Rebuilding the House of Eve: Reinventing the Feminist Agenda in Nigeria (Part 1)
By Chom Bagu
Published below is the full text of the paper that some gender warriors believe could be the jump off perspective for recovering ideologically sensitive gender activism as opposed to whatever is it that is going on today in the name of that movement. Originally delivered to the Steering Committee of Feminist Movement of Nigeria, June 13, 2005 ACTIONAID Conference Hall, Abuja, it still speaks to the crisis of women organizing, with particular reference to Nigeria. But the length requires that it be published in two installments. Chom Bagu, the author, is a veteran of popular struggle in Nigeria spanning the student, labour gender and the pro-democracy movements up to the mid-1990s. He has just left the services of Search for Common Ground, (SCG), the conflict transformation INGO as its Country Director- Editor
The unanimous voice with which all participants at the March 8, 2005 International Women’s Day meeting called for the immediate establishment of a Feminist Movement in Nigeria suggests that the beginning of the end for gender pragmatism is here. In the past decade, gender activists have been preoccupied with reformist projects that touch lives here and there, but give little attention to a more fundamental transformation of women lives. This preoccupation with practical problems of women has occasioned the deterioration of the overall place of women in Nigerian society. Thousands of little projects that only manage to secure crumbs from the feasting tables of patriarchy for women have proved insignificant in transforming the subordinate position of women.
The March 8 Meeting seems to be calling the gender activists back to the barricades, back to the ideological battle front to place once more the fundamental claim of women to gender equality and liberation from the clutches of socio-economic, political and cultural oppression. This reassertion of the historical claim of women to be successful this time needs to be founded on solid ground, on the basis of the current realities of political activities of women and the experience of women activists. This paper tries to use past experience and the history of feminist activism to explore the possibilities, challenges and a possible outline of a reinvented Nigerian feminist movement.
Though so much is being done to improve the situation of women in Nigeria, the results are not encouraging. The hundreds of CSOs that claim to focus on women do not seem to be achieving much in the critical areas of women empowerment. The presence of relatively more women in Obasanjo’s government has not also borne fruit. A report of a survey on the Millennium Development Goals released in May this year, has observed that “gender imbalances at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education seemed to remain unchanged.” The report noted that the “enrolment at primary school has been 56 per cent for boys and 44 per cent for girls while girls enrolment for secondary schools declined from the 48 per cent level in 1999 to 44 per cent in 2003. It then concludes that “There is little evidence to indicate that the target of eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary education will be reached by 2015”. This is only a sample of what is the case in all sectors of the society.
Yet, since the Beijing conference in 1995, both government and CSOs have been beating their chests about the landmarks of achievements in the area of gender equity. Many have celebrated the passage of laws against evil widowhood and genital mutilation practices and an increase in the number of women in public life. These are indeed commendable achievements, but to what degree have they changed the life and fate of women in the country? In the first place, they laws have mostly been observed in the breach. The women who have access to public offices have only succeeded in lift-frogging themselves up the socio-economic ladder. In fact, it can be observed that more tokenism is being experienced in today’s Nigeria than a decade ago.
The biggest dent in the post-Beijing era is the way Sharia law is being implemented in the 12 northern states of the Federation where the main focus is to domesticate and whittling down the few remaining rights and freedoms of women. This development has set the struggle for gender equity several decades back by legislating second class citizenship for them. The initial programs introduced by such Islamic governments were directed at reducing the democratic and social spaces for women and denying them rights that they had previously taken for granted.
The Ministry for Women Affairs is another dividend of Beijing which has turned out absolutely irrelevant to the cause of gender equity. The Ministry has become like any other, doing nothing special for women. It has in fact become an excuse to deny women a proper say in the affairs of the nation by creating a gulag for them to continue gossiping about women issues while men continue to manipulate the polity. The ACTIONAID meeting could therefore be said to have come at the right time, a time when a false sense of achievement is beginning to pervade the gender equity movement and some politicians and CSO apparatchiks are beating their chests on the grounds that they have done such great service for women.
Gender politics as is the case with all group politics, develops in cycles and phases. Deidre Combs in her new book, The Way of Conflict, identifies these cycles or phases as positive, negative, creative and then transformative. What needs to be noted in regards to these phases is the fact that unless each phase has run its full course, it is difficult to dramatically change its direction. At best, change agents can prepare the ground for a quick transition from one phase to another by assisting to speed-up the process of change. However, when the change agents are not organized or prepared to assist the process of change, the old phase may continue to trek-on under a cacophony of pretences and camouflage.
