Nigeria OP-ED 

Humanism and Discrimination against Women in Nigeria

Humanists in Nigeria marked this year’s world humanist day in style. The international humanist day is celebrated on June 21 every year, but humanists in Lagos organized on June 23 a special seminar that focused on the rights of women. At a time that the me-too movement is spreading across the globe and the ‘church-too’ version led to protests in Abuja and Lagos against the COZA pastor, it is pertinent that the humanist movement brings a perspective to the oppression and persecution of women. The Lagos chapter of the Humanist Association of Nigeria convened a panel that explored the topic, Raids on Nightclubs and Discrimination against women in Nigeria. The raids on dancing clubs at Nigeria’s capital generated so much controversy mainly due to the sexist twist and bent of the operation.

Humanist women activists, Stephanie Ogbonna and Jummai Muhammed spoke out against the inhuman and degrading treatment and representation of women. In her presentation, Ms. Ogbonna drew from the BBC Africa, Premium Times, Daily Trust various reports in underscoring the unjust nature of the raids on nightclubs and the subordination of women. She pointed out how the police operations highlighted the entrenched gender bias, prejudice, and discrimination in the Nigerian society. According to Ms. Ogbonna, the raids were “ a form of gender-based violence against women, which means a violation, an aggressive act against women due to their gender. No man was raped, beaten, stripped naked or arrested”. She explained that “Gender identities are not given to you by birth but constructed by the culture, and based on societal norms and hierarchies; also, one person can have more than one gender. These socially constructed characteristics include Femininity: gentleness, empathy, sensitivity, caring, sweetness, compassion, tolerance, nurturance, submission. Masculinity: strength, courage, independence, leadership, violence, confidence”. Ms. Ogbonna noted that the problem with these gender constructs is this: “we tend to put people in a specific box and judge them by the label of this box.

This leads to discrimination – only women were arrested; devaluation – women were labeled as prostitutes, and even isolation – women who don’t want to take up the role of wives and mothers could have a difficult stand in the society”. She urged humanists to explore ways of changing societal attitudes “We, as Humanists, have to find a way of changing the behavioral pattern of the public / the Nigerian society. Such as touching female coworkers in public market spaces; Avoiding talks about sexism / feminism, thinking these aspects are not important, relevant to the society; Seeing women as helpers and assistants, and men as bosses and coordinators, avoiding sexual education; challenging the general stereotypical view of women as those to be protected, not by law which would be helpful, but by men through putting them (their wives) in their (husbands) houses, by morally policing women …Also, there is not only a need to develop a curriculum for gender studies in schools and universities, but also a need to change laws and put in place legislation that favors both genders. In Nigeria, most boys and girls, unfortunately, grow up with patriarchal viewpoints and moral values. Religion often plays along to define these social constructs, and it is, therefore, necessary to educate boys and girls and to create men and women, who have a skeptical and critical focus on gender roles, despite being religious or not. Our role as Humanists should be to inform and educate society. I would suggest workshops for males and females, male-only, female-only and mixed workshops, to sensitize them about gender issues and to help create a ground / a basis were social ills, in this case, gender violence and discrimination, can be discussed evaluated and gradually be put to an end.

In her intervention, Ms. Muhammed pointed out that women were discriminated against in various sectors of society. She said: “Educationally, Nigeria women recorded significantly lower levels in the country’s tertiary institutions, teaching, and the medical profession. Educating girls is still widely perceived as being of less value in some quarters to educating boys. There are proportionately more dropouts among girls than boys. If by any means a girl became pregnant, she will be forced to terminate her education and in most cases not given the chance to continue with the education after the baby is being delivered”.

In the area of politics, she stated: “Women are marginalized, and hardly get the permission to venture into politics as men believe that home-keeping should be their priority and not how the society is governed. The mode of operation of political parties in Nigeria is one of the factors, inhibiting women’s participation in politics. Most political parties hold their meetings at night, which discourages many women, especially married ones. To crown it all, the men and the women themselves sometimes believe that the woman does not have the requisite economic power to indulge in dirty political ideals characterized by money shows, violence, assassinations, and other vices”. She further noted how religion and tradition sanctify the subordinate role of women: “In Nigeria, discrimination against women is evident in all the geopolitical zones. The tools used for the oppression for women have always been religion and tradition, which have placed modern Nigerian women in the lowest ring of poverty. Various religions, traditional, Christian and Islamic faiths are patriarchal belief systems that discriminate against women”. There were questions and comments on the entrenched discrimination against women in Nigeria and also suggestions on how to tackle traditional practices that undermine the rights of women.

Also at the humanist day celebration was a Humanist leader and recently elected Humanist International Africa Board member, Roslyn Mould. Ms Mould flew in from Ghana to attend the program. Ms. Mould is a feminist and stressed the need for women who are humanists to come out of the closet and play active role in the humanist movement. She pledged to use her position at the Humanist International Board to further the cause of humanism and human rights, gender equity and justice in the region.

By the way, members of another non-governmental organization, Youth for Human Rights International(YHRI) were also at the world humanist day program. In fact days before the event, the organizers of the Lagos event received a message from the leaders of the YHRI that they would like to exhibit their literature at the event. And the request was granted. Incidentally, some humanists later discovered that this organization was a human rights front for the quasi-religious outfit, the Church of Scientology! It is important to note that while the humanist event was a program that was open to the general public, the Humanist Association has no formal connection or association with this church of Scientologist organization and did not cosponsor the event with the YHRI. Humanists will continue to promote equal rights of all human beings of all faith and none.

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