7 February 2008

Nigeria: Feminist Forum - Building a Network


Abuja — The information exchange that preceded the first Nigerian Feminist Forum NFF which way held at Dennis Hotel in Abuja January 24 -28 raised a lot of expectations. According to the organisers, it was designed to be a historic gathering of Nigerian feminist thinkers, practitioners and activists.

The project had a long gestation period as thoughts crystallised into ideas and a vision that is driven by a commitment to make the world a better place for all. The project had been discussed for several years at international meetings, in corridors, over dinner, drinks etc. In 2005 at the African Women In Development AWID International Forum, Nigerian feminists present agreed to make the Nigerian Feminist Forum a priority. They later met at the First African Feminist Forum in Accra, Ghana where they established a Steering Committee to organise the NFF.

The Steering Committee commenced work and drew up criteria for those to invite, women who have publicly self defined themselves as feminists or those who recognised "to walk the talk" in difficult or extremely vulnerable contexts, some women were nominated to ensure intergenerational representation and for the NFF purpose, young is defined as under 35years of age. Others are women with a track record of active engagement with feminist issues from diverse fields at community level, trade unions, politicians, corporate executives, government officials, faith based institutions etc. The identified participants were indeed drawn from the rank of those who have been working in promoting women's rights.

The result was the NFF which is 'a space for reflection and dialogue on the challenges facing the Nigerian women's movement and feminist activities in particular. We need to preserve our feminist spaces and at the same time create new spaces and put forward new visions. To do this, we need commitment, solidarity, critical dialogues effective leadership, power and resources. We need a diverse, interconnected, and interdisciplinary feminism, which is radical, local, global and collective, linking theory with practice. This is an opportunity for us to stop diluting our language and agenda; to stop being apologetic about our choices, our dreams and our visions of justice."

With these objectives in mind, participants at the NFF hoped to achieve the following:

• To develop a conceptual clarity and address the politics of naming

• Assess our relationship with contemporary Nigerian state and state structures

• Re-politicise the Movement

•Harness feminist institutions

•Develop feminist leadership

•Replenish our ranks

•Protect the integrity of feminist space

•Take care of ourselves

The Forum adopted the slogan "Repositioning ourselves, transforming our lives" and the opening session of the forum addressed that theme.

According to the organisers, repositioning ourselves addresses "how we identify as Nigerian feminists, and why it is important to do so. It alludes to the centuries of examples of resistance to patriarchy and looks at the history of Nigerian feminist and women's movements in the 20th and 21st centuries. It explores some of our diversities and commonalities across the country, as well as relationships with Western feminist and/or global feminism-the connections the tensions, contradictions and resolutions. It takes up ways of naming, recognising, knowing and doing, what we have, can and/or should do, who to work with and celebrate.

There were four simultaneous workshops after the plenary. The first was on Crafting Female Knowledge: What Counts as Feminist Knowledge. The second was on Mentoring for a Transformative Feminist Leadership. The third was on Knowledge and Praxis: Which Way Forward: Affirmative Action, Quota Or Consensus? And the fourth was on Well Being: Our bodies, Our Soul and it examined the prospects for financial, emotional and mental stability and also nutritional and social well being which are critical to being a complete human being. As development workers feminists work hard and like other people with loaded schedule they may forget to listen to their body and keep fit. The participants took a cue from the WHO definition of health which is "a state of complete physical, mental emotional and social wellbeing and not only the absence of disease or infirmity" and included discussions on staying physically and mentally healthy in the programme. Some participants went for yoga, others for relaxation, meditation and African dance aerobics.

The invitation letter to participants said there would be many analytical workshops, focusing on feminist analysis and strategies. That expectation was fully met that participants had difficulty deciding which workshop to attend. So many interesting workshops were going on simultaneously. For those who wanted to be in two places at the same time, and I was one of them, I planned to move from one session to another. However when I went to one of the workshops, I got too absorbed and could not leave. Infact it was so interesting that the moderator had difficulty winding it up and meeting the time limit. Space constraints will make it impossible for me to share what transpired in all those interesting workshops so an introduction of the main sessions and two papers will suffice.

Amina Ibrahim the Senior Special Assistant to the President on the Millennium Development Goals presented a paper titled From Rhetoric to Actuality: Moving From Text to Implementation and it provided food for thought. She set the tone in the preamble to her paper. ' Where women are respected and empowered, given access to education, healthcare, the poverty burden is reduced through access to resources and basic amenities; then families and communities are strengthened, citizens are healthier and better represented, corruption is reduced, conflict at bay and peace prevails in the land." She also said in many countries women now have more opportunities for education and stronger rights than ever before. Where discrimination, gender based violence and inequality persists, dynamic women and men are working to change the status quo.

