Maintaining Power in the Face of Political, Economic and Social Discrimination: The Tale of Nigerian Women

By Agbese, Aje-Ori | Women and Language, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Maintaining Power in the Face of Political, Economic and Social Discrimination: The Tale of Nigerian Women


Agbese, Aje-Ori, Women and Language


Abtract: This paper uses a historical analysis to discuss the strategies Nigerian women have used to maintain their identity, assert power, and participate in development at all levels in Nigeria. The paper examines these strategies in three eras--pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial--and argues that Nigerian women, despite the challenges they face, have always played a role in Nigerian society, and have .faced the need to redefine their roles in response to the structural constraints that define gender and gender equality during each era.

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In 2002, Nigerian women received a lot of international media attention when Safiya Husseni and Amina Lawal were convicted of adultery by a Sharia court (USATODAY, 2002). The sentence was death by stoning. The verdict was overturned with national and international support for Husseni, but Lawal's is still being fought. My favorite story of 2002 was of hundreds of rural unarmed women who peacefully demonstrated to force multinational oil companies to make a difference in the communities from which they drilled crude oil. The women, ranging from 30 to 90 years of age, laid siege for ten days, held 700 Shell and Chevron-Texaco workers hostage for hours, and threatened to go naked if their demands were not met. These women took action to change their social and economic situation, and their demands were met (Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 2002; USA TODAY, 2002). However, the coverage of these events in the media (national and international) seemed to indicate surprise that Nigerian women were asserting their rights or doing something about their situation. I found myself disagreeing with that frame.

In this paper I argue that Nigerian women have always risen to the challenge whenever their authority and identity as women has been threatened. Using a historical analysis, ! argue that Nigerian women have always played a powerful role in Nigerian culture, and have had to define and redefine their roles and authority according to the structural constraints that defined gender and gender equality in pre-colonial, colonial and postcolonial eras. In redefining their power and roles, they have implicitly or explicitly maintained a level of power.

As in many societies, gender inequalities exist in Nigeria (Arndt, 2000). Women in Nigeria do not receive the same treatment as men to make their lives economically, politically and socially better. A level playing field does not exist for women to make decisions about issues affecting them (Mufema, 1999). But this is not to say that Nigerian women have not made notable contributions in the political, social and economic arenas. Women have always had some economic power and have exerted influence in Nigerian society through women's councils, family connections, and to a much lesser extent, mainstream social, economic or political organizations. According to Leith-Ross (1965), "Nigerian women, because of their economic importance as mothers, farm cultivators and traders, have been rather more powerful than is generally thought" (p. 21). Studies indicate that Nigerian women have implicitly or explicitly participated in Nigeria's development since pre-colonial times (Ajai, 1982; Nnoromele, 2002; Oyewumi, 2001). This paper will explore both the pressures on women in the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial time periods as well as the methods women used to assert and maintain power.

Women in Pre-Colonial Nigeria--Early Years to 1861

Societies in pre-colonial Nigeria believed women and men complemented each other, and had characteristics, some of which still exist today, that determined women's and men's roles (O'Barr & Firmin-Sellers, 1995). Ethnic groups were "structured around kinship which determined the productive and reproductive role of the individual in society" (Okome, 2002, p. 8). Kinship is a very strong factor in Nigeria as the family is one of the oldest and most respected institutions (Samovar, Porter & Stefani, 1998). …

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