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In April 2007, Grace Folashade Bent won the senatorial seat in the Adamawa South constituency in Adamawa State.
What makes her election as senator special is that she, a Yoruba woman and South Westerner, was elected to a powerful position in a Northern Nigerian state.
For a country that can currently boast only seven women as senators for the total 109 senatorial positions, her election forms an integral part in closing the political gap of women in representative politics.
However, while it is good to celebrate her election, one niggling question remains for any onlooker: “Why didn’t she run for a senatorial seat in her hometown?”.
Or better put: “What barriers stopped her from seeking support as a senator in a Yoruba majority state?”
The answer to that lies firmly in the belief held by most Nigerians that women no longer belong to their homes upon marriage. In addition to being seen as the property of their husbands, women are expected to direct all their energies to the development and building of their new homes. This same thinking applies to the few women who are bold enough to run for political offices in Nigeria.
Though not constitutional, when observing the pattern of women politicians in Nigeria, it goes without saying that first priority is given to married women and those same women prioritise offices and community development in their husband’s places.
That said, like all sexist and gendered actions, even the prioritising of the place of marriage for a woman, is no guarantee that political support will come unhindered. For women like Bianca Ojukwu who is the widow of late Biafran wartime leader Dim Odumegwu Ojukwu, this couldn’t be more true.
Herself a former presidential advisor in the Goodluck Jonathan presidency and a former ambassador to Ghana and Spain, Mrs. Ojukwu’s bid to hold a senatorial position in Anambra South Senatorial District was rejected. Naturally, given that this was where she was married into, it should have happened without debate. Moreso, her innumerable support of her husband and his people whilst he was alive should have granted her strong support even from his family. However she was denied on the grounds that she was not a native of Anambra South and was instead from Ngwo in Enugu State.
Using the words of Dr. Ike Ojukwu, one of her in-laws who opposed her move, he said it would be a “let down to allow a woman from Ngwo in Enugu State represent Anambra South Senatorial District”. He went further to say that “the district has several prominent people”.
Does this mean that maleness is the prerequisite for achieving prominence in the eyes of political lobbyists and voters in Nigeria? Maybe not.
Sometimes a woman being white may be more than enough to garner her a political office even in her husband’s place. Something denied to women like Bianca Ojukwu. This was made apparent when a fierce argument ensued on Twitter in mid January, because popular Igbo male influencers like Afam Deluxo, tweeted that a white woman who goes by the moniker “Nwanyi Ocha” should be honored with an appointment as a Commissioner for Tourism in an Igbo State. Nwanyi Ocha is married to an Igbo man and makes vlogs about her experience adjusting to Igbo culture. The consensus from a lot of Igbo women was that it was an insult to think of appointing her, when Igbo women couldn’t garner support to even follow due process and get elected.
If that logic is applied, that too would mean that women like Grace Folashade Bent should not be granted political office in Adamawa. It would also go without saying that her presence may also deny other more experienced women born and raised in her senatorial constituency from running.
It begs the question of why competency for women running for political office is first measured on her marriage status. Unmarried women are hardly paid attention to in the Nigerian political landscape.
Although we do have women politicians like Zahra Fatima Umar, a former divorcee in Adamawa State, women’s political roles are hugely hinged on how well they can show that they are “responsible married women”.
Though now remarried, asides politics, Ms. Umar is the creator of the popular #DivorceDiaries series which aims to give voice to Northern Nigerian women dealing with the stigma of divorce.
To better understand how this indecisiveness affects women, Document Women spoke to two women.
Ndi Kato is a women’s rights activist passionate about Nigerian women taking their due place in politics. She is the founder of PolitiShean, a group aimed at strategically advocating for the inclusion of more women in Nigerian politics. Ms. Kato agreed that women’s marriage status often is the first determinant of how responsible a woman is for political roles.
She says that a lot of women who come out to run for office are victims of a system that in her words, tells them that if not married “you will marry from elsewhere and owe [political] loyalty to that place” and if married insists that they should “go to their husband’s place and run”. However, both of these have not been the case for a woman like Bianca Ojukwu as mentioned earlier.
Speaking with Hassana Maina, a lawyer and member of the #ArewaMeToo movement addressing gender based violence in Northern Nigeria, she summarized the situation saying, “Women are encouraged to put down their identities and pick up that of their husbands”. She went further to say that although state structures make it hard for women who do not adhere to the laid down rules of marriage, even in marriage and at every point in her life “a woman’s place is not concretely certain”.
What then is the solution to the apparent political homelessness of Nigerian women aspiring to political office?
Though Section 42 of Nigeria’s Constitution (as amended) prohibits discrimination on the grounds of place of origin, sex, religion, status, ethnic or linguistic association or ties, we see these rights being violated in the civic space due to the norms and traditions of the country’s multiethnic environment.
Women should be supported when they express intent to run for political office even in their hometowns of origin. All of this, however, cannot happen if patriarchal practices and notions like bride price and female submission continue to exist.
They cannot happen if women are encouraged to put in a husband’s hometown as their place of origin when creating new documents after marriage. They cannot happen when women are punished for not changing their surnames after marriage. When all these practices occur, the reinforcement of ideas labelling women as property in the home, will inevitably spill into the political space.
To better solve all of the aforementioned, there should be the removal of forms that ask women to state marital titles. Just as the primary title for men is “Mr.” and is not tied to a man’s marital status, the primary title for women should also be “Ms”. There should also be the reviewing of concepts like state of origin which ultimately prioritise a father’s state for an unmarried woman and a husband’s state for a married woman.
Both of these seem little but they greatly add to the viewing of women as property and appendages. Only when they are actively dismantled shall we see a more equitable political system for women in Nigeria.