Feminism and What It Means to Be a Nigerian Woman

Feminism is a range of political movements, ideologies, and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish and achieve political, economic, personal, and social rights for women. This includes seeking to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment.


Feminists are very often portrayed in two main negative lights, angry & isolated women and/ or men haters. And as a result, many women who indeed are men lovers and just generally happy about life, never call themselves feminists. I am neither bitter nor isolated and I do not hate men, but am I angry? You bet!

Africa has its own peculiar beliefs, norms and traditions which are entirely different from western culture. This is reflected in the brand of feminism practised in Nigeria. The Feminist Movement started subtly and unconsciously in Nigeria in 1929 during the Aba women’s riot. Over the years, remarkable growth has been recorded which is evident in the noticeable presence of women in all spheres of life in Nigeria. The peculiar aspects of African feminism that make it entirely different from what is practised in the western world are analysed.

Feminists in Africa recognize the fact that there are core values and of feminism that regards the menfolk as complementary partners in progress, and in aspects of western individualism that permit radical feminism; for this may spell societal disintegration. Selected texts of Flora Nwapa, Zaynab Alkali and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s works are used as case studies. These writers represent three phases of the growth of feminism in Nigeria in the given chronological order. The literary contributions of other female writers within the three given phases of this study are equally noted.

Studies into the concept of gender have since gone on to prove the construct to be completely fluid. Some women like beer and football and some men like Telemundo and Cosmopolitan cocktails. However, social forces have always forced an identity on both genders; the female often receiving the short end of the stick in most societies making the male some kind of gold standard to be measured against. This is why a woman being assertive will be said to be acting like a man or other such nonsense. While it would be ideal to say that we don’t care what anyone or society thinks, and we are just going to “do us”, the reality is that humans are social creatures; for the most part, what others think of us and how they treat us will affect our behaviour and how we feel.

Feminist movements have campaigned and continue to campaign for women’s rights, including the right to vote, to hold public office, to work, to earn fair wages or equal pay, to own property, to receive education, to enter contracts, to have equal rights within marriage, and to have maternity leave. Feminists have also worked to promote bodily autonomy and integrity, and to protect women and girls from rape, sexual harassment, and domestic violence.

Feminist campaigns are generally considered to be the main force behind major historical societal changes for women’s rights, particularly in the West, where they are near-universally credited with achieving women’s suffrage, gender neutrality in English, reproductive rights for women (including access to contraceptives and abortion), and the right to enter into contracts and own property. Although feminist advocacy is, and has been, mainly focused on women’s rights, some feminists argue for the inclusion of men’s liberation within its aims because men are also harmed by traditional gender roles.

Feminist theory, which emerged from feminist movements, aims to understand the nature of gender inequality by examining women’s social roles and lived experience; it has developed theories in a variety of disciplines in order to respond to issues concerning gender.
Numerous feminist movements and ideologies have developed over the years and represent different viewpoints and aims. Some forms of feminism have been criticized for taking into account only white, middle class, and educated perspectives. This criticism led to the creation of ethnically specific or multicultural forms of feminism, including black feminism and intersectional feminism.

1. The belief that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities;

2. Organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests;

3. The belief that women are and should be treated as potential intellectual equals and social equals to men. These people can be either male or female human beings, although the ideology is commonly (and perhaps falsely) associated mainly with women;

The basic idea of Feminism revolves around the principle that just because human bodies are designed to perform certain procreative functions, biological elements need not dictate intellectual and social functions, capabilities and rights.

Feminism also, by its nature, embraces the belief that all people are entitled to freedom and liberty within reason–including equal civil rights–and that discrimination should not be made based on gender, sexual orientation, skin colour, ethnicity, religion, culture, or lifestyle.
Feminists–and all persons interested in civil equality and intellectualism–are dedicated to fighting the ignorance that says people are controlled by and limited to their biology.

4. Feminism is the belief that all people are entitled to the same civil rights and liberties and can be intellectual equals regardless of gender. However, you should still hold the door for a feminist; this is known as respect or politeness and need have nothing whatever to do with gender discrimination.

The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.

I was a young woman who didn’t quite understand the term “feminist”, my upbringing included traditional Nigerian values, and I quickly learned the roles expected of men and women. As my grandmother put it, the man leads the household, while the woman maintains it and looks after him and their children. Essentially, the wife belongs to her husband. The common dynamic is gender hegemony, not equality.

