The Myth of Gender Superiority in Northern Nigeria, And the Fate of the Girl Child
-By Ugi, Unimke J. (Media/Publicity Officer)
Northern Nigeria has at various times courted media infamy with respect to perceived gender-unfriendly attitude towards women, allegedly expressed in de facto social and religious orthodoxy. Being a complex region with people from different groups, characterized by varying levels of development and different cultural orientation towards the concept of women’s rights, Northern Nigeria as considered in this essay refers to the predominant Muslim Northern constituency comprising of North-East, North-Central and North-West zones of Nigeria, except otherwise indicated. Indeed, in the better part of the 20th century, women's roles in Northern Nigeria were generally assumed to involve less of formal education, with predominance of early teenage marriages and confinement to the household stewardship duties, except for visits to kin, ceremonies, and the workplace, if employment were available and permitted by a girl's family or husband. Complacency at the level of policy making also often served to accentuate a lukewarm attitude towards women education, social leadership and public roles.
However, following the abduction of secondary-school-aged girls in April 14, 2016 at Chibok in Borno state, questions bordering on the rights, entitlement and equity of the female child in Northern societies have surged to the fore among both local and international audiences. The paradox superimposed by this lamentable development, drew attention to the syllogistic underpinning that, if the abduction and consequent denial of education to 219 school girls is such an outrage, how much more the denial of education to millions of girls across Northern Nigeria, whom on the grounds of social conservatism and religious fundamentalism are denied the attainment of their dreams, through perpetual consignment to domestic service through early marriage? While it is arguable that the typical mindset of most sub-Saharan African cultures are inclined to conservatism in matters of gender and sexuality, there is scarcely if any doubt that the pervasive climate of religious orthodoxy largely dictates the culture and social acceptances of the preponderantly Muslim Northern populace. The believe that the woman is inferior and divinely ordained to be a man’s subordinate with passive social roles, readily offers a latent justification for practices like polygyny, gendered educational segregation, career discrimination, and political marginalization. There is perhaps no better cultural exemplification of this arbitrary gender-apartheid than the purdah, or seclusion (kulle in Hausa), that determines the extent of women’s visibility and mobility in public spaces. In Northern Nigeria, it is estimated that more than two million female children and young adults of school-going age are out of school for cultural or religious reasons. While barely half the female population attends primary school, half population of female students enrolled in secondary schools may be married off before they ever get to commence tertiary education. In the North West for instance, the most recent National Demographic and Health survey puts the literacy rate for women at 21%, compared to the national rate for women at 51%. These figures are even more acute at the State level, where northern states like Katsina and Sokoto stand at 5% and 9% respectively. The myth of gender superiority and it’s myriad of connotations account largely for this malady, and thus engages us, against the backdrop of a secured future for the girl child.
From the point of New Age ideals as entrenched in universally acclaimed human rights and similar promulgations at regional and bilateral protocols, social discrimination on the grounds of gender and sexuality is analogous with historically notorious indignities such as racism, slavery and genocide. It is non-congruent with fundamental values of democracy and liberalism. Analysts believe that low levels of literacy among women in Northern Nigeria is among the peak causes of early girl child marriages, gendered abuse/violence, maternal mortality and health issues such as visico-vaginal fistula (VVF) and obstetric fistula. There has also been an attempt to link abductions and rape, or at least, their poor management to poor literacy among victims and community women. Recently, and with alarming frequency, the public is inundated with media reports of abductions, human trafficking and physical abuse occurring mostly among educationally disadvantaged members of the Northern Nigerian population. It is common to derive guiding hypotheses by measuring the steepness or contrast of conservative northern society against the generally adopted model specimens of the Western world, especially in the aspects of literacy and the prevalence of gendered vices. In sharp contrast to the Northern Nigerian societies, women are appearing at all-increasing levels of responsibility in more developed climes of the modern world; in the corporate world, social services, and sundry professions (including hitherto masculine reserves). For any civilized society, moreso one that prides itself in age-old observance of ethics, order and noble leadership, the indignities suffered by women may be thought of as a festering social sore, a despicable shortchange to a progressive reputation.