History has demonstrated that when change agents engage in tailing developments or engage in “follow-follow”, the state of oppression will continue under different guises. And this is irrespective of number and effort of the change agents. The only way to get rid of a rotten and outdated system is for change agents to develop a clear and independent vision and give leadership to the forces of change on the basis of conviction and the needs of their constituencies. In Nigeria, gender activism has gone through phases of being guided by idealism at one time and at another by pragmatism. At times of Idealism, the forces of change break new grounds and create a new momentum for change. The reforms they support are strategic in nature that uplift, enhance and empower women by opening new possibilities, breaking major barriers and bringing new partners to the trenches. During times of pragmatism, reforms introduced serve more as bribery or palliatives that put the forces of change to sleep or into self delusion or false triumphalism.
The framework above provides us with a basis to analyze our history and learn from it lessons so that it can help us in making strategic decisions for the future. Whatever program we wish to adopt, needs to meet the requirements identified above. In this way, activity for activity sake or doing any program proposed by donors or the mere number of activities no more counts. Programs and activities in the name of gender equity will have to be judged purely on the strategic contributions they make to achieve the ultimate goal of gender equity and the full realization of women rights.
What is Feminism?
The manner in which feminism was formulated at the March 8 meeting has raised several probabilities. First, what would be the fate of a feminism that is posed in such an assertive and doctrinaire way in this era of the decline of ideology and public passions in which all ideologies have been swept away or fatally undermined except religious/ethnic fundamentalism and sports, particularly football passions?
The weakened commitment to ideas or doctrines in Nigeria and the world at large has seen to the collapse of whole countries, political movements and various causes except in the realm of religion and football. Could “shocking” people with the claim to ideological feminism not be counter-productive in this context in that it could alienate gender activists and chase away potential sympathizers? Second, could such a jolting manner of presenting feminism serve as a wake-up call to gender activists? The question that arises here would be, is such a wake-up call realistic in the circumstances of Nigeria today? Will it be hearkened to? Will it not send people into deeper slumber and discourage people working in more practical ways for gender equality? The retort may be that capitulating to the present preference for pragmatism may mean the gradual death of feminism as patriarchy eats up the space available for gender work. But we definitely need to consider these posers seriously as we decide on what we want to do.
The implication of these posers is that it is not enough to wish to create a feminist movement that will forcefully bring the issue of women subordination to the front burner of national life. There is need to do those things that will lead us to create and sustain a movement that responds to and strategically position gender activists/feminists. There is need for a movement that targets the real needs of women and that focuses on transforming and eliminating the root causes of women oppression and marginalization. This is why it is important to critically scan the Nigeria context to see what is the reality out there and what would work and what has no chance at all. This will require some historical referencing and contextual analysis that traces the features of the Nigerian women movement and gender activism and interpret that history in the context of the present needs and aspirations of women.
The first issue that needs to be determined is, what is this feminism all about? Ojobo at the ACTIONAID meeting identified 19 definitions and said on record that there are about 11 more. In all these definitions, the general tendency has always been to look at Feminism as a purely woman issue. In response such claims, Helen LaKelly Hunt, a Christian feminist in her book: Faith and Feminism: A Holy Alliance, however sees it differently. She has argued the opposite. She says:
“I think it’s so important to understand that feminism is not about women. Feminism is about human beings. Feminism is about the creation. It’s a consciousness of how we are interrelated to each other. …. Whole feminism is a new kind of consciousness where no person is free, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, until all people are free. It’s about a human regard that we have for one another, being expressed in our daily actions.”
She continues, “Feminism is a part of this larger working out of “right relationship…. “ What does this definition do to our understanding of feminism and the way to fight for it? In the first place, it says that ‘feminism is not about women, it’s about human beings’, it’s a ’case of no individual person is free… until all people are free’. This burns under the feet, doesn’t it? If it is not about women, then, it does not need an exclusive gang of women to deal with it. If it is about human beings, then it’s a problem for all humanity to deal with. In dealing with it from this perspective, everyone ready to contribute to the success of the cause is welcome. This was the perspective from which the founding documents of WIN saw it. However, with the collapse of ideology in the 1990s and the entry of the “neman abinchi” (literarily meaning ‘looking for food) philosophy, that understanding was challenged and the feminist groups that emerged from the fall of WIN all without exception, capitulated to pragmatism and “neman abinchi.” As a consequence, NCWS and First Ladyism bounced back as the major feminist forum in Nigeria while the other feminist groups could not even speak coherently about what they stand for, as they suffocated themselves with donor grants.
The second point here is, ‘feminism is a part of this larger working out of right relationship.’ Now, there are several relationships (like class, religious, ethnic, age, rural/urban, etc) in Nigeria that are not right and are begging for consideration. As feminists, how are we going about our own struggle? There are certain feminists who think that these other wrongs should not matter. Are we to ignore all other wrong relationships and just focus on our own or link our own struggle with all other struggles that are directed at righting all wrong relationships? If we are for and inclusive struggle, what would be the mix?
Answers to all these questions are necessary if we are to make a good determination on how we should go about the struggle for feminism and gender equity. More so that a majority of women are affected by all these wrong relationships and sometimes some of these wrong relationships are even more severe on women that gender subordination.
Part 2 follows