Nigeria: Patriarchy Persists in Nigeria

Chrisland Schools on Victoria Island in Lagos was recently in the news for the wrong reasons. Nigerian newspapers – and some further afield – carried the story of an incident in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, during the World School Games in March 2022. There were allegations of drug use, pornography and sex by under-aged children – four boys and a girl – representing their school in the games. The students allegedly had sex and it was recorded. The recording later went viral.

Four teachers, three male and one female, have been charged in court over the incident. The teachers were charged for allegedly concealing the sex tape. They were the supervisors of the Dubai trip.

The incident raises some important issues around the issue of patriarchy because of the way in which blame was apportioned. Some media reports blamed the mother of the ten-year-old girl. The father was never mentioned. Nor was the conduct of the parents of the four boys involved ever mentioned. The boys were not strongly reprimanded, the girl was.

As a gender scholar who has studied women’s history and masculinities, I see this as another case of patriarchy promoting the differential enjoyment of privileges between males and females. The manner in which the incident was reported by the press and the style of apportioning blame seem to suggest that males can get away with certain actions, but females cannot. Males don’t have to uphold society’s moral codes like females do.

This raises the question of whether women in Nigeria abet patriarchy – and, if they do, why.

Patriarchy in Nigeria

Patriarchy is a socio-cultural system that privileges maleness over femaleness and enthrones masculine domination of women.

This system is evident where authority is vested in men as a category, and especially in senior men or old men, who, as custodians of their cultures, ensure general compliance with social and cultural norms. Patriarchal dominance evolved into a formidable institution with clear political undertones.

It operates in many societies across the globe, and is pervasive and resilient in African cultures.

In Nigeria, specifically, patriarchy is evident in a variety of ways. In more than two decades of research into women’s history, I have seen patriarchy presenting itself in these forms: denigration of the female gender; social, cultural and political subjugation of females; exclusion of the female gender from public office; sexual exploitation of, and aggression against, females; and denial of female rights and agency. These forms of patriarchy (and more) create inequality between the gender groups and result in unequal access to rights and privileges.

Scrutiny falls on women and girls

In the Chrisland Schools incident, patriarchy is central in the social demands made on females. These differ significantly from expectations of males, especially in similar circumstances.

The incident did not trigger as much of media outcry against the four male students involved as against the girl.

Public scrutiny in the media of the behaviour of the boys and of their family histories was less than public scrutiny of the girl’s behaviour and of her family.

This reaffirms the patriarchal moral perception that excuses, and sometimes encourages, the sexual adventures of boy children, but strongly disapproves of similar action by girl children.

Such differential enjoyment of rights and dignity is fundamental in patriarchy.

Women contribute to patriarchy

Just as Nigerian men collectively protect the patriarchal institution and the privileges they enjoy, I have found in my research that Nigerian women also contribute – with or without knowing it – to reinforcing the institutions that oppress them and undermine gender equality.

Nigerian women, like men, perpetuate patriarchy in various ways. One is by consenting to institutionalised patriarchy by philosophically reasoning: “it has always been so … why should we raise any objections?”.

This timid acceptance of male domination pervades the psyche of many Nigerian women and determines how they see their world and their experiences. Thus conditioned, it becomes difficult for most to fight patriarchal bondage or to assert themselves.

Women also ingrain this thinking, outlook and behaviour into their female children. Girls are brought up in line with the social norms approved by men for the female gender.

Research that I published in 2005 found that women also reinforced patriarchal ideas, values and ways of behaviour in the way they socialised boy children. They laid the foundation for specific models of what it meant to be masculine.

Another way that women encourage patriarchy is by deliberate inaction. Sometimes they have the opportunity to change oppressive and violent cultures, but they do nothing because they want other women to experience the same mistreatment that they themselves experienced. My 2002 study on burial rites showed ex-widows’ resistance to the abrogation of oppressive widowhood practices. In like manner, a 2008 study revealed the reluctance of women to support fellow women vying for political office in the country.

My view is that Nigerian men as a group seem to act together to maintain their privileges, while women don’t act together to challenge patriarchy.

Thus, women encourage patriarchy; and when issues like the Chrisland Schools affair occur, women unnecessarily suffer the backlash.

Egodi Uchendu, Professor (of History and International Studies), University of Nigeria