In March, Nigeria’s senate voted down a gender equality law that pledged to eliminate discrimination in politics, education and employment, protect women’s land rights and tackle violence against women. Both Christian and Muslim senators objected to the bill, saying it was against their religious beliefs. The move prompted widespread anger among activists, who accused the government of ignoring the dangers facing Nigerian women, including sexual assault, abduction and forced marriage.
In her debut novel, “The Secret Lives of the Four Wives,” Nigerian feminist, poet and author Lola Shoneyin addresses polygamy and the damaging impact it has on women. Women & Girls Hub spoke to her on a recent trip to London about the failed gender rights bill, Nigeria’s troubling religious identity and the lack of women in government.
Women & Girls Hub: What was your reaction to the bill failing?
Lola Shoneyin: I was deflated and disgusted in some ways. The world is opening up and more women are occupying and being entrusted with positions of leadership. Britain has got a female prime minister and there is a good chance Hillary Clinton will be president of America. Angela Merkel is making a significant mark on the world stage.
But in the Nigerian senate, the rights of the girl-child, access to education and the rights of widows are being debated. Women make immense contributions to our society; there are many families that survive economically because of a woman’s entrepreneurship, her resourcefulness and her creativity. But when it comes to giving them the rights and freedoms they deserve, Nigeria keeps showing the world that those who have been elected to ensure those rights become law are not equipped to do so.
Women & Girls Hub: Why did the bill fail?
Shoneyin: The moment women are educated there is often a confidence and an intellectual intelligence that follows. They develop aspirations and inevitably impact their communities in a positive and tangible way. Perhaps that’s what some senators are afraid of. In a defiantly patriarchal society, educated, independent women are a threat to the status quo.
Women & Girls Hub: Is the problem religion?
Shoneyin: There seems to be some confusion about what takes pre-eminence: Is it the constitution or the holy books? It’s not a question of somehow trying to pass bills that are somehow agreeable to all religions. We should also be looking at our own history, modern science, psychology, etc. What will result in Nigeria’s progress should be the chief guideline.
Women & Girls Hub: What more needs to be done?
Shoneyin: It’s very important we have more women involved in politics. Nigeria has had some really strong female leaders in the past. We have had women lead armies and take down governments but, perhaps somewhere along the line, we became complacent and stopped challenging patriarchy. Things are changing again, though, and that’s great. I love social media and how it illustrates the way young women are thinking.
Women & Girls Hub: Do most women in Nigeria feel they need more equality?
Shoneyin: As an individual, I’ve never seen myself as being different to my brothers because my parents didn’t bring me up that way. In fact, growing up I was surrounded by very fiercely independent women, many of whom were appreciated by strong confident men. Maybe it’s partly a cultural thing and I know the same cannot be said for most women.
For instance, this particular bill largely addressed some of the injustice and the degrading attitudes that the poor and helpless have to contend with. Some parts of the bill would have empowered girls and women in northern Nigeria. Over two-thirds of girls in the region aged between 15 and 19 years can’t read. This shows that education has been devalued and the leaders who did nothing to improve on those figures should be held accountable. My 14-year-old daughter is learning how to code. I am beginning to wonder whether not knowing how to code will limit me in some way in the future. It is sometimes difficult to believe that there are so many Nigerian women in 2016 who can’t recognize their own names on a sheet of paper, who cannot read a doctor’s prescription or a road sign.
Women & Girls Hub: What will happen to the bill now?
Shoneyin: Women will not get the wave of change they’d hoped for. Women deserve a strong shift that would secure their opportunities to aspire to and achieve success. With so much concern about offending religious sensitivities, one is reminded that when it comes to suppressing the rights of women, no tool has been more powerful than religion. Our humanity is important, too.