- It was excused as a joke, but the president’s words matter – millions of girls are forced to stifle their dreams to meet the expectations of a patriarchal culture
A cook. An ornament. And perhaps something else depending on the mood. During a recent press conference with the German chancellor Angela Merkel, Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, was clearly miffed at being asked about criticism of his government’s performance by his wife, Aisha Buhari. He responded by reminding Nigeria’s first lady where her place was: in his kitchen, his living room and “the other room”.
There has been a lot of media focus on male entitlement and the treatment of women in recent weeks. From the former candidate for the Republican presidential nomination – the outwardly gentlemanly Ben Carson who sought to silence a female journalist asking a question he found annoying – to the proudly abrasive Donald Trump, who obviously has no regard for women. In between these high-profile examples are the countless women whose voices are lost, silenced or taken away from them in societies such as Nigeria where there is less media and societal focus on gender equality.
While Buhari’s statement was swiftly excused by his spokesman as a joke, the issue of a woman’s place in contemporary society hardly seems comedy material for a president. Besides, in a later interview Buhari boldly reiterated his stance, saying his wife’s most important duty was to “look after” him and the home “even if she’s working”. The sad truth is that while the Nigerian president’s comments could be dismissed as the rantings of a 73-year-old with outdated views, in reality his statements accurately reflect widely held beliefs in a stubbornly patriarchal society.
His comments came just three days after the International Day of the Girl Child, meant to focus on the plight of disadvantaged girls all over the world. Unicef statistics reveal Nigeria is home to the largest number of child brides in Africa, with 23 million girls and women having been married in childhood. Northern Nigeria, where Buhari comes from, has the highest prevalence of child marriage in the country. The region is predominantly Muslim, and “Islamic tradition” is usually given as justification for such practices
However, shabby treatment of women is by no means restricted to the north or one religion. No woman has ever been elected governor in any of Nigeria’s 36 states, a female president or even vice-president remains unimaginable to most. Leadership is generally not associated with women. This sad reality is all the more reason Buhari should realise there are concrete implications for how his words could affect the aspirations of young Nigerian girls.
Buhari, standing beside Merkel, one of the most prominent leaders in the world, who also happens to be a woman, squandered the opportunity to send a positive message to young Nigerian girls on the achievable. Furthermore, his assertion that his wife’s major role is to “look after” him serves to validate the widespread perception in Nigerian society that women exist merely to make men’s lives easier.
As is often the case in strongly patriarchal societies, many women have internalised the male point of view and accepted it as common sense. On social media, some Nigerian women have even condemned Buhari’s wife for daring to criticise him in public, saying she should stand by her man no matter what, the way Hillary Clinton did.
Such logic is mind-boggling as these women fail to see Buhari’s statements have wider-reaching implications that affect them as well. Whether they agree with Aisha Buhari’s political views or not does not detract from the underlying disdain for a woman who dared to speak contentiously.
Any idea of feminism is still viewed very suspiciously in Nigeria – even by women. I know some very well-educated professional females who view feminism as a western ideology aiming to usurp the rightful dominant role of the man in society. These women are sometimes highly successful in the corporate or business world, but still believe that once they get home, they need to dance around their husbands, be it in the kitchen or “the other room”, just to keep them happy. I also know hardworking, uneducated women who do strenuous, grimy jobs outside the home and also undertake a second or even a third shift in the home, again, to keep the man happy. They believe this is their duty as women. I know many women who absolutely hate cooking, yet they do it out of fear they would be considered bad wives by society if they didn’t.
What’s important to remember is that however Nigerians choose to interpret Buhari’s comments, behind such statements that demean and relegate women to positions of servitude is a woman or girl belittled. The statements of the most powerful man in the country also have an impact on how millions of impressionable boys will tailor their expectations of women. Millions of Nigerian girls struggle every day to find their place in a male-dominated society where they are constantly told they need to stifle and adapt their dreams to the expectations of an unashamedly patriarchal society. The last thing they need are flippant statements from their president.