Sometime in 2016, a security officer at a Lagos immigration office spoke to me discreetly, suggesting that I advice a fellow visitor not to wear ‘that type of dress’ next time, or he may embarrass her.
A few weeks later, at a bar in Lagos, a friend laughed nervously about the risks in leaving her drink behind as she went out to take a call.
Earlier this year, I found myself in an agonising debate with a keke driver who tried to convince me that women should not sit in the front of his vehicle.
These types of incidents show the necessity of continuous public awareness on women and gender issues in Nigeria. Unfortunately, much of the current debate in the media has involved men attempting to lead the conversation ‘sympathetically’, or men who have reintegrated old prejudices into a ‘modern’ setting, or men who have simply made gender issues about men. It must be quite hard to be a woman in Nigeria. Our dysfunctional political system already afflicts every one of us, but we work to inflict further mental, emotional and physical violence on Nigerian women in both private and public spheres.
It is a worrying indicator of our social psychology that Nigerian men are either oblivious to these systems of oppression, or justify them under the banners of cultural, religious and legal stereotypes. Unfortunately, this is the normal run of affairs between oppressors and oppressed. The slave-owner does not recognise the complaints of the slave. The rich do not understand the complaints of the poor. The political elite believes the masses are lazy and self-indulgent. It takes conscious mental work for a member of a privileged class to identify with the issues of a marginalised class. This process requires an intellectual humility – a willingness to shed preconceived notions and learn new perspectives. For many Nigerian men, this seems too much to ask. It is easier to produce opinions out of bias, and reason through prejudice. We then impose a male superiority from misguided learning, solidifying it in the name of culture, in the name of religion, and in the name of law.
This smug satisfaction with our biases is derived from what the experts call male privilege. Male privilege is what allows us to: comfortably treat rape as an opportunity to interrogate the victim rather than the perpetrator; mutilate the genitals of girls; impose restrictions on women’s access to reproductive healthcare; compel young girls into early marriage; pressure women into choosing between career and family roles; prevent women from inheriting property; and demonise self-aware women who choose not to play by any of these rules and roles.
Male privilege is what enables men to act as ‘benevolent’ advisers on, and communal guardians of, the female body and genitals without realising the inherent absurdity of such a proposition. We praise and reward women who conform to expected roles, setting them up as ‘shining examples’ to shame those who don’t fit in with our ideas.
Men easily claim complexity as physical, intellectual and emotional beings. We claim a diversity of feelings and desires and a yearning for the freedom to pursue the goals derived from these. But we insist that women should be one-dimensional, like stock characters in a poorly written novel. We want to identify the women we engage with either as fully good or fully bad, while everything else is labelled ‘She’s crazy’. If a woman says she is strong enough, we will deny her a claim to fragility. If a woman says she is independent enough, we will deny her a claim to romance. Men seem unable to grasp that women can be truly and fully as human in exactly all the ways we attribute to our own sex.
It is not enough that you have never raped or inflicted violence on a woman. Whether directly or indirectly, all of us men are part of this system of things. We are complicit when we choose to warn women about abusive men, instead of actually doing something about the abuse, we are complicit when we invoke ‘codes’ to protect violent behaviour, we are complicit when we enjoy the benefits of being respected as ‘a man’ in our use of media platforms, social goods, and public space. Being liberal is not enough when we are not liberal enough to do something about oppressive conduct.
Nigeria has its own special brand of patriarchal foolishness. Our own prejudices are further sustained by a progressively deteriorating public education system, an unyielding externalisation of (what should be internal) religious and spiritual beliefs, and a socioeconomic classism shaped by the political patronage system. If the only crime in Nigeria is to be poor, then the guiltiest person in Nigeria is the poor female child.
I do not presume to speak for women here. No man can fully speak for women without having biologically lived as one. But we can – and we should – speak up against obvious marginalisation and unequal privileges in full awareness of our own participation as an oppressive class. There is a lot more to learn for men willing to step outside their comfortable ‘manly’ roles. In fact, nothing I have said here is new knowledge. Yet, it remains a strange idea to many of us that the only difference between a man and a woman is in the reproductive biology.
Ironically, that should be a very simple thing to understand.
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Ever wondered about the class structure of Nigerian society? Read the mini-series on the Hierarchy of Nigerian Policy.