Is the Nigerian Senate’s rejection of the equal rights bill a step in the right track?

To mark International Women’s Day 2016, GFC—a support group for women focused on empowerment, support and charity organized its very first seminar—“Breaking from the Mould”—just last Sunday, 13th of March, to explore Feminism in the African context. There Minna Salami, the popular MsAfropolitan blogger, gave a speech on “The Benefits of Being a Feminist in Africa” to an eager audience filled with bright-minded women and few men. As expected, the time for questions came, and two of the questions that got me were: “How do we carry the average Nigerian woman along in this movement?” and “In what practical steps can we ensure gender parity in a nation still steeped in patriarchy?” The solution, Minna Salami opines, is to take it to the streets! A tough call, I must add. Perhaps another way, which is what Nollywood’s sweetheart, Dakore, one of the panelists of the same event, said, is to re-engineer the growing crop of young males and females with the ideals of gender parity in our schools, and, especially, in the family.

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As fate would have it, two days later, Patriarchy reared its ugly Hydra head and decided to re-affirm its status like the proud Okonkwo of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Perhaps the news of the House of Senate’s rejection of the bill seeking gender parity in terms of marriage, education and job requires that we re-title Minna’s speech to “The Challenges of Being a Feminist in Africa”. I also begin to wonder if, as Minna has popularly configured, ‘feminism is as African as the Kilimanjaro’. Perhaps it’s not her kind of feminism, but Obiora Nnaemeka’s “Nego-Feminism” (which builds on the idea of “African women’s willingness and readiness to negotiate with and around men even in difficult circumstances”), or Akachi’s “snail-sense feminism”—the one that means that women have to adapt to the evil system of patriarchy to get going, rather than challenge and uproot it as a weed in the farmland called “Africa”.

In his own contribution to ‘the Bill Seeking Gender Parity and Prohibition of Violence against Women’ presented by Abiodun Olujimi, Ali Ndume, a senator from Ekiti state, urged Nigerians to stick with either religious or traditional marriage, arguing that crisis usually occurs when couples who had performed both traditional and religious marriage rites find themselves in the middle of a divorce.

This law that is being amended is very important especially when there is a clear conflict when it comes to dealing with widows, inheritance, divorce, even marriage itself in our society,” he said, and continues:

There are various traditions. The problem we have is the combination of our traditions and new religious beliefs. You will find an Igbo man who cannot speak Igbo language because he studied abroad. He will do traditional marriage then go to church again to get married in the church.

The church wedding says if you marry, the couple becomes one while the Igbo tradition says when you marry a wife, she becomes your property. So when issues come up after the marriage, you now wonder which one to take.

As for inheritance and divorce, in Islam, it is very clear how it is being done, but if you combine that with your tradition, you find out that women are being discriminated in a disadvantageous manner. There is a need for women who are involved in this advocacy to also engage in enlightenment.

If you will marry, you will marry; either Christian or Muslim. I think this bill is timely and important and at the public hearing stage, we will look at this bill very well.”

Explaining the content of the bill, Olujimi, who is the deputy minority whip of the senate, said that it seeks equal rights for women in marriage, education and job.

In her bill, she said that a widow would automatically become the custodian of children in the event of the death of her husband, and would also inherit his property.

Speaking in support of the bill, Ike Ekeremadu, deputy senate president, stated that countries develop where women are given equal opportunities.

Only last night, I was going through a document prepared by George Bush of America. Those countries that are doing well are those who give women opportunities,” he said.

Where I come from, women don’t eat egg and are restricted from touching the non-essential parts of animal. But now that has changed. What is needed is time and education, not necessarily legislation. We will continue to encourage our women. I support this bill.”

Then came Patriarchy’s very own arch mercenary: Sani Yerima, a senator from Zamfara state. He expressed aversion to the bill, arguing that it was in conflict with the Nigerian constitution.

He explained that the bill negates the principles of the Sharia law, which the constitution regards.

Senate President Bukola Saraki put the bill to a vote, and the opposing senators shouted a thunderous “nay”, and subsequently had their way. The bill was rejected.

It is interesting to note that a similar bill presented at the seventh senate by Chris Anyanwu, a former senator from Imo east, was equally rejected as well. Yerima, former governor of Zamfara state who is now senator, played a pivotal role in the rejection of Anyanwu’s bill at that time. He was also the frontman of the opposition against the bill on Tuesday. Talk of Patriarchy rewarding him for a job (over) well done.

Other senators who opposed the bill are Adamu Aliero, a senator from Kebbi state, who argued that its provisions are inconsistent with Sharia law, and Emmanuel Bwacha, a senator from Taraba south who said that bill negates provisions of the constitution.

This has predictably generated a hullabaloo of social media ranting by the public against the legislation (read some of these here and especially here). While many have aired their views saying that it is all wrong, interestingly, many (including women) also feel that these senators have done a great good by rejecting the bill. Talk of a nation divided against itself.

Is the rejection of the bill a step in the right track? If no, why? If yes, why?

Meanwhile, some women groups, including GFC, have begun the process of challenging the resolution of the house.

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