“You must never behave as if your life belongs to a man. Do you hear me?” Aunty Ifeka said. “Your life belongs to you and you alone.”
” A woman’s polite devotion is her greatest beauty.” Unknown
About one and a half years ago I read a post on a popular Nigerian facebook group. This post detailed the gruesome murder of some Nigerian female nurses in America at the hands of their husbands. These women left their husbands and tried to forge a new life for themselves away from controlling and jealous husbands. Their reward was death. The debate as to whether this stories were real or manufactured is open to debate. what is not however was the response to the story, especially by the men.
Enraged at this blatant injustice I had to comment. Now I will be the first to acknowledge that my comment was incendiary, adding fuel to the fire,
Shortly after commenting on this, I stopped following the page. One of the reasons for unfollowing was the sheer amount of misogyny the men openly displayed. I was told that red lipstick denoted a prostitute (Now I don’t know about you, but red is my signature lipstick. Dior 5th Avenue specifically, I like the good stuff in life), trousers were a sign of loose morals, a woman had no say in politics, amongst other comments. I forgot about this comment and the page itself as a whole until June this year when my brother brought my attention to a video posted on the page of a woman in the commercial capital of Nigeria (Lagos) stripped half naked and in the process of being tortured by a group of men. The video is too horrific to post the link here and I was shaking with rage and frustration after watching it; This woman along with two others were accused of stealing peppers, which they denied. The men proceeded to torture a confession out of them by pouring scotch bonnet powder (very hot chilli powder) into their eyes and then vaginas. The fact that these ‘normal men’, not police officers, not community officers, not law enforcement in any way, thought it was alright to torture a human being is not the disturbing part of this tale. No, the truly disturbing part was them adding scotch bonnet powder into their vaginas, they targeted them as woman, trying to inflict the maximum amount of pain on them, did not care about the fact that this could potentially kill them, they did not care about the psychological trauma these woman would go through and the agonizing physical trauma they must have suffered. One of the poor women later died as a result. This video as gruesome and as heartbreaking as it is, restarted my interest in women’s rights in Nigeria.
I have been pondering the significance of this event for many weeks now and I have spoken with as many nigerian men as I could (mainly dad, grandfather, family friends and brother) about this issue and women’s rights as a whole. Although my family is progressive by Nigerian standards, their views of women are still somewhat archaic, not quite modern enough for my tastes. What I have gleaned from the many talks and arguments is that a lot of Nigerian men are happy for their wives and daughters and women to shatter glass ceilings. However when they come back home, they gotta leave the power woman and the strong woman at the doormat. Once they step into the home, they have to revert back to being subservient. the men’s egos are simply too fragile to tolerate their partners being successful.
Now of course, Nigeria is a “deeply religious” country (the degree of religiousness in a country where corruption comes second nature to breathing is debatable). Some might say, more religious than the vatican judging by the amount of global churches that have roots in the nation. And unfortunately a LOT of the misogyny displayed in the country is down to the interpretations taken from the scriptures about a woman’s role in society.
A woman, in Nigeria has to be a good cook, patient, loving, virtuous, silent, etc. And the most important trait in a woman according to Nigerian society is the desire to get married. A woman in Nigeria cannot aspire to be a CEO or a highflier without first marrying. Similarly, a woman is not considered successful until she is married with a good dozen children in the nursery, regardless of the degrees or fortune she has amassed. A good woman does not intimidate (note the fragile egos of the males) her partner with her success, and a woman who is too successful runs the great risk of not finding a man to marry her.
This idea of marriage being the ultimate goal of a woman is so prevalent in Nigeria that you would often find mothers telling their daughters off for bad behaviour by threatening them that they will never find a man to marry them. Women that are not maternal, not loving in a traditional sense, who are ambitious high-fliers and/or just don’t conform to these societal identity of femininity are discarded on the rubbish heap, most often labelled as unnatural, or my personal favourite; witches.
There are more female “witches” in nigeria than corrupt politicians if these claims of witchcraft are to be believed.
This idea that a woman’s main purpose in life is to be effectively a brood mare and a slave to her husband is like a rot in the fabric of Nigerian society. There is nothing traditional about it and there is nothing religious about it. If indeed it is a sacre held tradition, then traditions are meant to be broken. Not so long ago, the Igbos traditionally sacrificed twins at the altar of the oracles as they perceived them as unnatural.
The hashtags #BeingAWomanInNigeria and #BeingFemaleInNigeria started to trend on twitter earlier this month and it could not have come at a more perfect time for this article. I encourage readers to search for these hashtags on twitter and read the hilarious yet painfully accurate descriptions of the struggles of being a woman in Nigeria.
