Being born a girl in Nigeria is like walking uphill with a huge ‘knapsack’. This knapsack, stuffed with traditions, cultural and societal expectations, religious beliefs and patriarchy, always pulling you down.
Abiodun Kuforiji Nkwocha
My friend gave birth to her third child, a baby girl, after two boys. As is the custom, people visited to meet the baby and congratulate my friend. But she experienced something, which she hadn’t for the first two times she delivered babies. Everyone who visited here said this “Kai! Kin huta, kin samu mai wanke wanke”. In Hausa, a language spoken in Northern Nigeria, it means “Wow, now you get to rest, you have gotten someone to help you with the dishes.” A girl child, from the day she is born, is expected to toe the beaten track.
It seems like gender roles are drummed into the female foetus! My friend replied to each one of those who congratulated her for giving birth to a ‘dishwasher’ with “I did not give birth to a slave. My daughter will be all her potential allows her to be”. My friend was visibly upset. She belongs to the new generation of women that resent traditional roles that women are burdened with. While older women may have carried these roles gracefully, the younger lot is unwilling to do the same. It is because in the traditional set up, men provided for and women nurtured. Now women are out there everywhere struggling alongside the men to provide but are still expected to fulfill other roles reserved for them. Now women are out there working, on an equal footing with men, and providing for yet they are expected to fulfill all the other traditional roles.
Being born a girl in Nigeria is like walking uphill with a huge ‘knapsack’. This knapsack, stuffed with traditions, cultural and societal expectations, religious beliefs and patriarchy, always pulling you down. My son came back from school one day and announced happily that his father was responsible for paying his school fees and I was responsible for cooking. My heart skipped a beat, I had been careful to guard my two sons from ideas that set women back, so where did this come from? “My teacher told me.” I was so upset that I went to meet the head teacher at school the next day. I was upset because there are little girls that should be told that they can be all they want to be rather they were being told that girls will cook and boys will pay the bills. The head teacher listened to me. She understood why I was upset and we both talked about how so many homes across Nigeria were suffering because of these traditional expectations.
The curriculum set by the government allows it. This is not surprising. On 15th March 2016, the Nigerian Senate rejected a bill titled “Gender Parity and Prohibition of Violence against Women”. This bill sought equal rights for women in marriage, education and the workforce. It was rejected because it was against traditional and religious values of Nigerians. The present Nigerian Senate has only 7 women out of 109 senators. This is less than 7% of the Senate. All the 36 state governors of Nigeria are men. The President’s cabinet consisting of 36 ministers has only 6 women (making them about 17% of the cabinet.)So we can safely say that inequality is institutionalized in Nigeria and because men call the shots, it may not change anytime soon. The irony is while men make up the majority of the government, legislative and judicial arms of Nigeria, the women make a chunk of the ordinary workforce of the country. They practically control the markets and small businesses. Nigerian women are hardworking women. They multitask running their day jobs, businesses and their homes. But because of what they have been taught by their mothers, their religious leaders, school teachers and the society at large, they are discontentedly constrained from breaking barriers that would place them in places where they can change how women are viewed and groomed.
I studied Geology in the University; we were only 6 women in a class of 36 students. It was worse in the Engineering courses, because it was considered masculine to study Geology or Engineering. Politics is almost an exclusively male terrain. It takes really strong women to trudge the path and reach the peak with the heavy ‘knapsacks’ on their backs. A boy understands early that he can do things that are considered difficult because he is male. A girl is taught to leave difficult things for men because she is female. There is also a culture of silence; a hush-hush attitude that forbids women to complain and labels them as rebellious and unmarriageable if they talk about the burdens they bear. Well they are Nigerian women. Period. Women are told not to speak about violence they experience, they are shamed when they report rape and jeered at when they talk about sexual molestation. A woman is told that her marriage is doomed if she speaks out and seeks the dignity and regard that equality brings to a relationship. In other words, “Carry your ‘knapsack’ and do not complain that it is heavy because your mother never complained about hers.” Social media is gradually changing this. Women can now convene and find platforms to speak openly about the things that they face and agitate about what they desire to change.
What we desire to change
On the 30th June 2015, the hash tag #beingfemaleinNigeria was tweeted thousands of times as women shared stories of discrimination they faced in Nigeria. It was as though the banks had broken under the weight of the burden of silence. Stories of discrimination and stark inequality came to the fore. For instance, a Nigerian woman can walk into the passport office with her child’s birth certificate and documents showing she is the mother of the child but her child will not get a passport without a letter of consent from the father of the child. A father, however, does not require a letter of consent from the mother of the child.
A woman is unable to bail anyone from a police station. Well, because women cannot bail men! Some landlords will not rent an apartment to a woman. Some traditions require widows to prove that they did not have a hand in the death of their husbands; a widower does not have to prove a thing. The tweets that started a conversation in June last year are yet to end. If anything they are a reflection of the Nigerian society and what women want. Sample a few of the tweets – ‘Females in Nigeria want more’, ‘Gender is no basis for discrimination’, ‘Females in Nigeria do not want to be encumbered by the knapsack of patriarchy anymore’, ‘We want to be free to choose whatever path we decide to walk just like men are’, ‘We want our daughters to grow up knowing that there are no barriers hindering their dreams’. Truth be told, we have achieved a lot but we could do so much more without man-made obstacles.If I ever have a baby girl, I would want people to peer at her in her cradle and see a kaleidoscope of possibilities. And if she grows up and wants to stay at home, nurture children and wash dishes, let it be that it was a choice she made and not the only option society gave her.
To change this is also an uphill task. But a conversation and an agitation for this change is the first few steps up this hill.
Abiodun Kuforiji Nkwocha is Geologist and a writer. She has a column on the Nigerian news Website Sabinews.com. She also runs a website along with her husband. She can be reached at [email protected]
Sharanya Mageshwaran is a stay-at-home mom of a very naughty 4 year old who likes to dabble a little bit in a lot of things. Sharanya is currently trying to figure things out at the crossroads of life. Between that and not to forget Parenting, she loves painting and sketching with fauvist, expressionist and abstract themes, reading and cooking. Some of her works can be found at somelightandcolor.blogspot.ch