The original idea for this piece was to write a short essay on Nigerian Feminism over the past 50 years. However there are still those who feel that “feminism” is unAfrican and I feel there needs to be a discussion on what Nigerian Feminism is before one can begin to name Nigerian feminists. I give an example. Earlier this year I was at a workshop on Gender and Militarization and we were working through ideas around “feminist methodology”. One of the participants asked for clarification on the term ‘feminist’. From the discussion it soon became clear that many of those present were reluctant to use the term which they associated with “lesbianism” or “man-hating” which were “unAfrican” and feminism was a western idea and as such not something they wished to be a part of. Some consensus was reached but anything to do with same-sex desire was dismissed by all but two women including myself. What should have come next, was a discussion on who or what can be said to be authentically African? Who is the holder of this power to define who or what is African which assumes a static or fixed condition? How can they do so given, for example, the cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity in a geographical entity of nearly 1 billion people? Even to say it is “unNigerian” is equally problematic.
My understanding of African / Nigerian feminism lies somewhere between indigeious feminisms which have always existed in the sense that Nigerian women have always fought against local oppressive conditions as well as more recently colonialism; and contemporary feminism which is relatively new and although it has its foundations in Europe, Africa / Nigeria has developed it’s own contemporary indigenous feminisms which struggle against fundamentalist and oppressive conditions such as female genital mutilation, forced marriages, widowhood rites, same sex relationships and so on. The point is that feminism is not just about women, its about creating a new form of social relationships based on equality, mutual respect and justice.
So instead I am going to focus on some of the Nigerian women (some may identify as feminists, some may not) who have taken action towards achieving justice and social, economic, environmental and political change. Women who I consider to be progressive and who have challenged and resisted oppressive conditions and or laws by taking action either individually or collectively. The women mentioned largely remain nameless but their actions have not been forgotten. They have much to teach us with their courage and tenacity. I hope that those who read the piece can add to it and possibly we can begin the discussion around what we mean by ‘Nigerian FeminismS”. The list of women is not definitive – it is my list and I invite readers to share the names of their role models and heroines.
Although pre-independence, it would be impossible and inappropriate not to mention to two important acts of resistance in Nigeria’s history. The Women’s War of 1929 [also known as the Aba Women’s Riots] and the Abeokuta market women protests of the early 1940s. Both protests centered around market women, the colonial imposition of unfair taxation and indirect rule in southern Nigeria. In the Women’s War, which lasted nearly two months, market women gathered at the “Native Administration” centers in Owerri, Calabar and towns across South Eastern Nigeria to protest against taxes imposed by Warrant Chiefs who were seen as bullies on the payroll the colonial masters. The women, some 25,000 strong in places, attacked the colonial system – prisons, courts, European owned shops as well as the Warrant Officers themselves. The women were able to force the colonial authorities to drop the taxes and curb the Warrant Officers. Their actions were mportant because this was a Women’s ‘revolt’ against injustice and also because it was the first notable challenge to colonial authority. This show of resistance must have influenced the movement for independence which was largely led by men. [For more on the Aba Women’s Riot see Igbo Kwenu]
The Abeokuta market women protests came almost a decade later but again the women revolted against colonial taxes and the failure of the traditional rulers to defend their demands and challenge the colonial masters. Instead under indirect rule, the Alake of Abeokuta was the person ultimately responsible for tax collection.
The issue of taxation was a particularly sore issue for the women of Abeokuta who were amongst the first females to be subjected to tax by the colonial government. Girls were taxed at age 15 whilst boys 16 and wives were taxed separately from their husbands irrespective of their income. The women considered the tax as “foreign, unfair and excessive” but they also objected to the method of collection. The educator and feminist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti [FRK] who was at that time headteacher at Abeokuta Grammar School learned of the women’s struggle and formed the Abeokuta Women’s Union [AWU] in which the ‘elite” Abeokuta ‘ladies’ joined in solidarity with the market women of Egbaland.
The AWU became a huge due-paying organisation with some 20,000 women as members and they were able to organise huge demonstrations. It was a highly disciplined organisation and everyone was expected to follow the rules. The anti-tax protest action was a long and protracted one in which FRK was at the head leading the women in the struggle which eventually resulted in the temporary abdication of the Alake of Abeokuta. The protest consisted of mass demonstrations and refusals to pay the tax. FRK apparently led training sessions in her compound for these demonstrations where she explained to the women how to cover their eyes, noses and mouths with cloth when tear gas was thrown. She also instructed them to pick up the canisters of tear gas and throw them back at the police. The demonstrations were called “picnics” or “festivals” by the women as they were unable to get permits. The women were utterly fearless and even challenged the “ORO”, an entirely male “thing or ritual” said to have supernatural powers. At one point FRK seizes the ORO which resembles a stick and displayed it in her home. The anti-tax protests took a large toll on FRK and the women but they stuck with it and eventually succeeded in their demands. [ORO – I would appreciate more clarity on this so please email or leave a comment if you have any additional information]
Political actvists in the early women’s movement
Madam Margaret Expo, Oyinkan Abayomi – founder of the Nigerian Women’s Party, Lady Ademola and Folayegbe Akintunde-Ighodalo are just a few of the pioneers in the formation of the Nigerian Women’s movement concerned with capacity building, employment, suffrage and increasing women’s political participation. What was common to all these women was the belief that women are not and should not be subordinate to men. There was a recognition of the contradiction between women’s role in the public sphere and that of the private which needed to be challenged.
The last 50 years have seen very few protests equal to those in the post independence era other than those by women of the Niger Delta. I will return to this later but first I would like to mention a number of individual Nigerian women who have made a difference in the struggle for social justice and who I consider to be women of action and feminists.
