I wrote this article because of the huge misconception about the word “gender.” Whenever I say that my research focuses on gender, people automatically think that I am a feminist, or that I am “too educated” or not “cultured enough.” I have also had someone ask me why I am “trying to dethrone men.” These issues and more that come up when the word gender is mentioned, at least within the Nigerian context today, is what I want to call the gender wahala. Wahala is a Nigerian word which means trouble so this might very well be the Nigerian adaptation of Judith Butler’s notable book, The Gender Trouble (of course I am kidding, I just refer to the titles in this sense).
So, what is Gender NOT about:
Gender is NOT about women and girls alone. Gender encompasses issues relating to the girl-child. What seems to be visible in most research, policy interventions and development projects geared towards promoting gender equality in Nigeria and elsewhere is the girl-child education discourse and focus. Phrases such as women empowerment and girl-child education have constantly been used to describe issues of gender and this is a narrow understanding of gender. When I asked about how issues of gender in education are currently being addressed in Nigeria in my interviews with Gender Directors at the Federal and state government offices, the responses focused on girls, girls and girls and I wanted to ask, what about the boys? Because of this, the educational needs of boys have been overlooked.
Similarly, in workplaces, gender mainstreaming focuses on achieving gender parity. While this is a good step in increasing the representation of women in different spheres, this is not all gender entails.
Gender is also very very different from feminism. This is all I will write with regards to this as so much debate, motivations, meanings and misconceptions surround the definition of feminism which I do not intend to delve into in this article.
Finally, gender is NOT about “dethroning men” – although in patriarchal societies where discrimination against women is widely accepted, a cultural shift is needed to ensure that BOTH women and men are treated with dignity and respect.
What Gender IS about:
In very simple terms, gender entails the socio-cultural and also religious definitions of what it means to be a Man or a Woman in any society. This includes expectations about roles, duties, behaviours etc of men and women in such societies.
For men and boys in Nigeria, what it means to be a man entails being able to be the breadwinner in the home, to be in control, and in many cases, polygamy is still culturally associated with being a man. Teenage boys especially face serious peer pressure to prove their masculinity in negative ways by teasing girls in school which sometimes lead to violence against girls, trying out harmful substances and sex. Rather than branding boys as the problem, discussions and an examination of how masculinity is defined in such context will reveal the root causes of such behaviours. Boys go through a lot in their teenage years and sometimes feel misunderstood and “left out.”
Despite these, several positive definitions of what it means to be a man is emerging largely influenced by religious doctrines. Because of this, adultery or violence against women in the home is greatly frowned upon today. Still, roles are rigidly defined and to be man is NOT to do a woman’s job like cooking or helping out in the home. Some research also show that when men cannot assume masculine roles which affect their reputation as men for instance the breadwinner role, many men resort to violence or depression to cope.
For women and girls in Nigeria today, to be a woman is to be married and then to bear children, to be a good wife (homemaker) with the ability to cook (very important) and also to be educated and have a career outside the home. This has several implications. First, marriage is prized and ladies face so much pressure and even threats to get married. An unmarried lady no matter how successful and influential is still regarded as incomplete without a husband and not woman enough because of her marital status. This has led many successful ladies into depression and feeling of unworthiness, endless night vigils because of their inability to find a husband and to finally achieve the social status of being a Woman. Out of desperation, some ladies get married to men who they clearly know are not right for them.
Some of the issues discussed above cannot be addressed by simply taking girls in school which explains why gender goes beyond girl-child education. In fact, some African gender scholars have said that educated working women might be one of the most dis-empowered women first because of the double burden they face to be good housewives in the home and then to meet the demands at work.
Most working women are made to feel less than “real women” by relatives and other people if they ask for any help in managing their home duties while working. Working married women themselves also constantly struggle with feelings of guilt in many cases. A real woman is thus a superwoman who can do it all at the same time. One who is immune to physical exhaustion, fatigue and depression. With the current economic hardships, many husbands expect their wives to work and contribute financially to meeting the needs in the home but more importantly, women are expected to take care of the domestic duties alone. Many female students told me that they would give up their careers in a heartbeat to fulfill their duties in the home.
Family is important and a non-negotiable priority but it seems that a crucial definition of femininity (who a real woman is) is one that puts pressure on women to fulfill their roles and duties as women at the expense of pursuing their own desires and ambitions. I have met many married women who lamented on several things they couldn’t do any more and many ambitions that are out of reach because they are married and this ought not to be so.
Thus, this Gender Wahala is not a simple issue of putting girls in school or blaming men for everything or even enacting the Gender Equality Bill but pondering on the definitions we’ve attached to who a real man or woman is and the struggles we all face to fulfill such roles, one we cannot simply escape even by education or gender equality movements.