“When you give a woman a responsibility, she either abuses it or lets you down. I hope neither will happen in this case,” said the Head of Department (HOD) at the weekly team meeting of a Nigerian government institution in Lagos State as he introduced the new female Supervisor. It was about 8:15am as staff members stood outside in the usual parking lot meeting location under the hot rays of the morning sun. I looked around and observed uncomfortable snickers from members of the staff. Though, no one had the courage to speak up. I wondered to myself, did the HOD really just say that? Was that all he could say about the new woman Supervisor? I hoped for even a delayed reaction from someone, anyone; but, alas, nobody said anything. Could it be that they weren’t paying attention? Did they not understand the derogatory nature of his words? I stood there disturbed at the silence. In this group of about 25 people (male and female), surely, someone should have noticed. I then thought to myself: well, this is Nigeria; a country where very few people challenge authority.

Author with new friends at the October 11 Stand With A Girl (SWAG) event commemorating International Day of the Girl Child.
Author with new friends at the October 11 Stand With A Girl (SWAG) event commemo-rating International Day of the Girl Child.

As I stood with the group for the remainder of the meeting, all I could think of was how do I respond to what I had observed? I had been invited as a visitor to attend the monthly team meeting that, on this day, was a transitional meeting for the HOD (who was being transferred to a different location) and an occasion to celebrate those born in the month of October. My celebratory spirit was quickly dampened, however, by the HOD’s statement. How do women find their voices in a society that says you cannot have a voice? Where are the male advocates for women and their rights? How do women learn to speak out?

Two weeks before that meeting, Nigeria faced a national controversy relating to the status of its women. “Have you heard what’s happening with the President and his wife?” asked my new acquaintance Tina as she walked into the living room where I was sitted watching television. She looked distraught as she asked me to turn the TV station to a news channel to hear about the recent crisis. Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, had committed a political blunder; he insulted his wife on international television, saying, “She belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room.” The President made this comment while standing next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel – notably the most powerful female leader in the world – at a news conference in Germany. Mr. Buhari’s comment was in response to his wife’s earlier statement during a BBC interview in which she said “[t]he president does not know 45 out of 50 of the people he appointed [as Ministers] and I don’t know them either, despite being his wife of 27 years.” She added that, “He is yet to tell me [if he would run for re-election] but I have decided as his wife, that if things continue like this up to 2019, I will not go out and campaign again and ask any woman to vote like I did before. I will never do it again.”

While it can be contended that the First Lady should not have disrespected the Head of State in such a manner publicly, the President’s blatantly derogatory public response was inappropriate. I found it hard to believe that a Commander-in-Chief of a nation could utter such words about his wife or about a woman, particularly in an era when promoting gender equality is a key global development agenda.

His comment signaled to me a deeply rooted cultural and social belief that women’s sole role is in the home, attending to domestic duties. This event awakened me to the reality of the Nigerian society; a disturbing reality of misogyny, even at the highest level.

Coming from a family of three girls, I never experienced what it is like to be treated differently by my parents or extended family members because of my gender. Being a girl was never an excuse not to participate in certain household chores or activities like sports. I grew up – even within the first 13 years spent in Nigeria – believing that I could do anything I wanted to do. Though I know my father would love a male child (every African parent wants a male heritage), he never made me or my sisters feel inferior. This upbringing, as I am learning, is not the dominant reality in Nigeria; a country that remains highly patriarchal, where male children are preferred over female children.

Being back in Nigeria as an adult is allowing me to experience and assess fundamental social and cultural norms that affect the lives and status of women and girls. As a young woman educated in the United States, I am considered to be “different.” I find myself wondering at times if I am “out-of-place” for raising my hand and/or speaking out in certain situations/environments, with certain people. However, the reception I receive when I speak up lets me know that while I am “unusual,” my comments are welcomed and appreciated. My friends tell me “You don’t have the Nigerian mentality… and this is why everyone wants to meet you and be around you.” They call me “brave” for tackling the issue of girls and women’s empowerment in Nigeria, noting that it is a complex and deeply ingrained problem to try to solve in Nigeria. I am curious to know why women and girls are so fearful of speaking up.