Apologists of women inferiority often leverage on religious traditions to legitimize their opposition to female education, and active social roles for women. They argue that the nature of women is less suited to intellectual pursuits, leadership roles and serious business. Apparently, with our sense of reason drowned in tradition, we seldom reckon that most stereotypes on women inferiority trace to a time in the backwaters of civilization in which preference was accorded to crude strength over acumen. It may have been appropriate at the time for the raising of armies, mining of ore, cultivation of farmlands, and other corporal demands of survival. Even at that, there were women who made better warriors than their male counterparts, not only in Hausa land, but elsewhere as well. Indeed, to speak generically of superiority of one gender over another is one of the most enduring weak arguments of our time. Every man knows at least one woman whose arm they can’t bend and whose wits they can’t match. Superiority is therefore a function of individual ability, and not a generic attribute of gender. In today’s more sophisticated culture, where more is paid for ideas than for crude strength, it becomes a point of choice either to live true to the ideals of our time, or in illusive service to hackneyed ideas of an age long overtaken in time. Recently, this writer worked into an Ivy League secondary school in Kaduna, Nigeria on advocacy assignment. A peek at the editorial board revealed the profile of a female student who was topping her class in mathematics, with a male student as runner-up. Some among you readers are familiar with this scoreboard, or may take a good guess at the school. It is almost certain that this female student will continue topping her class until she encounters an awkward influence that convinces her of how abominable it is to top a class of male students. It is saddening to think of the many female students who topped their classes until they were forcibly tucked into early marriages or thrown out of school for society’s lack of confidence in female education. It goes without saying that much of the solutions our world seeks today are a result of protracted gender imbalance, and this may indeed be an ace-differential between development and degenerate underdevelopment suffered in third world climes. The point is thus made, that the human species may not consider its potentials fully harnessed until we harness the latent faculties of the girl child.
The Holy Quran recommends the education of women as well as men when it says, “Seeking Knowledge is mandatory for every believer” (Ibn Majar). Several other verses clearly charge for the love, respect and liberty of women. Very often apologists of gender discrimination attempt to evade positive examples of lead women in the History of the Muslim world. For instance, the renowned poet, and educationist, Nana Asma’u (1793-1863), today regarded as the precursor to modern feminism in Africa was a princess of the Fodio clan that ruled the Sokoto Caliphate in modern-day Nigeria. Her family was part of the Qadiriyya, a fundamental Islamic sect who focused on the pursuit of knowledge as a spiritual path. Princess Nana had an excellent education, and learned all the Islamic classics, memorized the entire Qur’an, and was fluent in Arabic, Hausa Tamacheq Tuareg and Fula language. She was an accomplished author and respected scholar in communication with scholars throughout the sub-Saharan African Muslim world. Her poems rendered in various languages became instructional devices for educating Islamic women. Her network of women educators, known as yan-taru, or “those who congregate together, the sisterhood”, traveled throughout the Caliphate educating women, who passed on their education to others.
There is no gainsaying that the pride of a society is its ability to keep pace with developments in the larger world, guaranteeing a sense of belonging to the least individual, inspiring and enabling the fulfillment of the aspirations of its organic members, without prejudice to sex and stratum. While this may someday be convincingly said of the broader Northern society, Northern women of the 21st century have continued to strive against the traditional superstitions of gender inferiority, in their struggle to attain their dreams, with little or no encouragement. Today, activism by northern women in organisations such as the Federation of Women Muslims Association of Nigeria (FOMWAN) has for many years promoted education and better health for all, but particularly women. Bilkisu Yusuf, a founding member of FOMWAN clearly argues: ‘Education is the most strategic form of empowerment you can give women. Islam makes education compulsory, so we are unhappy at the low level of education among Muslim women.’ Thanks to the resilience of womanhood, Northern Nigerian History is today regaled with the lustrous profiles of Amazons such as Hajiya Gambo Sawaba of the mid to late 20th Century and Wing Commander Hajara Bashari Umaru of the 21st century, who resonates with the glory of the legendary Queen Amina of 15th/16th Century Hausa land. Rising from the ranks of non-commissioned officer in 1986, Wing Commander Umaru has become the first Hausa Muslim female Air force Commander in a profession spuriously thought to be reserved for the masculine gender. Across the political, social and economic landscape, Muslim nay Northern Nigerian women have in defiance of cultural and traditional constraints continued to leave admirable legacies in the History of our people. Among them are professors, scientists, entrepreneurs and actors in public service and private endeavours. It is perhaps no accident that nature intuitively bestows the seed of procreation on the meekest and most endowed of human species. As some activists objectively proffer, the acid test for the myth masculine superiority is ensuring equal opportunity and level playing field for both gender to thrive and aspire. And if we should consider that all of our masculine heroes were married before renown, it is easier to understand that the unsung feminine heroes behind them deserve credit for the legacies, or at least the women coming after them deserve more equitable consideration within the socio-cultural mechanics of modern society. Indeed, were nobility frankly about service, none would be more deserving than the woman who serves from generation to generation, laying no claims to laurels and acclaim, but in meekness and submission to the cause of nature. As is often repeated, it takes a man’s might to oust a king, but the bravery of a woman to build a kingdom.