I still feel pressure to conform to the idea of what a Nigerian woman should be. For instance, as a young girl, my dad would attempt to teach me how to act so that one day I might make a good wife: you should have the man’s food prepared before he comes home from work; You have to serve the man food first; You should clean the kitchen.

Preserving Patriarchy

Yet traditional beliefs do not remain solely in their country of origin, but rather pass from parents to children, then spread as these children immigrate to other countries, and are perpetuated through the upbringing of their own children. I don’t blame my grandmother or my parents for preserving patriarchy, because I understand that as Nigerians we too have been socialized to view the woman as inherently inferior to the man: as a person designed to take the supporting role and remain in the background.

I recently watched a speech on feminism by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a popular Nigerian writer, and this line struck me: “The problem with gender is that it prescribes who we should be rather than who we are.” She then went on to share how a friend had expressed to her that being a ‘feminist’ was un-African, that Western books had corrupted her.

The term “un-African” lingered in my mind as Adichie shared past experiences of sexism in Nigeria. She shared how she entered an exclusive hotel and the security guard immediately came up to her. He gave her trouble, telling her to leave because he believed the only way a woman could come into such an establishment unaccompanied was if she was an escort.

In another instance, Adichie was tipping a valet who had brought her car around for her. Her friend, who just happened to be a man, was sitting in the passenger seat, and as she handed the boy the money, he looked at the man and said, “Thank you, sir”.

Adichie continued: “Masculinity becomes this hard, cold cage and we put boys inside of. In other words, men are cheated just like their female counterparts. They aren’t afforded an ounce of fluidity either and they are harshly measured against the concept of the ideal man: powerful, assertive, appealing, sexual, strong, rational, etc. Therefore, the question shouldn’t be about why modern women act “un-African” but rather why it is “African” to support a cultural model that is unjust and oppressive to all of its citizens?

With this construction of masculinity, we not only set up power dynamics but also jeopardize the humanity of the male by forcing him to become this rigid being, directly or indirectly asserting his dominance over anybody that appears feminine. Suddenly, anyone who opposes or challenges this understanding of masculinity becomes a threat to manhood, and it becomes the duty of the man to protect it.

This is not meant to be a generalization of all Nigerian men, though I do believe different aspects of my culture such as media, religion, social institutions, traditional values and family dynamics perpetuate the greater theme of male dominance. The day I talked with my grandmother, I asked her for the reasons behind the traditional construction. All she could say was this was the way it had always been.

What it Means to be a Nigerian Woman

I then thought of my dad who constantly reminds me of my “duties.” Can I really blame him? My culture perpetuates the dominance of the alpha male: the so-called fighter, the protector, the provider, with the woman’s identity structured around him. I see it not only in my dad but also with my brothers who cannot understand the challenges I face as a woman. I see it with fellow Nigerians and other male peers at school who presume the “natural” role of the leader. And I see it within my country, which insufficiently reacted to the kidnapping of 200 schoolgirls by Boko Haram.

Although I do not share Adichie’s experiences of being a woman in Nigeria, I too have experienced gender inequality in our shared culture. I think of how my gender identity is the reason I have to serve food at Nigerian parties, and my male relatives don’t; why I have always had the responsibility of watching over the kids, especially since I have a twin brother who is just as capable; or why people consider me from my father’s village rather than my mother’s, despite the fact that my birth required both of them.

I find it scary that people truly believe there is some dissociation between Africans and this idea of feminism. While the term “feminism” is Western, I am sure there have always been African women who have felt entitled to being treated as equals. I find myself wondering when it became the status quo to rule at the expense of the woman. How is it that if a woman insists she is equal to her male counterparts, she becomes linked to the word “feminist”, which is understood as a role solely for the angry woman who can’t find a man or has read too many Western books and is lacking culture?

I am still trying to understand the term “feminist”. I have my own issues with it, such as its history and who is excluded, as well as the view among Africans that I am just angry or don’t have a man. I am still trying to understand my culture and learn from my family, especially the strong women and women in my life such as my beautiful mother and grandmother. I still don’t know what it means to be a Nigerian woman without submitting to patriarchal norms.

