Contemporary Women’s Issues in Nigeria

It was a privilege to attend the Contemporary Women’s Issues Workshop led by Diane Balser, the International Liberation Reference Person for Women, in Lagos, Nigeria, this August. I learnt so much and left feeling lighter than I have in years, emotionally and mentally empowered, and awake to the need for women to work together for our liberation—irrespective of nomenclature, status, or age.

Two of Diane’s opening remarks set the tone for the whole workshop for me:

1. No matter our age or body type, or whether we have married or reproduced or not, we are each fully human and absolutely perfect just the way we are.

2. Women do two-thirds of the world’s work but own only one-tenth of the world’s wealth. Women’s unpaid reproductive and nurturing labour is the most important work for the human race, but instead of being rewarded for it women are denigrated and oppressed.

We are socialized to believe that we are less and must put men first. Boys and men are taught that we exist to please them. They carry a strong sense of entitlement. I discharged feelings of inferiority from when, as a child, I couldn’t get my father’s attention, not even to look at my school report card with my excellent grades. Meanwhile my brothers’ report cards were scrutinized and their education was taken seriously.

It is often observed that we women are our own worst enemies, but this is because of internalized oppression.

Our mothers usually gave us our first taste of male preference and sexism. At the workshop, woman after woman wept over early hurts from her mother. My mother questioned and criticized my every choice, the same way she questioned and doubted herself. It was exhausting to work on those memories, to rage against that treatment, to cry hard over those hurts. But afterward I felt light, like a sunbeam peeping out from behind the clouds. I couldn’t stop hugging people!

Internalized sexism makes us put our relationships with men above those with our fellow women. Even when our relationships with men cause us pain, we still prioritize them and “dumb ourselves down” [suppress our intelligence] and “tush ourselves up” [make ourselves “attractive”] to be in them. Society tells us that without a man we are failures. Our mothers served our fathers and put up with [tolerated] every sort of abuse and belittlement. Now many of us are locked in the same cycle. We render the same thankless service and wait for annual Mother’s Day celebrations for a crumb of appreciation.

It’s high time [long overdue] that we women prioritise ourselves and appreciate our intelligence, so we can rationally challenge every manifestation of sexism. This is a hard teaching for African women. It goes against our cultures, religions, and home training and threatens our marriages and other relationships. Diane was extremely tactful in presenting it. I love her for it. She noted that no culture is better than another and that marriages, and other male-female relationships, in the Western world are fraught with violence, oppression, and other results of sexism. The point is not to become Westernised but to be liberated.

My own husband, wonderful ally that he is, was a tad [a little] uncomfortable when he heard what we had learnt. I think it’s scary for everybody—men and women alike—to change from long-internalized patterns of oppression. It can feel overwhelming to think and live outside the agenda of society, to have different values. It’s extremely important for us to raise our children (male and female) with equity and respect so that they don’t fall into our ugly patterns. And liberation need not come by direct confrontation. It can come by continuous enlightenment and cooperation.

We looked at the sexual exploitation of women in domestic, social, employment, and commercial settings. Near-naked women are used to advertise virtually every commodity, even toothpaste and engine oil. Objectifying women’s bodies for men’s sexual gratification is extremely sexist, and many women suffer trauma from not looking “good enough.” We shouldn’t give men’s libidos power over our self esteem!

The beautification industry sets standards of beauty that make us strive to look sexually enticing and youthful and pumps billions of dollars into making us believe that we are not good enough until we fix something about ourselves. There is also a very racial component. Women of the Global Majority are not regarded as beautiful until they “fix” themselves to look more Caucasian—by using bleaching creams, hair relaxers, wigs, weaves, and so on—and all this means money in the bank for the industry. The truth is that every woman is beautiful, regardless of race.

It was an impactful workshop. Diane Balser—skillful teacher, real wonder woman—I am grateful to you for challenging me to claim my intelligence. Marion [Marion Ouphouet, an RC leader in Seattle, Washington, USA]—thank you for supporting Diane so thoughtfully and for your insightful counseling. Janet [Janet Wambui Kabue, Area Reference Person for Nairobi, Kenya]—I loved your concise history of colonialism in Africa. Chioma [Chioma Okonkwo, Area Reference Person for Lagos, Nigeria]—a big thanks to you and your team for putting together such a wonderful workshop. My sisters from all over Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Benin, Togo, and Cameroun—it was great meeting and reconnecting with you. To my sisters the world over—I love you all.

Nez Ibekwe

Awka, Anambra State, Nigeria

Reprinted from the RC e-mail discussion list for leaders of women

(Present Time 193, October 2018)

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00