Human Rights activists
Dorothy Aken’Ova – For her work with young women on sexual and reproductive health in Minna, Niger State.
Hauwa Ibrahim – For her work as a human rights lawyer defending women sentenced under sharia law.
Ayo Obe- A Human Right Lawyer. Was once with the Civil Liberty Organisation.
Chibogu Obinwa: A human rights activist with Baobab for Women’s Human Rights in Nigeria.
Josephine Nzerem: For her very important and often forgotten group of Nigerian women – Executive Director of Human Angle, an organization that works to provide protection, advocacy and justice for widows and their right of inheritance.
Josephine Effah- Chukuma: For her work in establishing Project Alert to protect women from sexual, domestic and gender- based violence. Her organization provides temporary accommodation for victims of abuse while they help seek justice, counseling and medical help.
Amina Mama, for ten years Amina was the director of the African Gender Institute in Cape Town. One of her main areas of research and expertise is ‘Militarism’ in Africa.
Ayesha Imam, founder of Baobab for Women’s Rights, specifically her groundbreaking work on women’s rights in Islamic law
Funmilayo Olonisakin is the Director of Conflict, Security and Development Group, Kings College London. She is the founder of the Fellowship programme for African women on Peace and Security.
Funmi Iyanda – For her work in broadcasting and her award winning show New Dawn and her courage to address the those uncomfortable issues and challenge many of the stereotypes and hypocrises that exist in our society.
Nigerian Curiosity – For her commitment to Nigerian democracy and analysis of Nigerian politics through her excellent blog —
Toyin Ajao: For her blog “The Activist” with which she raises awareness on women’s rights, gender equality and the security of African women.
Ore Somolu – For her work with women and technology —
Buchi Emecheta – For her writing on Nigerian women and the intersection of race, gender and sexuality in Britain.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – For challenging patriarchy and homophobia in her writing and for having the courage to engage Nigerians with their history, particularly Biafra.
Unoma Azuah – For her work as a progressive writer and mentor and like Adichie for challenging homophobia and fundamentalism
Bibi Bakare-Yusuf – For her work in promoting the writings of Nigerian and other African writers through her publishing house, Cassava Republic.
Lucy Azubuike – For her work on women’s sexuality such as “Like a Virgin” which challenges oppressive traditions such as female genital mutilation [FGM]
Hafsat Abiola Constello — Through yearly staging of V-Monologue play in Nigeria (running for 4/5 yrs now). Stories of abuse against women, FMG, forced marriage, disinheritance of women are told.
To return to the collective actions of women in the post-independence period. Apart from periodic protests by market women in major urban areas such as Lagos, there is no doubt that women of the Niger Delta have been the most visible in their struggle against the multinational oil companies and Nigerian military occupation of their lands. During the height of the Ogoni Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People [MOSOP] in the early 1990s, the Federation of Ogoni Women [FOWA] were at the forefront of the struggle. The troubles in Ogoniland came to a head in November 1993 when the Nigerian military government began a three-year campaign of violence, murder, rape, burning, looting, beatings and torture, against the Ogoni people. For the Ogoni women, resistance was incorporated into every part of their daily life as they lived through Shell’s destruction of their environment and the presence of the Nigerian military. The women faced harassment on their farms, on the way to their markets, in their villages minding their homes, and at night when they were asleep. In this way their very existence became part of their resistance as they insisted on being visible and became more and more politicized engaging with elders and youths in the struggle.
FOWA soon gained voting rights within MOSOP and in this way FOWA was able to use a strategy of collective action as an act of resistance in their struggle and coordinate their activities with men in the community. Another strategy was to use their position and status as mothers to work with the youths who were, in effect, their sons or the age of their sons. Similar tactics have been used by other women in the Niger Delta. Women from the Egiland in Rivers State organised with youths to protest against the environmental damage caused by Elf oil as well as demanding jobs for their husbands and sons.
Between 2002 and 2004 thousands of women from the Ijaw, Itsekiri, Urhobo and Iljae nationalities organized a series of unprecedented protests and occupations of oil facilities belonging to Chevron and Shell including Chevron’s main facility at Escravos in Delta State. Young and elderly women with the support of their families and communities, held steadfast until their demands for development in their communities was agreed upon. These protests were especially important as both the oil companies and Nigerian military were unable to use their usual divide and rule tactics to break up the women’s occupation.
Since the 2004 uprising there have been sporadic protests by women in the region such as between May and August this year when women from the Ekpan and Ugborodo communities in Delta State demonstrated in frustration against the continued lack of development and the erosion of lands in their community. Unfortunately I do not have the space to present a critical examination on the success and failure of the various Niger Delta women’s uprising but on the whole they have not been sustainable largely because they have centered around a specific set of demands which when met, the protest ends until the next set of demands or crisis occurs.
In conclusion, reading the media, one would be forgiven for thinking that for example, Niger Deltan women, market women who have always been extremely organised and vocal, were invisible, silent and passive victims of violence and oppression. The same goes for commentary by political activists, social researchers and humanitarian organizations on the active participation of Nigerian women in general. This needs to change because it is evident to me that if we are to achieve any meaningful change then we should start by studying and documenting the actions of these pioneering and contemporary women and realise that within us we have an enormous amount of knowledge and the power to bring about change. It is women who successfully challenged the colonial authorities and traditional rulers. It is women who have been at the forefront of the non-violent struggle for justice in the Niger Delta though this has largely been ignored. It is feminists like Amina Mama, Lucy Azubuike and Chimamanda Adichie who are placing women at the center in their writing and artistic work. This is not to elevate women to a superior place in our societies but to recognize that it is in the interest of men and everyone irrespective of their gender, status, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference to engage with feminism so as to create an environment where radical transformation can take place.
Thanks to Toyin Ajao for providing additional names of human rights activists for this post.