The paper then threw some posers for all: Is a female child born with responsibility of housekeeping? Is a male child naturally better suited for business and mathematics? She observed that while expectations about gender vary by location, most cultures and religious teachings still encourage traditional gender roles for women and men. She then touched on contemporary attempts to address this. Social scientists believe that gender is constructed by society we live in -that we learn how to be girls and boys, women and men, feminine or masculine from the moment we take our first breath. Amina's paper then threw more posers: Can we attach any substance to the rhetoric in our own environment? Are we not at risk of stereotyping feminism to the detriment of our own women and the peculiar cultural and societal values we live in? Are labels not stereotyping us? How do we truly domesticate the international platforms we sign on?

For a forum such as this the issue of definitions and common grounds will always be raised so the paper discussed gender and what gender advocacy entails. Gender of course describes the social roles and personal identity of female and male biological sexes .One's image, behaviour and speech are all factors that help to form representation and gender identity. Gender advocates according to her are asking for -equality, equity, equal access to resources, equal opportunities etc There is a variation in this, and the stand of equalists and gender advocates do differ. Some equalists believe that certain feminists have abandoned notions of equality and instead focus only on females' rights to the point of excluding and promoting the subjugation of the rights of other sexes. Equalists seek to promote the rights of females/males and everything in between". Then the often misunderstood concept of feminism was defined in the paper as: 'the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of sexual equality.' This means it is the political theory and practice to free all women irrespective of class, colour and social standing. According to the paper, feminists are saying; Women are not inferior to men, the female and the male have the same rights, men want women under their control.

I have heard many of those who work for the empowerment of women saying that they do not want to be identified as feminists because of the negative reactions the term elicits in people. It is believed that the western concept of feminism includes fighting for the right of women who are lesbians and as African women this is considered a taboo and totally unacceptable. The NFF organisers made it clear that "As African feminists our understanding of feminism places patriarchal social relations, structures and systems which are embedded in other oppressive and exploitative structures at the center of our analysis. Patriarchy is a system of male authority which legitimises the oppression of women through political, social, economic, legal, cultural, religious and military institutions". On the feminist approach to work, the NFF organisers said "Our focus is fighting patriarchy as a system rather than fighting individual men or women. We define our work as investing individual and institutional energies in the struggle against all forms of patriarchal oppression and exploitation."

Beyond definitions, the issue of rhetoric was also addressed. Amina's paper observed that feminist rhetoric says: Women's roles have been suppressed with no equal opportunity, women's roles are vital and valued and they demand that research and programmes should improve women's lot-in -life. Gender rhetoric is about men and women working together and in applying it to the MDG, goal three states 'promote gender equality and empower women'. Therefore gender equality and women's empowerment are central to achieving MDGs. Gender inequalities exist among the rich and the poor but tend to be greater among the poor.

To achieve the gender component of the MDGs the following seven strategic priorities must be addressed:

•Strengthen opportunities for post-primary education for girls

•Guarantee sexual and reproductive health rights

•Invest in infrastructure to reduce women and girls time burden

•Guarantee women's and girls property and inheritance rights

•Eliminate gender inequality in employment

•Increase women's political participation and

•Combat violence against women

After the first plenary session on re-positioning ourselves and the four workshops that followed it, there was a multi-generational lunch which brought together feminists across generations for learning, sharing and mentoring. It was hosted by women who have done considerable work in various fields.The second plenary session was titled Timeline of the Nigerian Feminist Movement 1945-2007. It identified significant milestones in the women's/feminist movement and discussed areas and issues where feminist politics/activism has been visible. It examined the lessons learned, challenges facing activists and the missed opportunities. It also discussed the accelerators and inhibitions for feminist engagement in various contexts and provided an opportunity for inter-generational learning.

The various workshops that followed this explored the strategies for documenting the history of women's movement, mapping knowledge, aligning feminist visions, values and practice-walking the talk in feminist organisations and sharing experiences of misogyny and violations of women's rights and how women have fought back against them.

The next plenary session was on Feminism and Transforming Lives which identified and shared the analyses of the main contestations at this juncture and the work being done ( or needed to be done) to address them. This includes issues such as violations of women's human rights-economic, political, social and others especially reproductive and sexual; fundamentalisms (including religious, cultural, ethnic etc).There is the recognition that most of these are local but they have been globalised. The session examined the legislative changes that have taken place, some of these were constitutional changes and participants explored the role women played in engaging with the change processes. Other issues discussed were the role of the state and the policies developed as a response to globalisation, micro-economic analysis and policy, gender budgeting and the notion of citizenship for women. The four workshops that followed were on Fundamentalism and Bridge Building: Generating a Feminist Analysis and Strategy to Address Christian Conservatism and Fundamentalisms, The second workshop was on Feminist Agency and Addressing HIV/AID, the third was on Empowering Through State Initiatives: Assessing Accountability By States for Women's Advancement while the fourth was " Women, Citizenship And Indigeneship: Participation, Politics And Property Rights As Citizens of Nigeria.

