The Selective Enfranchisement of the Gender Bills

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CSOs demonstration at the National Assembly for the gender bills

Women are collectively dominated by the oppressive structures erected and maintained by men, who, as a collective body benefit from the domination of women, in a patriarchal society.

The liberation of any oppressed group lies in their hands, as it cannot be reasonably expected that the oppressors who benefit from the parasitic relationship will reject and uproot this damaging system of exploitation, in order to release the oppressed from their burdens.

Thus, women are bound to take up the duty of breaking patriarchal chains, in the quest for the liberation of women in Nigeria. However, there is an added dynamic to this struggle for liberation.

While women as a whole are treated as less equal to men, there are class differences between women as well, between rich women and poor women.  Thus, within the collective body of women, there exists both a class of elite women and a class of working-class women (also referred to hereafter as women of the ruling class and women of the masses).

In the shared quest for liberation as women in Nigeria, the women of the ruling class want working-class women -such as the woman on the factory floor or the market woman- to believe that their interests wholly match the interests of the elite women.

For example, politicians, political aspirants, wives of politicians, businesswomen, directors, and managers of companies, corporations, and organizations, etc., talk of women empowerment, in a blanket way. But they have power, based on their wealth and position in society, which the working-class woman does not have.

The ordinary Nigerian woman must therefore seek liberation in two folds- as a woman and as a member of the working class- with the understanding that the ruling class woman is an “ally” only to the extent that the struggle allows her to gain more social capital, political power, and economic foothold.

Simone de Beauvoir states, “The oppressor would not be so strong if he did not have accomplices among the oppressed”.

Elite women with access to men of the ruling class are the oppressors’ accomplices in the ranks of the oppressed. They betray the interests of the women as an oppressed category in society, to curry favor and gain power in the arena of the oppressors.

A very good illustration of bourgeois women (elite women), their priorities, and primary loyalties as “lesser” enfranchised members of the ruling class exists in the French Revolution. The women of the working class and peasant women took to the streets clamoring for “bread”, kick-starting the French Revolution which French bourgeois women later joined. However, when Maximilien Robespierre, one of the most revolutionary leaders of the revolution was taken to be executed, French bourgeois women rejoiced in the streets unencumbered, because they never wanted to take the revolution to a logical conclusion of “down with all exploiters and oppressors”.

Elite women enlist the voices of working-class women under the guise that women across class lines share the same struggles and as such ask working-class women to forget, discard, or momentarily ignore economic class divisions and interests in favor of the women as a collective body.

However, following the attainment of whatever power (political, economic, and social) they seek, owing to the effort of working-class women -sometimes in blood, sweat, and energy expended in protests and riots- elite women retreat to their primary loyalties defending the very machinery for the exploitation and enslavement of the rest of the discarded oppressed woman, who is part of the masses.

They renege on whatever promises they have made to the women of the masses, particularly those promises that undermine their class interests as elites, and working women are left again to fend for themselves in a continued trudging survival by those who co-opted them as fellow womenfolk.

If the elite woman is kind and well-intentioned, she agitates for certain reforms, creation of institutions and policies, and to ease the burden of the working-class women while paying nothing more than lip service, if ever, to the cause of the working-class woman’s struggle- capitalism. The elite woman, however disenfranchised, is still in the corridors of power in the ruling class and as such, remains like the other half of her class (elite men) an enemy of the masses and an obstacle to the socialist transformation of society.

There is no attainable plan for the elimination of the subjugation of women. Progressive women suffer from this as well in their well-intentioned quest for women liberation- they aspire to political office and collaborate with conservative forces in the elite.

They believe elite men can be cajoled into becoming allies for the sake of women’s liberation. They inevitably become members of the elite.

Elite women fund health programs, sponsor individual education, initiate maternity programs, and other progressive initiatives.

They provide relief for the working-class women through agitation, wonderful feats of activism, and the enactment of state legislation such as the Domestic Violence Law in Lagos. However, they are unable to build lasting infrastructure and institutions for the elevation of women (particularly women of the masses).

This is due to the economic system which they represent, that promotes profit over the welfare and wellbeing of poor people. It is unfavorable for those who benefit from the exploitation of the working class to invest copious amounts of seemingly unrecoverable funds into their welfare if it would not directly produce a profit.

This inability of elite women to establish lasting institutions and the resistance they face in their quests to erect infrastructure and enact policies for the advantage of women is a by-product of the sustenance of capitalist structures in Nigerian society.

The programs are resolved to be unsustainable, individualist endeavors lacking community support and awareness. Working-class women do not benefit from these endeavors and millions of Naira in funding are set aside for poorly managed, inefficiently monitored, unsustainable cesspools for greed and corruption.

