Harnessing the potential of women in northern Nigeria
In order to score some cheap political points, Mr. Ahmed Yerima, early in the life of the current political dispensation, imposed Islamic law, known as Shari’a, in little known and impoverished Zamfara State. His action was to have reverberating effects during and long after he left office and became a senator and married a minor to deepen what some have called his worst sin against womenfolk. Certain parts of the north went up in flames and lives were lost. Majority of women in Northern Nigeria still hold him responsible for setting the region back hundreds of years after they had begun to achieve a measure of liberation previously denied them.
As one such female activist, Mrs. Aisha Umar, succinctly submitted, “Ahmed Yerima imposed Shari’a law for political reasons and then other governors caved in. What they did not know was that they gave more powers (actually yielded their own political powers) to the religious establishments and set Northern Nigeria backwards far more than they met it!”
This was part of the views, which the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival (KABAFEST 2017), early last month, threw up among many other engaging issues about conditions in Northern Nigeria that are otherwise less known in other parts of the country. Significantly, issues about women and their limited potential as partners in progress came up in a panel discussion, ‘Harnessing the potentials of women in Northern Nigeria.’
It had three women, who are actively involved in women’s rights for development campaigns on the panel – Mrs. Aisha Umar, President, International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), Nigeria, Mrs. Hauwa Evelyn Shekerau, and Secretary General, Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA), Mrs. Saudatu Mahdi, with a journalist, Kadaria Ahmed, moderating.
The panel had its premise on the fact that ‘women make up half of Nigeria’s population. Yet they have limited access to quality education, untreated health challenges, lack of skills and aspects of traditions hampering them (women) from contributing meaningfully to the economy.’ If this is true of women in Nigeria generally, what about women in Northern Nigeria, who face more than double rigours to scale through these huddles? Is enough being done to ensure that women in Northern Nigeria have as much opportunity as their counterparts in the south to achieve their full potentials?
Mahdi, who rose to the position of a Permanent Secretary in a federal ministry before founding an NGO to negotiate for women’s rights, argued that it was no longer tenable for women to be sidelined in the development of any society, especially that of Northern Nigeria that is grossly lacking on many development indices. She said, in relation to statistics and the balance of numbers, women’s centrality in supporting the economy of families has become inevitable. She condemned the socialization of girls in the region that places a glass ceiling to how high they can aspire.
According to Mahdi, “On a rational basis, the balance of numbers has tipped in favour of women. We have more women and girls needing to support families. So, they need education to be dignified citizens contributing to the development of Northern Nigeria. Northern women are brought up in a socialization that she can only aspire to a certain level – just the ABC level of education and no more. The opportunity of education and exposure are limited and this limits the average woman in Northern Nigeria. She lacks capacity because her self-esteem is taken away. Fathers need to do more to instill confidence in their girl children.”
For Shekerau, the issue of cultural and religious misrepresentation plays a key role in limiting the potentials of women in the region. As she put it, “People use them (culture and religion) to denigrade, oppress and repress women. Women are not given space to express themselves and rise to their full potentials. In spite of the constraints of women, they still stand up to do things. So, there is a potential in her that can still be explored.”
Umar also expressed anger at the way women are treated in that part of the country, arguing that the dress culture imposed on women is contrived to hinder women, noting, “Specific damage is done to women when they are excluded from the development process. The way women dress is politicised. In fact, it is made to take away women’s rights. People shouldn’t be made to dress in a particular way. Too many constraints are put in the way of women.”
Whereas Umar and Shekerau are emphatic that it was time to deconstruct and challenge their male-folk head on to dislodge the petty prejudices mounted against women, Mahdi would rather endorse a diplomatic approach, although she also admitted to using all available measures as given situations demanded.
“Unless we dislodge these cultural myths to make women play active roles and so mitigate against these issues, we might not go anywhere,” Shekerau advised. “No one way of negotiating these issues by giving it different names. Another way I believe is to challenge it by addressing it. Islam and Christianity and human rights are universal concepts.”
“To challenge and deconstruct the position of men is going on a wrong footing,” Mahdi cautioned. “What we have come to learn is to negotiate, to look at the nomenclature of the relative status. All along, we should speak of dialogue, negotiation instead of confronting. It’s an innate thing; I want to be in the room with the people who have refused to look at me and accept me for who I am. We can win the game without fighting.”
The three women were in one accord that the culture, tradition and religion practised in the region have been deployed to cage and repress women and that the time has come to fight and win the battle. The instance of Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s searing novel, Season of Crimson Blossom, about what a woman should do and not as dictated by culture and reigion, readily come to mind as an example of how women in Northern Nigeria are emotionally and psychologically repressed from attaining true potentials on account of religious and cultural impediments.
“We have hit rock-bottom and we don’t have a choice,” Umar asserted emphatically. “The generation of girls denied education is now retracing their steps. They now know they are left behind. Parents who refused to send their girl children to school are now regretting it. They now face the problem of promiscuity, which they initially feared to send them to school – these girls now use their bodies to feed themselves (since they are not economically empowered any other way).
“So, the people to convince are the traditional rulers. The psyche in the North is that women already have the power of the ‘other room’ – (sexual power) and that giving them economic power is lethal; they just dread it!”
However, Mahdi proposed that educating parents in Northern Nigeria on how the world currently works is the likely way forward, noting, “Parents’ limited understanding (on the need) to educate a child, that you don’t lord it over your wife, is the key. Illiteracy in the north is a myth; mothers are literate in Arabic (but it doesn’t seem to be enough). Culture is wrongly misconstrued across Nigerian tribes.”
While Shekerau canvassed behavioural change communication module so “parents know the benefits of girl child education; the potentials of women are there, but they have to be harnessed through political will,” Mahdi sued for legislation and encouraged Northern politicians to be courageous to “give provision for the weak and to deconstruct the northern (oligarchy) of impunity (that infringes on the rights of girls and women). We need to have zero tolerance to injustice. So education, legislation and justice” are the pillars that will liberate women from inhibiting practices.
Mahdi also made a proposition, “Educated Northern women should come out to do more for other less privileged ones. They should not feel comfortable in the homes of their rich husbands. Men must also take responsibility as leaders of the home to have helpers. Women need to organise, not agonise over these issues and work in cooperation. Women have been talking to themselves; they need to mobilise men to join women, reach out and talk to those defaulting on women’s issues.”
Umar specifically held Yerima responsible for the continuing backwardness of women in the north, but she also encouraged state governments to “train more female teachers to make the classrooms safe for girls so they don’t get molested.”