I attended the third workshop and the first speaker was Abiola Akiyode Afolabi who discussed empowerment of women and how the government had fared in meeting its commitments. She began by defining empowerment as self assertion, stressing that empowerment is a process that is supposed to lead to a result but it is not an end in itself. She commended the government for the efforts it has made in making policies that are designed to empower women. Nigeria has signed the African Charter on Human and Peoples Right and the Protocol on the rights of women, domestication of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women CEDAW is pending at the National Assembly and the government has produced a National Gender Policy. She however identified some flaws in the data cited in the "Nigeria Country Report on CEDAW which is to be presented to United Nations in June this year. She also stressed the need for government to back up policies made with a realistic budget to ensure effective implementation of such policies.

The second speaker was Tolu Lewis Tamoka who started her presentation with a question. What is the goal the state wants to achieve on women empowerment? She surveyed the policy environment listing the various conventions the government has signed; the policies made and also assessed the institutions charged with promoting the empowerment of women. While these are commendable, she believed that women's input into these policies that are meant for their advancement were minimal. She cited the macro- economic sector as an example and identified the National Economic Empowerment Strategy NEEDS as gender deficient. She however added that NEEDS II is trying to make amends. The presenter stressed the need to implement all policies designed to promote development such as President Yar Adua's seven point agenda, NEEDS II, Vision 2010 etc and back these up with gender budgeting to ensure the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals MDG. She observed that the government's engagement with gender budgeting is unclear but health and education do get a substantial share of the budget. She recommended that government should increase its budgetary allocation to these two critical sectors to meet the universal standards set by the United Nations. The discussions that followed the presentations were enriching and participants observed that Federal Ministry of Women Affairs which is supposed to deliver the gender agenda is under funded, had some internal problems and seemed to be in disarray. They recommended that the Ministry should be strengthened and properly funded to achieve it objectives.

The workshops continued after a tea break and they offered a variety of choices. They included one on Addressing Parallel Legal systems And Discrimination Against Women In And Before the Laws. Others were titled Fundamentalisms And Bridge Building :Generating A Feminist Analysis And Strategy To Address Muslim Conservatisms And Fundamentalisms, Fighting Back Against Violations of Women's Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Creating Voice And Feminist Expression. The last session was A Conversation About Feminist Access to Resources And The Politics of Funding. It asked the question 'Where Is The Money For Women's Rights In Nigeria". Representatives of some UN Agencies and private grant making foundations briefed participants on how to access grants for their projects.

Among the interesting events on the NFF programme was a light hearted approach to an issue that is often discussed every where. Are men in support of women activism or not? The Great Debate was included to make participants talk and laugh and selected speakers were asked to debate on the topic "Men are a hindrance to feminist activism". I participated in this debate and it was fun. Both sides tried to marshal points for or against while the supporters club cheered or jeered. The hall vibrated with laughter which reminded one of the manners of soccer fans at football championship matches. One of those on the opposing side forgot that she was supposed to support men and started arguing in support of the motion because that was what she personally believed. This shocked members of her team who called her to order before she remembered that she was supposed to be on the opposing side. The hall responded again with laughter as those on the supporting side quickly invited her to follow her natural inclination and decamp to their side as politicians often do!

After the debate, Bisi Adeleye -Fayemi drew the attention of participants to one of points made during the debate when one of the participants on the opposing side said "Women are their own worst enemies- they don't vote for women, they run them down and become a stumbling block to their progress. The moderator stressed the need for participants to debunk such negative assessment of women and strive to build sisterly solidarity, establish networks and support each other.

After that activity I stepped out during tea break to deliver a message to a friend who saw my conference tag asked me about the conference. She wanted to know how to engage with feminism as a conscientious Muslim woman. I did not have the time to engage in what would be a long discussion so I just told her that if she believed in promotion of women's rights them she is a feminist and she could do this strictly within the Islamic precepts. I cited the writings of the nineteenth century Islamic reformer Sheikh Usman Danfodio, the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate who in his work Nurul Albabi criticised Hausa men for exploiting their women and refusing to educate them. As a shining example, the Sheikh educated all the women of his household and Nana Asmau one of his daughters became an outstanding writer, teacher, poet, and linguist. She had fifty five works to her credit and also established an NGO Yan taru to educate women. I my friend encouraged to follow Nana's footsteps so that Muslim women can contribute to all aspects of development. As for the forum, it provided an opportunity for scholarship and experience sharing and because participation was only by invitation I could not ask her to join us. On the whole the NFF was a loaded intellectual and experience sharing event .I personally believe that the task advancing the status of women is an urgent one and requires mobilising all those who are committed to the cause to contribute their quota. Naming names for a group of activists or others is not as important as getting the work done but those who believe it is important for them are free to do so.

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