Thursday, 3 April 2014
The unofficial-official position of President Goodluck Jonathan’s government on women can be summarised thus: Thirty-three-one-thirds. This figure reflects the size of the national cake that should compulsorily be handed to women. It is reflected in the composition of Jonathan’s cabinet and that’s one of the few campaign promises he can boast he fulfilled.
There is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in the Ministry of finance; Diezani-Alison-Madueke in the petroleum ministry; and there was Stella Oduah in the Aviation Ministry. These are key positions that have been historically held by men while women have largely functioned in unthreatening spaces such as “Women Affairs.”
I am however far less fixated on what share of the cake women get. I am more concerned about whose hands hold the knife that does the cutting...
Some recent examples of Jonathan’s magnanimity towards women: Out of the Federal Government’s 20 slots to the ongoing national confab, it was specifically stated that six must go to women. Lately, after the Nigeria Immigration Service job test and stampede, Jonathan launched a lose-a-family-member-collect-three-jobs-bonanza. In the directive that accompanied the offer, it was again stated that of the three family members of the deceased to be employed, at least one must be a woman.
These are significant steps and yes, we should give credit when it is due: Jonathan has largely been consistent in his pursuit of stamping female face on the bodies that stomp through the Nigerian corridors of power.
But, does this mean that Jonathan loves women? Do his efforts make him a feminist? A quick definition for those who equate feminism with misandry and imagine feminists as testicle-crunching ideologues: a feminist is anyone – male or female – who believes in, and actively works towards a society where men and women are treated equally.
So, is Jonathan a feminist or just a benevolent patriarch? And the driving motivation of his thirty-three-one-thirdspolicy? Tokenism? To what end? Getting the so-called women’s vote? Or, is this, for Jonathan, a deep conviction that biology is not destiny and nobody’s options in life should ever be limited simply because of their body parts?
Recently, I saw an advertorial in the newspaper pitting Jonathan’s “gender achievements” against those of the rival All Progressives Congress. The rant gleefully celebrates the appointment of women into “juicy” offices by Jonathan but it ultimately shortchanges itself. This women-propaganda team does not seem to have reflected well enough that it is buying into a liberalism project that only disguises –not demolishes – the workings of patriarchal power. If this line of thinking is not challenged, it can easily become a pattern that will be replicated all over Nigeria by government aides who always want easy answers.
The Nigerian society, if they must know, is largely homosocial. Men occupy the power positions and from where they dispense small favours to women. That is why political parties have the position of “Woman Leader,” a subtle suggestion that women will not be allowed to lead men. Men occupy all the frontline positions but created such a category for women to manage “women issues” without disrupting the mechanism that reproduces privileges their maleness confers on them. On the Peoples Democratic Party website, it’s unsurprising that the only woman in the National Working Committee is Kema Chikwe, “the Woman Leader.”
The question to never lose sight of is: How far can the thirty-three-one-third-policy go to strike at the roots of gender inequality –and all its consequences – in Nigeria?
Any “women-agenda” by any administration that does not reach the woman on the street, by giving her charge of her own life through quality education, adequate health care, financial independence, protection under the law from sexual and spousal abuse, reproductive justice, and give her equal opportunities for self-fulfilment, is merely superficial.
It amounts to treating the symptoms rather than a systematic engagement with the various sites where inequality is produced in our society.
Last year, the Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Hajiya Zainab Maina, was quoted as saying that 70 per cent of Nigerian rural women live below poverty line. That is a woman-agenda that should be activated. The President would be more feminist if he speaks to the cause of women in emergency situations in Nigeria. They are often victims of sexual/ gender-based violence, and rehabilitation efforts should be specifically targeted at them for this reason.
It is important to note that efforts at upstaging inequality in our culture are not solely the job of the President; He should coopt everybody. Yet, we cannot ignore that by virtue of his office, the president’s ethos can lend a sense of urgency to these issues if he addresses them.
Take, for instance, President Barack Obama’s stance on women issues. He has not only employed women to key positions in his government, he also canvasses equal pay for them. He relentlessly critiques the system that does not make enough room for women who balance career with motherhood. He takes a defined stance on reproductive rights and health care for women. Or, a former Burkina Faso president, Thomas Sankara, whose campaign for women empowerment was phenomenal. Sankara recognised that no liberation project any country embarks upon can succeed if the women are not central to such efforts.
While Jonathan’s administration has undeniably done something for women, enough to inspire other women, I insist that the dream of feminists is not for a few women to be admitted into the elite men’s club. Rather, it is for women to have access to as much opportunities, resources and power as men. It begins with challenging social practices called “culture” (both social and religious) under which Nigerian men tuck their chauvinism. It goes beyond mobilising women to act as circus monkeys in the Nigerian political theatre and be paid peanuts thereafter.
The other day, Nigeria’s First Lady, Patience Jonathan, had a “women’s event” in Abuja. The media reported that this jamboree of “Celebrating Nigerian Women for Peace and Empowerment” practically paralysed other activities in the Federal Capital Territory but at the end, the women received cooking utensils and cash gifts. Where lies the empowerment in that? What good is done for women when you exploit them that way?
Gender inequality/patriarchy, of course, precedes Jonathan and will definitely take years of education and activism to dissemble. But the Jonathan approach, I am afraid, does little against the roots, the culture and the continuous (re)circulation of inequality.