Apart from Valentine’s Day, International Women’s Day, March 8, must be the mushiest day of the year. It is the day when virtually every man chivalrously stands up to be counted as a lover of women. Politicians, religious leaders, corporate organisations, husbands, sons, fathers and so on, almost all see the worth of women with acute moral clarity. On IWD, men write some of the most sentimental lines about how women hold up the sky and how no one can do without their energies and vivacity. So, if Nigerian men love women that much, how come the bills proposed in the National Assembly to improve the lot of women routinely fail?
This year’s International Women’s Day met many women and the women groups protesting the recent failure of lawmakers to pass certain “Gender Bills” at the National Assembly. It would have been nice if all the love men had for women had made public protests for their rights unnecessary but that is not the reality. For days, women had to stomp the grounds of the National Assembly before Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila called for a closed-door session. Afterward, the lawmakers announced the rescission of their earlier decision on three of five “gender bills.” They promised to revisit them in the coming weeks. That they reversed themselves after public outcry showed they never had substantial grounds for their earlier decisions. If they did, they would have put their arguments forward.
The paradox of the overwhelming love that Nigerian men have for women and the failure of legislation that would have bettered women’s conditions is baffling. How come love and legislation are so irreconcilable? In December, when some lawmakers also rejected a women-empowerment bill that Senator Abiodun Olujimi had pushed, they argued that gender equality goes against their religious and cultural sensibilities.
Media reports quoted Abubakar Yusuf, who represents Taraba Central Senatorial District, as saying gender equality “infringes Islamic practice.” His Sokoto North Senatorial District counterpart, Aliyu Wammako, added that he would not support equality for women because the content of the bill was against their religion and culture. One would have expected most of their colleagues—some of whom, I am sure, are also keen lovers of women—to have stood up as they do on March 8 every year.
Senator Wammako said while he opposed “equality,” he would accept “equity” instead. Since he did not deign to clarify those terms, we are left to grapple with a faux intellectualisation of mere male prejudice. For these lawmakers, who live in a country where people wallow in the abjection of multi-dimensional and multi-generational poverty, how come it is gender equality that infringes Islam? How about applying the logic to argue for improvement in the quality of life? Why not bring up religion to contend why people deserve universal education, healthcare, quality infrastructure and good quality of life? When matter gets to the issues of respect for humanity, people like Yusuf and Wammako foreclose possibilities by whipping out their religion. If religion does not feature in debates about social progress and collective flourishing, why use it to shut down a debate on gender equality? It is unconvincing that “equality” rubs against religious sensibility. This is a manipulative interpretation of doctrines by lawmakers who use God to suit their selfish purposes.
On the current set of bills, with its voting decisions rescinded, the spokesperson of the House, Benjamin Kalu, argued that they were rejected because the sponsors did not advocate enough and their lobbying came too late. But one must also ask him why they needed to be lobbied to death for them to recognise that those they publicly celebrate as “our women,” “our mothers,” “our wives” and even “our daughters” deserve equality?
On Bill 36 crafted to “expand the scope of citizenship by registration,” what exactly are their objections? This amendment would let women married to non-Nigerians grant their husbands citizenship as men have for years. This should be commonsensical. Why does anyone need an ego massage for something so harmless to pass? Its failure goes a long way to show the degree of the institutionalisation of our patriarchal traditions. Men may love women, but they do not see them as agents.
This is also a good occasion to recall that it took one woman, Dr. Priye Iyalla-Amadi, to make Nigeria stop asking women to get a letter of consent from their husband before they could be issued passports. She sued the Nigerian Immigration Service because, as adult citizens, women deserved better. Asking them to get the consent of a fellow adult that happens to be male to get what should be rightfully theirs is infantilising. About 12 years after winning that victory for millions of women, some Nigerian men still think “equality” is against “culture.”
Then there was Bill 38 that would have “provide(d) criteria for qualification to become an indigene of a state in Nigeria.” With this, a woman can claim her husband’s state of origin as hers too after five years of marriage. Given the peculiarities of the Nigerian society, this bill would give women that would otherwise be disadvantaged by marriage the option of indigeneship and belonging. In a society where men could take it personally if their wives do not immediately change their maiden names to theirs after marriage, how did “culture” and “religion” affect this too? If a woman can share her husband’s surname, it should not be that hard to share his state of origin.
The third bill to be revisited is supposed to “provide for affirmative action for women in political party administration.” In principle, this is like the remaining two “gender bills”—that is, Bill 35 to “provide for special seats for women in the National and State Houses of Assembly” and Bill 68 “to give women a quota in the federal and state executive councils or ministerial and commissionership seats.” That the same point had to be stretched over three separate Bills seem rather redundant when the ultimate goal is to increase female participation in governance. They can be effectively collapsed.
That said, I want to anticipate the opposition to the bill(s) demanding affirmative action for women (one of which the lawmakers will revisit). Much of the existing argument is that women who desire to enter spaces of power should participate in politics the same way men do and go from there. This is an old argument about merit over quota system. The trouble is the reasoning is usually advanced either out of crass disingenuousness or sheer naivete. Men do not dominate politics in Nigeria because they enter the political arena with bigger brains or because they advance superior ideologies during electioneering. One only needs to look at the dysfunctionality that typifies Nigeria to conclude that men, dominant as they are in politics, do not bring anything to the table to make them more deserving than women. They win elections more simply because our society imposes too many structural barriers that deny women equal opportunities.
In a society where lawmakers publicly admit that women are not equal to men because their religion and culture say so, asking a woman to prove herself by duelling with her male counterparts is never going to produce any more significant results than the consignment of women to the roles of wearing Aso ebi and dancing at campaign grounds. Let us therefore eschew the pretence that there are more men in political administrations because they are better or that they do something better. For the most part, there is nothing “meritorious” about the ways their electoral victories happen in Nigeria. Men win because of their godfather networks, heavy bribery and good old rigging.
Those who think women need to embed themselves in such a heavily corrupt, money-dominated and ideologically vacuous process just so they can prove their ability to do what men do are defining “meritocracy” all wrong. The women who stood their ground for days at the National Assembly until they forced lawmakers—some of whom had earlier sworn that there was “no going back”—to rescind their voting decisions define “merit” far better than those who get to public offices in conventional ways. Those who truly love women should not just write poems to celebrate them. They should see their labour for what it truly is and might even begin to love them back by legislating “equality.”