For instance, Turai Yar’Adua, according to the Vanguard in 2009, received N6.8 billion in funding for her project- The International Cancer Centre. A project which was abandoned at the end of her tenure as First Lady after her husband’s death.

First ladies also campaign for their husbands, appealing to women in the country, across markets and city streets to support the political ambitions of an elite man. They task women with voting for men who often have zero interest in the liberation of women or in the simpler task of advocating for better conditions and rights for women.

When these men and their wives ascend to office, the women act as elite women do, forgetting the suffering of those with whom they had campaigned. It is reminiscent of Marie Antoinette who in response to the hungered clamor for “bread” at the onset of the French Revolution in the streets, is reported to have infamously remarked, “Let them eat cake!”

The cries of Nigerian women from market women, self-employed small business owners, educators (primary to tertiary), stay-at-home mothers, etc. are left unheard by the women in power and the wives of those in power after political campaigns and elections.

An example closer to home exists in one of Nigeria’s recent First Ladies- Patience Jonathan. After the abduction of the Chibok girls by Boko haram, ex-first lady Patience ordered the arrest of Naomi Mutah who had come to represent the mother of the abducted school girls.

This was after the ascension of ex-President Goodluck Jonathan and huge support for his office by Nigerian women.

The male majority of the National Assembly and their immediate dismissal of the contents of all initially rejected and ridiculed three of the five gender bills the bills are as follows:

  • Citizens of foreign countries married to Nigerian women can apply for Nigerian citizenship. A right that is already afforded to the foreign wives of Nigerian men.
  • A woman who marries a man from a different state can become an indigene of her husband’s state after five (5) years of marriage. For instance, a Nigerian woman from Osun married to a man from Imo State would be permitted to become an indigene, by law, of Imo State. This would partly eliminate what is regarded as the “floating status” of Nigerian women who marry men outside their state of origin (and ethnic group) markedly with regards to elections and political aspirations. 
  • There would be 35% affirmative action in political parties and appointive positions at Federal and State levels for women. This entails the allocation of existing positions to women in politics.

There is a progressive air to these bills partly because of the dismal condition of women’s rights in Nigeria. However, upon closer inspection, it is unobjectionable that these rights serve only a select few women, overlooking a significant portion of women chiefly within the working class.

For the queer woman, liberation goes beyond what the Gender bills offer. The very means -statutory- the state has used to criminalize the queer woman’s existence is utilized in this attempt at reform for women.

The queer woman has been denied by previously enacted statute -notably the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA)- the right to marry and as a consequence cannot gain from the first two proposals concerning marriage. If she desires marriage to a partner of the same gender, she is excluded from these bills ab initio and thus cannot benefit from the latest reform.

With regards to poor women and the advanced 35% affirmative action bill, the current system of electoralism mostly inhibits the poor from participation for various reasons such as social and financial reasons (not being in the “right circles”, having the right “connections”, or having the necessary funds for campaigns) will not suddenly allow greater leeway for willing poor participants.

Elections for the poor (a significant portion of Nigeria’s citizenry), will remain largely aspirational. In this context, the poor are further disenfranchised.

35% affirmative action will further concentrate and consolidate power in the hands of the few (the ruling class) as those who will be chosen to fill these appointive positions will serve the interests of the ruling class- having likely emerged from within the ruling class or been handpicked by members of the ruling class.

Reactionary elements will sponsor reactionaries and tight-lipped “progressives’ will elevate tighter-lipped “progressives” and the interests of the masses will be quieted in the midst of louder ruling class voices. There is no relief, in this, for the women of the masses nor is there a change in pace, from the ways of the past. It is neither a step forward towards the total liberation of Nigerian women nor a step towards socialist transformation for the women of the masses.

“Without community, there is no liberation” Audre Lorde stated in her famed essay, ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’.

Although the National Assembly has rescinded its decision on three of the five bills, this rescission came only after the protests of women across Nigeria from every stratum of society.

This gives credence to the timeless words of Audre Lorde. From this, I posit Nigerian women will attain that women’s liberation across class lines. However, at every step, there must be a consciousness of the class differences, the reality of the class struggle, and the understanding that the total liberation of Nigerian women cannot coexist with the current capitalist society and the allowances it makes for the subjugation of Nigerian women.

Reforms such as statutes can never adequately balance the desire of women as a social category, to be free with the desire of the ruling class to continually acquire wealth and political power through means and in manners that are historically detrimental to the liberation of women.

Revolution in Nigeria is in the hands of Nigerian women, as women, and as members of the working class.

by Iretimide Esther Osunyikanmi

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