Olanrewaju, Dauda Iliya and others who remain faithful; but it is the women who are calling the shots. In that, they demonstrate the capacity of the Nigerian women to stay the course in pursuit of noble ideals–even in the face of daunting odds.
I take this issue of disrespect for our women very personal because I come from a loving but poor family. My father had just one wife and they were devoted to each other. My father, a carpenter, was also a very responsible man but, growing up in the village in my early years, I knew who made most of the sacrifices for me to attend both primary and secondary schools. My mother denied herself all comforts, and at a point had only one set of clothes. I was not too young to understand why she would go to the river, wash the cloth she was wearing and wait for it to dry. I also knew the shame she had to endure in the process of borrowing just so I could pay my school fees. She, like most women and mothers then and now, epitomized the ideals that define our better humanity.
That then explains why I find it difficult to accept the insulting depiction of the Nigerian women by those who ought to be our leaders. Coming at a time that the nation and the international community are yet to recover from the shock of the tragic Ese Oruru saga and other similar cases, especially the kidnapping of three female students in Lagos, the remarks of the likes of Senators Ndume and Melaye bespeaks a level of chauvinism and backwardness that one would not have imagined still existed.
That perhaps explains why many believe the recent obsession with the denigration of a vital segment of our populace indicates something more sinister about the state of our legislature. And they do have a point. In a country beset with so many pressing existential issues requiring legislative intervention, it is a negative testimonial that those who make laws for the rest of us can only find relevance in denigrating Nigerian women. It is a big shame!