Nigerians are big on religion, Nigerian men even more so when it comes to justifying their views. Some quote the bible like they were present when the original scrolls were being written. Favourite verse being;
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything
I do not take issue with households following a religious way of life, what I do take issue is with households using select bible verses to justify oppression towards the womenfolk in their homes. Twisted Interpretations of these verses result in men who associate red lipstick with prostitution, trousers with loose morals and intelligence with confrontation. If I had a penny for every time a Nigerian man tells me he could never marry a woman like me, I’d be richer than the country itself. So many of the men I clash with on a daily basis online use the bible as a resource to back up their points yet have no qualms declaring their use of the occultic against me for not being agreeable. One minute a christian, the next a “devil worshipper”. I’m sure I’m not the only one that finds this funny.
Like I mentioned earlier, a lot of these men’s egos are so fragile, they cannot bear to have a woman more successful than they are, more intelligent than they are and they absolutely hate a woman that has a mind of her own. When confronted with a woman with a mind, the default setting in the minds of these men is to insult, targeting the femininity of the woman first, hence the prevalence of the label witch to describe women.
I’ve had a few experiences of this peculiar male defence mechanism. One promised me that he would behead me and use my head for a money making blood ritual and the other assured the audience that I hate men because I was raped 70 times in my infancy by my father, brothers and uncles. This in his twisted mind explained why I was so vocal in my defence of the murdered victims of domestic violence. Seeing the response of Nigerian men to my post has helped me better understand the mindset of the average Nigerian man, it has also helped me to understand how the barbaric act filmed on camera could have happened. In a culture where women are treated as second class citizens, it seems a woman and her vagina are fair game to these individuals.
Ask most Nigerians if domestic violence is endemic in the country and I can guarantee that most respondents will say no. Nigerians living in the diaspora love to paint this rosy picture where men don’t kill their wives and domestic abuse does not happen when confronted with ugly stories of domestic violence in the British media. And for a while I used to believe this lie too. In fact I used to argue its merits with my colleagues. Now I know for a fact that nothing could be further from the truth. Domestic violence is endemic in Nigeria. it is regarded as dirty linen that no one talks about. the media in Nigeria does not cover stories about women being murdered by their partners. Listening on the grapevine however tends to paint a clearer image. Stories of wives disappearing, visiting the hospital with unexplained bruises or ending up dead in mysterious circumstances are not unheard of. This hidden epidemic of domestic violence goes on in the society with impunity and the perpetrators almost always get away scot free, marrying another wife in many cases. In situations where the wife is not killed or harmed, she is often left by the husband literally holding the child as he abandons them. In a country where there is no social security net, no child benefit and a weak court system, getting the man to pay child support is impossible. This is another common occurrence in Nigeria with separated women (not quite divorced as divorce is still a societal taboo….a sure fire way to label the wife a witch for life) living away and eking out a living whilst supporting children.
Most Nigerian women are expected to submit to their husbands in everything from marital rape to family planning. The balance of power is so uneven that many men take mistresses and pay for sex with prostitutes, blatantly keeping other women whilst expecting their would be wives to be virtuous and virginal. In churches there is always messages devoted to women about keeping their virginity whilst the men are left to sow their wild oats. If religion was truly the reasoning behind such a demeaning view of women then surely the sermons and the preachings would equally target both sex and premarital sex would be frowned upon in both sexes. As we all know, a sin is a sin is a sin. No sin is bigger than the other under christianity, so why do our men hide behind religion as a reason to expect holiness and other angelic qualities from their partners whilst they themselves are involved in sinful acts, both before marriage AND after. Why do Nigerian men see it as their right to choose to give their partners’ freedom? This was a recurring theme in the facebook argument I had, A great deal of men thought it was their God given right to chose to give their partners their freedom. And I spent a great deal of time explaining to them that the freedom of their wives was not theirs’ to give, their wives already had their freedom and as they are not slaves in the marriage, why should their husband be able to choose whether to grant them their freedom?
As I round up this badly structured ‘essay’ about women’s living conditions which started out as an angry rant and has slowly developed into a slightly legible article, I have one more question. Why do our mothers raise us Nigerian women to always see ourselves as less than men? Nigerian men are complicit in their treatment of their partners. But I cannot absolve blame from the mothers. Why do they not encourage us to see ourselves as individuals in our own rights? Why do they encourage us to tie our worth as human beings to the men in our lives? Mothers have a responsibility to raise daughters that see their own self worth and are not dependent on the approval of a male gaze to get fulfillment in life.
The aim of this article was to try to highlight the issues facing women in Nigeria, however it has devolved into a pseudo-rant about the conditions of women. I apologise for the structure but not for the content. I hope it was legible and readable, because lord knows I vomited my thoughts onto a keyboard. This post won’t win journalistic awards, but I sincerely hope that many men, especially Nigerian men would read this and maybe reconsider their stance on gender equality in the country.