Proponents of women’s rights in Nigeria are facing multiple barriers in their fight for equality. Gender-based violence, a lack of economic opportunity, and political disillusionment are affecting women at all levels of society. The country has the most out-of-school girls in the world, and political representation is limited to just 7 of 109 Senators and 22 of the 360 politicians in the House of Representatives. Today, there are many groups of incredible and powerful Nigerians working to change these shocking statistics with the mission of giving women the same rights as men. However, understanding the contemporary Feminist movement in Nigeria must begin with a reckoning with the colonial history which has played a large role in shaping women’s rights in the country.
The British colonisation of Nigeria worked to destroy the systems and cultures which existed in pre-colonial times and, as a result of this, the societal positions women held were also disrupted and set back. Prior to the British invasion, many communities in the Mid-West of Nigeria had a ‘dual-gender’ structure in which women created their own economic, social, and political organisations, giving them a much greater role in decision-making. Within the Yoruba ethnic group, women had access to land and were responsible for the organisation of trade in the local market, as well as establishing long-distance trading relationships. Pre-colonial Igbo societies, made up of multiple kingdoms and states, also allowed for power to be distributed among sexes because of the diversified and decentralised nature of its political system.
Powerful and renowned leaders from throughout Nigeria’s history were also women, such as Queen Amina. The Queen was a Hausa Muslim who, in the 16th century, was the commander of the 20,000 deep, male-dominated, Zazzau military. Today, she is known in Nigeria as ‘Amina, woman as capable as a man’. However, during the colonisation of Nigeria by the British, policies which aimed to impose the same patriarchal Victorian ideals as were ingrained in domestic British society were implemented. A part of the colonisation process was the attempt to dismantle the cultures and traditions which existed in pre-colonial times, at the same time as proselytizing Christianity, using the extremely racist ideas of the ‘white man’s burden’ and the perceived necessity of ‘civilising’ indigenous Nigerian peoples to justify their atrocities. Through this, any formal power that a woman had was stripped away.
However, Nigerian women did not passively accept British colonisation. They fought for their rights and played a large part in Nigeria’s eventual independence in 1960. Igbo women used petitions as an element of their resistance to British rule, finding this gave them the opportunity to open dialogues for those who were disenfranchised. Whilst they had no official incorporation into the colonial structure, these women could use petitions as a way to influence policy decisions. The colonial structure was intrinsically patriarchal with no space for women to have a voice, but petitioning gave women a piece of their voice back and shows Nigerian women have always been fighting for both their and their families’ rights.
Women’s resistance to colonial rule was also not limited to the written word, as seen in what is known in Igbo history as the “Women’s War”. Led by women in the South-Eastern city of Aba, a series of riots were organised between November and December 1929 where thousands of women came together to revolt against the colonial administration. They used the traditional method of all-night song and dance, known locally as “sitting on a man”, to censor men and force the chiefs to give up their position. Prisons were broken into and their inhabitants released, whilst other women attacked shops owned by Europeans. More than 50 women were killed and another 50 wounded after colonial police fired at the crowd. At least 25,000 Igbo women risked their lives in the two months of protests against the British officials, completely invalidating the misguided notion that Nigerian women have not fought as hard for their freedom and their rights as women in the West, at the same time negating the idea that Nigerian women are just passive recipients of their subordination. It is from the strength of these women that many Nigerians today take their inspiration in the continued fight for equality.
The concept of ‘Feminism’ is not always looked upon fondly in Nigeria. It is rejected by many as a Western notion which has no place in African culture. However, it is clear from the examples above that Feminist ideals have been alive in Nigeria for centuries, just perhaps without the name. The conversation around Feminism is very controversial in contemporary Nigeria, with religious doctrine and traditional beliefs stating men should be at the head of the household. This view is exacerbated by men in positions of great power, such as the current President Muhammadu Buhari, who publicly reprimanded his wife for getting involved in politics by declaring she belongs “to my kitchen and my living room and the other room”.
However, there are women who are defying the racial and gender barriers which surround them and are obtaining positions of great power and, in doing so, are changing the possibilities for all Nigerian women. For example, in March 2021, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala became both the first woman and the first African to be appointed to lead the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The impact of a Nigerian woman becoming the leader of an internationally renowned organisation should not be underestimated. Okonjo-Iweala wears her traditional Ankara clothing and a Gele (the Yoruba term for a woman’s headwrap), which has garnered international respect and, in turn, brings power to all Nigerian women who wear this style. Seeing women in positions of power is so important for young girls everywhere, especially Black women who have been extremely underrepresented in organisations such as the WTO. Okonjo-Iweala now has the opportunity to use her platform and knowledge to improve the lives of other girls and women.
Another incredible Nigerian woman on a mission to change stereotypes about the type of work women should be doing is Sandra Aguebor, the country’s first female automotive mechanic. Despite telling CNN in 2020 that she had “to work five times harder than the men to prove [herself]”, she has managed her own garage for the past 22 years and has also founded the ‘Lady Mechanic Initiative’ which aims to give vulnerable women the skills necessary to fix cars and eventually become financially independent. Aguebor has now trained more than 1,000 women in five different states of Nigeria.
It is also not just individual women who are seeking to make a change, but in recent years many organisations have been established which aim to fight discriminatory laws and bring socio-economic progress to women in Nigeria. Founded in 2015 by Tope Imasekha, Women Impacting Nigeria (WIN) is a female-led, not-for-profit organisation on a mission to empower women, especially within the areas of education, health, and their level of representation in politics. They believe gender equality is vital if Nigeria is to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out by the United Nations. By focusing their energy and donations on actions which will have direct and lasting impacts, WIN has helped over 800,000 women and girls who are facing a number of struggles including hunger, a lack of education, abuse, and inadequate healthcare. The organisation also has over 200,000 members and volunteers, once again proving that the solidarity and desire for change within the Feminist movement in Nigeria is extremely powerful.
In the West, there has often been a tendency to generalise women’s rights across Africa as if more than 1.2 billion people living across 54 diverse countries, speaking over 2,000 different languages, and partaking in many different religions are simply a homogenous group. Whilst universally women do unfortunately share many similar problems, each country has its own context and its own history to reckon with. There is so much to be learnt and inspired by from the past and current Nigerian women who are fighting in multiple different ways to gain equality and so we must continue to educate ourselves using the knowledge and experience of women from all over the world, especially women of colour. The Feminist movement is far from over, yet it continues to get more powerful.