There should never be a right or wrong way to perform gender. Everyone should have the ability to be as fluid as they want. I suppose that is the true meaning of my feminism: the agency and the freedom to be whoever I choose to be.
So when I say a lot of women contribute to the perpetuation of sexism by expecting male dominance, it is not to say that women are the cause of sexism. Sexism is not caused by anyone, neither is it anyone’s fault. It is simply symptomatic of the society we have developed; both men and women, on a daily basis, passively perpetuate it. While I will admit to being guilty of hammering down on women in my recent writing, I will also say it is not for mischievous reasons.

For the most part, Nigerian men are enjoying a good deal at the moment. As long as there are women out there willing to play into submission (which the majority are, as our parents, society and religion have convinced them to), men will have no need to change besides extreme altruism (you wish). This makes the first course of action for women to be getting organized and united in their front; otherwise, feminism will remain nothing but an online blame game with a few exposed men sympathizing, while the society carries on with little or no change at all.

I know a lot of women in very high positions and at the peak of their careers; in happy marriages and single if they so choose. So will it be fair to say that we have it locked down and we need not bother pushing the feminist agenda any further, at least not exclusively? However, if you consider, the way in which rape, domestic violence and abuse against women in Nigeria go unchecked, core traditions and limitations surrounding women in Nigerian homes and the downplaying of the effects of rampant infidelity to a woman’s psyche, you will at least give this most loathed word a chance to explain its “whys”.

Feminism is not and has never been a movement against men; women need men in whatever capacity just as much as men need women. So I think it is ignorant to believe that as a feminist you must hate men. What’s sadder for me is a lot of women’s interpretation of feminism as just that, which then means that if you are in love with your husband, choose to give up your career to raise your kids then you must not be a feminist. Feminism was never a move to oppress men but to liberate women.

As I have got older, my anger has increased at what women in Nigeria have been through and how society fails to supports and protect women against domestic and sexual violence. I am appalled at how a lot of our cultures celebrate ideologies that leave women exposed to discrimination and gender bias, depriving them of choices that they should be free to make and their entitlements in society. In some Nigerian cultures, for instance, a woman is not entitled to inherit her father’s property and any sensible woman married into these tribes must have at least one male child to be considered a blessing to her husband.

Whilst there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting male offspring, the fact that this is preferred to the other is often regarded as the lesser alternative – there-in lies the problem. I find shameful, people like a 40-year- old man I met who believes the birth of his son, was worthy of more celebration than that of his daughter two years before, for the simple fact that “it’s a boy”. This angers me because his daughter and many others in our society will inevitably grow up in an environment that negatively affects her worth as a human being. Although successful in her endeavours, his daughter will always feel like she is fighting men or she will cower under an imaginary idea that she’s a little less than a man.

These issues fuel my motivation to create awareness of equality and not necessarily similarity – What is good for a man is not what is good for a woman, not always. For instance, Women are left more susceptible to violence in the home, so laws against domestic violence become more of a female issue and high up on the feminist agenda. These subtle untruths downplay, how important a woman’s work or presence is and create an illusion that what a woman faces, emotionally, physically and psychologically; especially when men are not likely to face the same issues, is just not that serious. In response to someone who asked why I don’t just encourage young men and women to believe in themselves, I say, “it isn’t the same thing” they do not face the same battles and these issues are still not tackled sufficiently, not here in Nigeria. True acceptance and implementation of feminism liberates both men and women.

The head of diversity in a large corporation wrote an article about how women should get on in the workplace, and in citing the fact that for the same job and pay, women will be required to have more qualifications than a man. His advice? …women should go ahead and get these qualifications so that they can be integrated into the workplace. I don’t hold a grudge against his ignorance, truth is we have come some way because he’s pointed out a major issue but from his response, we have miles to go before we can begin to think about easing off the pedals.

It’s a slippery slope to be driven by anger but the truth is that anger is a sign of ample discontentment, and that’s what makes you think of change. If these issues didn’t affect me, I wouldn’t have a burden for them, and without the burden, we do little to help other women not as fortunate as us. It is important to note your role in the next woman’s life.

Ifeanyi Iloba

Ifeanyi Iloba is a graduate of the University of Lagos, she studied Guidance and counselling.
Her interests span modelling and writing as she is currently writing a book and writes for other lifestyle magazines. She also is the manager of Red Velvet NG where she plans events, provides models/hostesses for events and supplies hampers.

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