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POLITICS-NIGERIA: In the Shadows of Men: Women’s Political Marginalisation

Mustapha Muhammad

KANO, Mar 12 2010 (IPS) - Ten years after Nigeria returned to civil rule women still play second fiddle in the male-dominated politics of Africa’s most populous nation, women politicians and activists say.

Nigerian men queue to vote at a polling station in Katsina, northern Nigeria, in 2007. Activists say women are still politically marginalised.  Credit: Tiggy Ridley/IRIN

Nigerian men queue to vote at a polling station in Katsina, northern Nigeria, in 2007. Activists say women are still politically marginalised. Credit: Tiggy Ridley/IRIN

Since this West African country of 140 million people broke from military rule and embraced uninterrupted multi-party democracy in 1999, men have been calling the shots while women, who constitute more than half of voters (54 percent), only hold marginal elective offices.

“Although it has been a decade of uninterrupted civilian rule, Nigerian women are still battling political marginalisation where they are not given the chance to hold political offices,” Rabi Musa, a women’s rights activist told IPS.

“Despite the relative improvement in women political participation and representation between 2003 and 2007, such improvement does not reflect women’s numerical superiority,” said Musa, coordinator of the Women’s Right Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA).

Between 1999 and 2003 a total of 15 female parliamentarians, were elected. This figure marginally improved from 2003 to 2007 and there are currently 26 women are in parliament.

Nigeria is signatory to the United Nations convention to eliminate discrimination against women but women in the country continue to voice dissent against their continued domination by men in the realm of politics and in other spheres.

“We women constitute the majority of voters during elections we are hardly given a level playing ground to actualise our dreams of active involvement in the politics of our country through elective offices,” female politician Maryam Jari told IPS at a political meeting.

“The Beijing conference requires every country that participated in the conference to reserve 30 percent of positions and offices to women but in Nigeria we are yet to have even 10 percent,” Jari said.

Why marginalised?

Social, cultural and religious factors are largely responsible for the marginalisation of women in politics in Nigeria, particularly in the Muslim-dominated part of the country where politics is seen as men’s exclusive preserve.

Nigerian politics is capital intensive as it requires spending large amounts of money to organise and mobilise support to win an election. In Nigeria, female candidates rarely receive sponsorship from donors.

Women in Nigeria are not as economically empowered as men. In most communities women are economically dependent on their husbands who control family income. Even where women are allowed to engage in money-making ventures, their husbands control the purse. Mairo Usman, a politician in northern Nigeria’s Kano city, said women’s weak economic base contributes to their political domination by men.

“Women in Nigeria have far less money than men and even in politics there is a wide economic disparity between women and men, which gives men competitive political advantage over women because they are the ones with money to throw around and win votes,” Usman said.

“Those among us that aspire to political office need the financial support of men who usually prefer supporting their fellow men due to prevalent male chauvinism that runs through the veins of our men,” she said.

Politicking is time-consuming with politicians travelling far and wide and often staying overnight in hotels far from their homes during political rallies. Such political rallies are often rowdy and at times violent with political thugs taking centre-stage, hurling insults and brandishing assortments of locally made weapons. Given such scenarios, women politicians are generally seen as promiscuous in a society that believes women’s role should be confined to domestic management.

“We are seen largely as lose women because we are politicians who, by the nature of politics, stay out late at night attending political meetings and rallies and sometimes sleep in hotels far away from our homes,” Jari told IPS.

“Politics involve intermingling between men and women and our culture and religion strongly abhor mixing between the two sexes which is viewed as indication of lewdness,” she added.

Aisha Suleiman, a Kano resident, was initially reluctant to join partisan politics due to the stigma associated with it. She said the unwholesome attitude of some female political supporters, which portray women politicians as “uncultured” and “ruffians” put her off from entering politics.

“The way women political supporters hurl abusive and violent language, take drugs such as hemp and other stimulants during political rallies give them an air of irresponsibility,” Suleiman said.

The desire to make a difference and change the negative public perception of women politicians eventually changed Suleiman’s mind and she entered the political arena.

“If we all stay away and allow such uncultured women to continue exhibiting their uncouth attitude in politics, we will never be taken seriously,” the 25-year-old Suleiman said.

Mohammed Ali Mashi, head of rights organisation General Improvement of Persons Initiatives (GIOPIN), said tradition and distorted religious dogma play a significant role in women’s political marginalisation.

Hard line Muslim clerics mount campaigns on the pulpit and on radio denouncing women’s political participation as being against the tenets of Islam. Mashi faulted such radical clerics, arguing that their views do not represent true position of Islam.

Mashi believes women are gradually defying such notions and venturing into politics and contesting elective offices due to sustained public enlightenment campaigns. He, however, said more campaigns have to be intensified to minimise the wide political margin between men and women.

“Since Islam encourages women to seek an education, I see no reason why society should deprive women political equality with men because they also have the right to contribute to nation building as men,” Mashi said.

Measures to change the trend

Gender-based NGOs like WRAPA have mounted rigorous sensitisation campaigns to erase the promiscuity stigma attached to female participation in politics. “We are all out to disabuse the minds of the public of the popularly-held belief that women politicians are flirtatious simply because they mingle with men and attend meetings in hotels and sleep there when the need arises,” said Musa.

“We wonder why the society doesn’t see men politicians that sleep at hotels for (political) meetings and rallies as immoral. Why women? It is very disheartening,” she lamented.

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