How Laws Can Impede The Fight For Equality

When harmful cultural norms become legal

In November 2017, it was reported that President Muhammadu Buhari ratified and inaugurated a number of policies relating to the military, one of which, according to the PUNCH newspaper, includes a recommendation to “phase out the training of female regular combatant cadets.” This is a reversal of a policy created during the tenure of former President Goodluck Jonathan.

What is most astonishing about this move is that it is not based on the performance or competence of women already admitted into the National Defence Academy. The recommendation for the ban was made after complaints had been made by unnamed northern Muslim leaders. These leaders, most likely men, based their proposal on being worried about women becoming leaders within the army, and giving orders to men.

Interestingly, the women already admitted into the programme have been performing beyond expectations, even, according to a source, outperforming their male colleagues: the Navy Gold award (highest in the navy category) the Army Silver award, and the Air Force Silver award (second highest in the army and air force respectively) went to women, and two female cadets outshone their male counterparts to win placement at the United States Military Academy in West Point.

We’re Protecting Our Women

Some might be tempted to interpret this as one government trying to undo the work of another, or make it about religious differences (many of the women in the programme are Christian and the dissenters are Northern Muslim leaders), but, while these may be factors, the clearest and straightest arrow points to misogyny and sexism. A group of men sat down and decided to prevent women from moving upwards because they fear that men might have to take orders from women in the future. In what way does this not read as gender discrimination?

There has been some support for this proposed ban from various corners of the internet, mostly from men citing protection of women as the reason for support. This might appear to be a positive thing, but is still rooted in subtle, benevolent sexist beliefs which portray women as weak and dependent. Someone might want to point out here that the people who recommended this are Northern muslims, but this negative attitude towards successful woman is one that cuts across tribe and religion. The reasoning behind this attempted ban echoes a 2013 study in Benue State by Ochugudu and Sev, in which they found that men discouraged their wives from engaging in business activities because they feared losing control over them. Not to mention that there exists a law in the Police Act, possibly rooted in these beliefs, which states that married women cannot join the police force, and single women must wait two years before they can marry. There is no such limitation for men.

Legal and Cultural Norms

A paper by Bola Udegbe (Professor of Psychology at the University of Ibadan) titled Female (In)dependence and Male Dominance in Contemporary Nigerian Families leads to the conclusion that there are rigid expectations of women and men in our society, regardless of culture and religion. There are various existing laws that reflect these rigid gender norms. For instance, according to the Nigerian constitution, a man can marry a foreigner and confer citizenship to his wife. A Nigerian woman cannot do the same. In the criminal code, assaulting a man is a felony, while assaulting a woman is a misdemeanor. The Nigerian Labour Act prohibits women from working night shifts, whether in public or private enterprises, except they are nurses. There are many many other laws that fundamentally discriminate against women, in a country whose constitution states that the citizens have a right to freedom from discrimination.

In a time when we are still struggling to increase the opportunities that women have access to, and to end gender inequality, a time when Nigeria’s treatment of women (whether based on cultural or religious norms or on the law) is poor to say the least, the government’s attempt to reduce opportunities available to women is alarming. Nigeria is ranked 128 out of 153 countries on the GIWPS’s 2017 Women, Peace, and Security Index, which is a measure of women’s well being. Nigeria scores low on financial inclusion, lower on women’s political participation, and even lower on access to education.

Sexist norms are deeply rooted in various Nigerian cultural practices, all of which limit women’s freedom of movement and their financial, educational, and sexual freedom. It is difficult enough to make progress when one is tackling unwritten norms, but when the government makes it legal, or attempts to make it legal, by creating laws and regulations that limit women’s ability to participate in society, to discriminate against women by virtue of gender, it tells us that the fight to end gender inequality is an uphill one and will be very long.

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UX (Research + Consulting + Writing). Design Thinking Facilitator. Writer. Editor. Christian. Feminist. Psychology Grad. Interests are wide and varied.