Author: Aisha Kankiya*
Every time I go to Nigeria I get this amazing feeling, something that gives me a sense of belonging. The only downfall is that I always have to adapt my personality to the different environment that surrounds me. This is especially true when I am around women. In my opinion, in Nigeria, women can be categorised into three different social groups: liberal feminists, the elites, and the impoverished village women. My experience between the three groups has helped me to learn about their interaction and communication with each other, or in this case, the lack thereof. This lack of communication and interaction takes its toll on the impoverished women.
When I went to Nigeria in 2010, I was amazed by the response of the social groups to my arrival. The elites had a tendency to praise, as I have obtained a degree at the age of 22, which is uncommon in Nigeria. A degree, viewed by the elite, is a thing of great pride and a chance to earn a generous income. This is where I realized that my thoughts on education, specifically the purpose and benefits, were very different from theirs. The purpose of education, for me, is to make positive a contribution to society, but for many, including the women in the village, it also means a larger income.
In contrast to my interactions with the elite, my experience with the women in the village was astonishing, but in some ways expected. Most women, especially from the older generations, commonly asked “so Aisha when are you going to get married?” I replied with, “I will marry, but first I want to get a masters degree”. Most of the women were hesitant with my plans, and expressly stated that it was “about time to stop studying and get married.” They were focusing on their experience, stating that by the time they were my age they were already married with at least three children. I was not surprised by the response I received.
In my opinion, due to the combination of early marriage and economic hardship, many rural and non-rural women do not have the opportunity to pursue their education. In the Nigerian villages, especially in my native village, a majority of women and young girls are married between the ages of eleven and fifteen. Because of traditional norms that guide the expected role of women in society, women and girls doubt their position to make change within the society. Many in Nigeria, especially the older generations and men, uphold these degrading views of women. Early marriage, lack of economic independence, the lack of education, and discrimination hold many women and girls back from reaching their full potential. All of these obstacles make many individuals, including women themselves, doubt the power they hold within society.
The first two sets of women were an enlightening view into the roles and views of women in Nigerian society. What we have in Nigeria is a backwards mentality. We do not realise how powerful and influential women are. There are skilful and talented women who can contribute to, and create, a gender responsive society in Nigeria. This leads me to my last group, who I classify as the liberal feminists.
Many women now take part in Nigerian politics, and compete for higher ministerial positions and top positions at international organisations. Years ago this was something unimaginable. In Nigeria, when you hear the term minister or president it is automatically affiliated with a man. However, educated Nigerian women will not settle and become the typical wife of the elite, nor do they want to live a life in villages. These women have forged a new path in society by pursuing their degrees and finding positions within not only the government, but in other top companies. They want to feel independent from the shackles placed on them by men and societal norms. The competition for these positions empowers them, and frees them from being categorised.
Although these changes are promising, little has changed for women where it matters the most: in the village. In order to liberate women across Nigeria, these three societal groups must work together. The liberal feminists’ must use their positions within the government to promote gender equality across Nigeria. The rural women have to challenge societal norms and, along with the elite, place pressure on those in government to provide mandatory education for all children, including girls.
The only way for this to happen is to lift the veil of ignorance. These three groups can help each other. The rural women, if organised effectively, can create a strong force that promotes and protects women rights in the community. This organisation could capture the attention of the elites who can endorse and promote the organisations future projects. The most powerful influence can come from women in government. Although there are women’s groups in government and a ministry of woman affairs, I believe that the policies developed are confined to those in government and does not reach women in rural communities. If women in rural communities successfully organize themselves and can find a strong women who will speak on their behalf, they can effectively lobby the government to enact policies and legislation that will give women and girls the opportunity to create a future for themselves. A future where they can break the stereotypes and discrimination surrounding them, where they can go to school, earn a degree, find their ideal job, and, if they chose, have a family.
*Aisha Kankiya, was born in the United Kingdom but her family is originally from Nigeria. She has recently graduated with a BA Honours in Spanish and completed an MA in International Relations. She carries out independent research on topics such as food security, youth in Nigeria, also Afro-Brasil culture. For fun, she enjoys using twitter and keeping up to date with all that is happening in Africa and Nigeria. She likes to use twitter to connect with people from all walks of life, and engage in twitter debates about social issues in Nigeria. You can follow her at http://twitter.com/#!/aypeq