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Who Really Runs This House? Changing Gender Norms in Nigeria

Author: Chinelo Onwualu Published on: 28/02/2017

Chinelo Onwualu is a writer and editor who has worked in newspapers in Nigeria and the United States for the last 5 years.

Copyright: Chinelo Onwualu, 2017. Reprinted with permission

Stories of men in Nigeria leaving their families to carry on affairs with other women, or throwing out their wives because of some dissatisfaction or other are so common place they are a trope in Nollywood films. In these movies these “good” women endure their partner’s humiliations with stoic resolve, resorting to prayer and pleading to bring their men to their senses. There’s usually a lot of crying.

So when musician Tiwa Savage decided to end her marriage to her manager, Tunji Balogun (TeeBillz), last year, her ex took to Twitter and in a series of now deleted messages accused her of infidelity, disrespect and witchcraft. Savage shot back in a candid interview where she described a long history of propping up her husband’s failing career, covering up his numerous infidelities, and using her own wealth to shore up his expensive lifestyle. In a similar move, talk show hostess Toke Makinwa wrote a tell-all book detailing the ins and outs of her marriage to fitness coach, Maje, which broke up after less than two years. In it, Makinwa describes years of Maje’s serial philandering, even accusing him of giving her an STD.

Both women bucked the expectations of silent endurance that is one of the hallmarks of ideal female behaviour. But it is telling that both had to detail just how much bad behaviour they had endured before deciding to end their relationships in order to keep their audiences from blaming them for the dissolution of their relationships. To me, these two stories are the public face of the current changes in gender expectations in Nigeria.

Changing gender norms is not a new thing in Nigerian history. Unlike what many gender essentialists will tell you, the way men and women behave is shaped by environment, history and religion. Academic Judith Butler explains that “sex is the biological difference in maleness or femaleness while gender is a socially and culturally-constructed and maintained set of ideals and standards, that are performed to define the status of maleness or femaleness.”

Colonialism brought unprecedented changes in the ways men and women related with each other across many societies in Nigeria – upending previous understandings of who did what and why. The Women and Religion in Africa Blog notes that:

 “…by replacing gender systems that had logical bearing within traditional societies, colonialism caused the female role to become defined by its opposition to the male role rather than by natural resources or lineage.”

Today, rising rates of unemployment, poverty, insecurity and vast income inequality are once again up-ending our ideas of the roles that men and women play. The problem isn’t the change itself, culture is a fluid, ever-adapting thing constantly influencing and being influenced in turn. The problem is that these rigid gender ideals not only unattainable, but standing in opposition to people’s ability to survive and thrive. Yet our standards for gendered behaviour don’t seem to be adapting to reality. Instead, the changes are being met with resistance and sometimes even violence.

A 2015 survey found that many Nigerians believe that “men should be tough, intelligent, fearless and responsible” providing economically for the family as breadwinners and decision-makers. Women on the other hand were largely perceived as “being led by their emotions,” weaker, more vulnerable, and less suited for leadership than men.

However, a recent World Bank report notes that “under increasing economic pressure, men in many parts of the world have lost their traditional occupations and jobs, and women have been forced to take on additional income-earning tasks, while continuing their domestic duties.” But while “women are often willing to undertake considerable risk in order to provide for their children,” by and large, men are reacting to these challenges to their perceptions of themselves as providers and heads of families with anger and frustration. The result is that:

“Many instances were cited of men who had left the community and deserted their families because of debt they could not repay, or simply because they were unable to provide for their wives and children…”

In Nigeria a significant number of men report struggling to fulfil the expectations of providing for their families and keeping them safe. This has led to men reporting high rates of low-self-esteem and stress, and young men all over the country “engaging in violent and risky activities” to gain resources and power.

Our society expects women to be responsible for the well-being of their children and husbands, even to the point of tolerating violence in order to “keep the family together.” Yet women are discriminated against in all spheres. They are less likely to be given access to education, economic loans, and are paid less than men in formal employment – regardless of their educational qualifications. And when their husbands disappear – through neglect, divorce, abandonment or death – women take on the economic welfare of their families while still continuing to be the primary carers in their homes. Simply put: women find ways to adjust to their changing roles, despite enormous inequalities, violence and prejudice but men do not.

I think the reason is the construction of masculinity itself. The 2015 report on men in Nigeria noted that “widely held ideas about masculinity and femininity are powerful ‘root causes’ of gender inequality and violence against women (in all its forms),” but “gender equitable and non-violent masculinities can bring important benefits to men and women alike, for example, better relationships, less stress, happier children, and future generations who reject violence against women and children…”

In her essay, The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture, writer Nora Samaran explains that to completely transform misogynistic cultures, men must do more than keep from assaulting women; they must be willing to transform their own understandings of themselves. Men must build “masculine nurturance skills” which allow them to recognise that their needs for attachment are healthy and normal. Such skills will free them to be whole and kind, and to heal themselves and others in the same ways that women are expected to.

Author Hadassah Egbedi noted that in his series of tweets, Tiwa Savage’s ex-husband, TeeBillz, demonstrated clear signs of emotional instability and “hints of suicidal thoughts” as he spoke about his fear of not being a good enough father to his children. Yet, “all everyone did was laugh and make jokes.” She blamed a culture where men are seen as incapable of being emotional, where parents teach their sons not to cry, not to feel, for fear of being called effeminate.

“…there needs to be a shift in the way we educate our boy child, and in the way we see things. Crying or being emotional does not emasculate a man.”

Men must build their resilience and, as Samaran points out, they must do this with other men. Women cannot be responsible for healing men while at the same time dealing with the consequences of male violence and neglect. Men must find ways to talk to each other about their emotions in ways that foster compassion, and reduces shame and confusion. Only by seeing other men set the example will men be able to move from a destructive masculinity that celebrates domination, aggression, and a capacity for violence to one that is oriented towards equality and respect.

The need for change is clear. The world will continue to demand more emotional and economic labour from families and individuals, and men whose expectations of masculinity have cut them off from their own desires and emotions will continue to struggle. Celebrities like Tiwa Savage and Toke Makinwa have been able to use their wealth and status to opt out of continuing to absorb the failures of the men in their lives. They refused to be burdened by partners who insisted on maintaining all the power, control and privilege, while being unable to fully contribute to their households. Unfortunately, not all women have the same capacity. Our rigid conceptions of gender have to adapt, or our society will die. This is not a threat or a promise, this is simple evolution.

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