In late September, I attended a “Wiki Loves Women” workshop hosted by Wikipedia in Abuja. I was one of 15 young Nigerian women leaders selected to attend the workshop, which was designed to “encourage the contribution of quality information on African women.” I was invited by a female friend, but selected (after submitting my profile) to attend the event by the organizers. At the workshop, we were trained on how to find and write notable content on African women. Women, as we were told, make up “less than 10% of Wikipedia editors” and “only 12% of biographies in sub-saharan Africa are about women.” I was impressed at the vision behind this notable event. Of particular interest to me at the workshop was the question of “What makes a person notable?” Wikipedia has very strict criteria for a person to be featured on its site. One of the key criterion is that the person must already be prominently featured across traditional and social media platforms; not just for the work he/she does, but for who he/she is as an individual- early life/background, career, legacy, etc. As participants pondered this criterion of notability, the question was raised on “how many Nigerian women can we say that we know about what they actually do?” The answer was very few; not even a handful of women could be named. Participants shared that many women, especially African women, are seen through the eyes of their partner/spouse or their work. In fact, typically, when a woman is being interviewed in the media, she portrays/describes herself in the shadow/background of her spouse and/or her work, without highlighting what makes her noteworthy as an individual.

Participants at the “Wiki Loves Women” workshop held in Abuja.
Participants at the “Wiki Loves Women” workshop held in Abuja.

The social and economic status of women and girls in Nigeria remains unimpressive. Women’s activities and actions continue to be influenced by the patriarchal social system and culture that undervalue a woman’s worth and place in society. (In my next newsletter, I will address how women’s low self-esteem factors into this inferior status). The culture of patriarchy is deeply rooted in religion and tradition. In almost all of my conversations with Nigerians about gender equality, the biblical story of God creating Adam before Eve and the Bible’s commandment to women to be submissive to their husbands while the man is the “Head” of the family are brought up. When I asked a male friend what he makes of President Buhari’s public remark, my friend noted, “The President spoke as a traditional and Muslim man. He told us where his wife belongs in his home.” My friend does not find anything wrong with the President’s position because, as he told me, he values the African tradition and the assigned gender roles. Though, he added, that supporting tradition should not mean denying a woman of her rights to a productive livelihood. But, how do you balance traditional gender expectations/roles with global development goals that require the equal participation of women and men to advance world health and economy? My experiences have shown me that women and men are not sure how to accept and establish this equality between men and women.

The meeting I discussed at the beginning of this newsletter exemplifies the lack of respect and value for women in leadership that pervades a large part of the Nigerian society. I wondered if the HOD made his statement based on his previous experiences with female Supervisors and/or even the women in his life. The experience highlighted to me how much of a long way Nigeria still has to go in understanding, accepting, and achieving gender equality. It also made me wonder if there is a lack of positive female leaders in the country. Actually, Nigeria has few outstanding women leaders in the likes of the Honorable Minister of Environment, Amina J. Mohammed, the Co-Convener of the #BringBackOurGirls movement, Obiageli Ezekwesili, renowned author and writer Chimamanda Adichie, and renowned economist, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. In addition to more female leaders, what I think is lacking are women mentors. As women leaders have risen, I am uncertain the extent to which they have reached back out to provide mentorship to other Nigerian women. Many Nigerian women are disempowered; they are not taken seriously and many do not know how to be advocates for themselves. I read a Facebook post recently by a Nigerian woman (on a page for young African women leaders), which states:

“In my daily interactions with women, I have made an observation i will like to discuss about. Majority of these women seem to have issues with Complexity. And this is one major reason why we do not see many women getting involved in leadership. The women are even yet to deal with the self esteem issues which will give them nudge to step out of their comfort zone. My question is ‘What steps can be taken to help women overcome this issue (especially that of low self esteem), knowing that this affects who they become as a person and also a potential leader?’”

