Defining the Role of the Nigerian Woman with Two Videos and a Party Part 1
by Nike Taylor
This is the first part of a two-part series.
Three things to talk about. One history to try to explain them all.
Ghanaian socialite, actor, and model Moesha Boduong is interviewed by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in her Sex and Love Around the World series. She matter-of-factly explains why she needs a married man to fund her expensive life. She says women can’t make it on their own. She had Ghana going nuts, then apologised.
A speech on the floor of Nigeria’s House of Representatives. The Honourable Muhammed Gudaji Kazaure goes into elaborate detail to back his starting declaration that “it’s good to give women opportunities, but not too much”. Kazaure, who according to the Internet literally shot himself in the foot, matter-of-factly explains that a majority female House of Reps would surely “mess up”. “We are the ones who are strengthening them, we are the ones controlling them. That is why God says they should come under us. We will marry them, they will serve under us. That is why he said let them stay under our control.” The few women in the near-empty chamber laughed along with their male colleagues.
And a debate about Harvey Weinstein at a New Year’s party I went to this year. A woman at the party matter-of-factly states, “A man touches your bum. What’s the big deal?” Everyone at a party that’s more than fifty percent women feels that women are mostly responsible for being abused by powerful men. Those women could have gotten regular jobs, after all, but they just had to be famous. Hey, if you walk down a dark alley in a short skirt, you should know you’ll get raped.
When Buduong let the whole world know that some Ghanaian women have ‘patrons’, she was, of course, also speaking for many Nigerian women. Despite the “jollof rice wars”, Nigeria and Ghana have socially similar cultures where mistresses are commonplace. Whether the result of a broken economy with limited opportunities or the natural evolution of historical polygyny or both, managing the demands of a patron is simply another way to get by for many women, but one with an acute power imbalance between the participants, where the woman’s lifestyle is determined by the whims of the man.
When Kazaure spoke at the House of Reps, he was, of course, also speaking for many Nigerian women. His views aren’t simply restricted to his gender: they’re supported by the country’s major religions. Being raised in a Christian or Muslim home most often results in a worldview that places men at the centre and top.
When the women at that party pretty much-absolved men of the responsibility for sexual harassment, they were, of course, speaking for many Nigerian women. Nigeria socialises its girls to believe that while boys will be boys, female sexuality is a danger to both girls and boys, so seeing herself and other girls as probably guilty comes naturally to your average girl.
Each of these brand ambassadors for the Nigerian woman describes an accepted cultural fact: Nigerian women serve at the pleasure of men. It’s always been that way, it’s our culture, and religion backs up culture. Women are exactly where they’re meant to be.
History, however, begs to differ.
The Old Days
The pre-colonial women of the societies that would later form Nigeria were badasses. Without education, transportation, mobile phones, or Google, they were the chief operations officers of their communities, raising, feeding, and organising their families, as well as ensuring community life ran smoothly. They were that era’s unsung heroes.
One pre-colonial group whose social importance is representative of that of African women before the 20th century was Igbo women. Yoruba women have always been known as some of Nigeria’s most enterprising, but every Igbo woman hustled hard in pre-colonial and colonial times (and still does) as mother, farmer, businesswoman, de facto head of the homestead, and all-round provider. Family defined the status and future of the Igbo woman, but despite this, being denied equal rights and excluded from most traditional rites, she was as independent as it got back then.
The Igbo woman was fearless.
The husband may have planted the yam, but the wife worked the farm the rest of the year. Society expected her to be productive off and on the farm—oftentimes literally; while my mum was growing up, your average village woman would wrap the baby she just delivered on the farm in a tight cloth, put the baby on her back, then get back to work. My ovaries hurt just thinking about it. Entirely too much hustle, maybe, but not having any hustle was frowned upon; as anthropologist Dr Ifi Amadiume notes, “a non-industrious woman was despised” and women who were wholly dependent on their husbands were ridiculed for being lazy.
Despite all of this badassery, however, the Igbo woman couldn’t inherit property or capital from her husband. Not directly, anyway; her sons could inherit, so through them, she could get access to land, yams (which meant wealth in pre-colonial times), and money. The more sons she had, the more land she (indirectly) received.
Men and her ability to produce men defined the borders of her world. She found ways—imperfect ways, to be sure—to work the system, though.
Igba ohu, i.e., woman-woman marriage, was a commercial, nonsexual relationship that grew out of the communalistic nature of pre-colonial Igbo society that emphasised community and survival of the bloodline over the individual. If an Igbo woman didn’t have sons, wanted more, or simply needed a companion and co-worker to help boost her family’s labour pool, she married a wife (if she could afford it).
It was an exchange of security between the women. Some women married wives after their husbands died, but most did so while their husbands were still kicking. Either way, the arrangement strengthened both women’s positions in the family and safeguarded their children’s future in a patriarchal society. It’s apparently still a thing, though rare. Sometimes, the female husband has her male husband father new children with her new wife. Other times, the new wife goes away and comes back with babies. Sperm donor? Irrelevant. The babies belonged to the male husband because he’d paid his wife’s bride price and she’d paid her wife’s bride price. Though igba ohu could be exploitative (hence its name, which loosely translates to “slavery”), the new wife had the same rights as a junior wife in the homestead. Igba ohu was, for better or worse, one of the ways women elevated themselves within their families.
Women could also elevate themselves socially by being savvy businesswomen.
Good women farmers produced enough to feed their families and traded the rest in the market. Many became wealthy; for instance, Nwambata Aku, the favourite wife of a respected Nnobi man in the early 20th century, made her fortune through her retail produce business, moneylending, and her wives’ trading. She made so much money that she acquired 24 wives, all of whom contributed to the family’s wealth and status—and her husband’s because men basically owned their wives, but Nwambata became so rich that the town began calling him di Nwabata, i.e. “Nwabata’s husband”, which he probably wasn’t fond of.
Women could also earn their way into local politics.
Wealthy women could buy titles later in life when they’d become known for both their wealth and son-birthing. Titled women were the mouthpieces of their towns and villages and had veto power in village constitutional assemblies. Women exerted authority alongside men and both ruled collaboratively.
These women didn’t wait for men to hand them anything.
As much as their society mapped their lives for them from birth to death, Igbo women in the old days did not simply accept the map. They instead went hard. As scholar Susan Kingsley Kent puts it, “not thinking of themselves as oppressed or kept in what used to be called ‘the domestic sphere’—like their female counterparts in Western societies even in quite recent history—these women could be secure enough in their own sense of importance and worth to take an active part in social transformation, to try to effect change, and even to see advantages for themselves in change that was properly regulated (by them).”
But again, Igbo women of the old days were not their era’s only exceptional women. The women across many cultures of would-be Nigeria were as critical to their societies as Igbo women were to theirs. Scholar Judith van Allen’s statement that “a woman’s status was determined more by her own achievements than by the achievements of her husband” may, therefore, be applied across the cultures.
So where did we get the imbalance inherent in “patron” culture?
Parts of that culture may be traced back to colonisation.
Part 2 of the series will be published on May 1, 2018.