I agree that women and girls in Nigeria have low self-esteem. “Complexity,” as used in the above statement, refers to the “inferiority complex” that women have been nurtured by society to embrace. I also believe that the multiple roles of women as caregivers, homemakers, and professionals have proved to be very challenging for women to balance. I have noticed that men tend to speak on behalf of women even in the presence of the woman. For example, I attended a meeting recently commemorating African Youth Day where the topic of gender equality was discussed. As soon as the floor was open for comments, the young men in the group began expressing their disapproval of “gender equality,” noting that it has become “women equality” and has left out the male gender. Someone said that gender equality has turned into an “overpowerment” of women. One young man said “If you give this world to women, they will crumble it.” I watched with amazement as these young men spoke so aggressively and authoritatively. Four men spoke before a young lady shared her thought on the subject. After I interjected on a male participants’ incorrect argument, he told me (at the end of the meeting) that I was his favorite person at the meeting because “you were the only one that insisted on interrupting me while I was speaking.” This young man had established a visible dominant presence and voice throughout the conversation, which caused everyone to become quiet when he spoke. I laughed at his statement, realizing that not many young ladies/women have the boldness to speak up and interrupt a man while he is speaking, especially not in Africa.

One has to wonder, why did First Lady Aisha Buhari say what she said? Clearly, this is an empowered Muslim woman who understands the nature of the Nigerian society. It can be inferred that she had already had this conversation with her husband and still felt the need to bring it up in public, possibly due to a lack of appropriate response from the President. One Nigerian journalist told me that the First Lady is trying to protect herself because her husband has “crossed a lot of people.” In the event that something happens to the President, the First Lady will have to deal with the consequences of his negative actions with/towards people. As one contributor shared “When the chips are down, it is she, her children and Buhari’s children from his first marriage that will carry the burden. So nobody has the right to tell her what is appropriate or inappropriate.”[1] Is this where women and girls fit? Should they just be bearers of consequences of other people’s actions, even when they were not a part of the action? Why can’t women and girls be empowered and allowed to be active participants in decision-making?

I asked the lady who had been promoted to the role of Supervisor how she felt when the HOD made his remark. She responded, “I felt angry. I wanted to ask him if he has ever given a woman a task and she disappointed him. But, I did not have an opportunity to respond at that moment.” She added that in Nigeria, it is unthinkable to challenge a public servant. “When you speak out, you are alone. It’s not like outside there [abroad] where you have your right and you can protect it. Even when you know your rights, you cannot assert it. That is the issue we find ourselves in in this country” she said. Because people want to be favored above others, they allow tribalism and politics play into whether/how they support a colleague in speaking out. When I asked her how her colleagues (and women) can be empowered to speak up, she said “Well, before I tried to find a platform to address these issues. But, now I am on my own because it seems like no one else sees the problem. Let me just do what I need to do and get out. You know in Nigeria you are not protected.” She proceeded to commend me for noticing the HOD’s derogatory comment and asked that if I have an idea for how she can work with her colleagues to speak up in such instances, I should let her know.

As I reflect on the events of the month, I am left with the following reasons for women’s disempowerment/inability to speak up:

  • Lack of female mentors
  • Culture of patriarchy
  • Culture of fear: public servants are (unofficially) sworn to “secrecy” and cannot challenge authority (which is mostly male-dominated) in public; otherwise they risk having a job.
  • As one Director of a youth development non-profit stated, “You are powerless until society gives you power; the society determines the limit of your power.” Women are yet to be conferred power by the Nigerian society.

As a Nigerian woman who has been privileged to live and learn in the US as a second home, I have been empowered to believe in and use my voice in a way that many Nigerian women and men cannot comprehend. To them, I am ”notable” and inspiring. My hope is that more girls and women become notable and are never described as incompetent in public. Empowering women and girls to speak up for their rights, at home, in school, in the office, and in the community is something that needs to be addressed; not just in developing countries, but across the globe as we seek to promote a sustainable world for humanity.

Author with Mallama Fatima, a third wife, mother of four, and women’s empowerment advocate.
Author with Mallama Fatima, a third wife, mother of four, and women’s empowerment advocate.


[1] Punch Newspaper. Nigerians back Aisha Buhari, as she slams President. http://punchng.com/nigerians-back-aisha-buhari-slams-president/. Accessed: 10/31/2016