As part of my master’s programme, I recently wrote a discourse analysis on the Gender and Equal Opportunities (GEO) Bill in Nigeria, discussing how those in favour of the Bill have used human rights language to support their advocacy, while those opposed to the Bill have used various arguments – including culture and religion – to justify their opposition.
It is a clear case of universalism versus cultural relativism: are women’s rights universal or do they differ from culture to culture? My discourse analysis required me to take a step back and analyse the actors’ arguments without getting involved in the debate, which meant that I could not express my personal views the way I wanted to. So, here I am, writing the opinionated piece I was itching to write in that analysis.
As the name implies, the GEO Bill seeks to promote gender equality in Nigeria. It has provisions to eliminate discrimination against women in various spheres of Nigerian society, introduce affirmative action for women, and modify socio-cultural practices that perpetuate the inferiority of women. Similar versions of the Bill have been introduced at various time periods in both houses of the National Assembly: the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The National Coalition on Affirmative Action (NCAA) and the Legislative Advocacy Coalition on Violence Against Women (LACVAW) are some actors that have been involved in drafting the Bill and advocating for its passage. These actors use explicit human rights language to justify their support for the Bill. Their arguments are based on the need to give effect to international human rights agreements, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Maputo Protocol.
However, the GEO Bill has been rejected each time it was introduced in the National Assembly due to opposition from individual legislators. The opposing legislators have used similar arguments relating to culture and religion to justify their opposition to the Bill.
When the Bill was introduced to the Senate in 2016, Senator Sani Yerima opposed the Bill because it was “in conflict with the Sharia Law which is recognised by the Constitution”. For Senator Emmanuel Bwacha, he “said he was drawing perspectives from the Bible and history in opposing the bill”. The reference to the Bible here is based on religion, while the reference to history is based on culture.
Similarly, when the 2019 version of the Bill was brought for second reading in the Senate in 2021, Senator Yusuf Yusuf argued:
From an Islamic perspective which is a socio-cultural practice of Muslims […] this aspect of it […] by equating opportunities for women and men actually infringes with the provisions of the Quran and also the Bible. I will not support the passage of this unless the word ‘equal’ is removed. If we have it as ‘Gender Opportunities Bill’, fine. But when you bring equality into it, it infringes into the practice of the Islamic religion.
Senator Aliyu Wamakko supported Senator Yusuf’s argument, saying,
When it comes to socio-cultural practices, it is wrong. If they say ‘equity’, it is okay. But equality, no. It infringes on the Islamic religion and for that reason, I don’t support this bill.
In this sense, the legislators are clearly rejecting the gender equality goal that the GEO Bill seeks to achieve on the ground that it conflicts with African culture and the two religions predominantly practised in our society: Christianity and Islam.
NCAA, LACVAW, and other actors supporting the GEO Bill are using an explicit human rights-based approach (HRBA). As the United Nations aptly explains, one feature of a HRBA is that it is anchored on a system of rights and corresponding obligations established by international law. NCAA and LACVAW base their advocacy on this system of rights and obligations by clearly linking the GEO Bill to international human rights agreements such as CEDAW and the Maputo Protocol.
On the other hand, the arguments of the opposing senators are best interpreted through a cultural relativist lens, although they are not explicitly framed as such. Cultural relativists argue that international human rights norms are dominated by Western values, and that there are “non-Western conceptions of human rights” which are equally valid. As Shestack explains:
Cultural relativists, in their most aggressive conceptual stance, argue that no human rights are absolutes, that the principles that one may use for judging behavior are relative to the society in which one is raised, that there is infinite cultural variability, and that all cultures are morally equal or valid.
Thus, the arguments of the opposing senators can be viewed as cultural relativism: gender equality is a Western ideal that is not recognised in African culture.
I am not in any way a fan of cultural relativism, and I think it is merely used as a pretext to restrict human rights. Indeed, cultural relativism has typically been used to justify limitations on the right to freedom of speech, the right to freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, and the rights of women.
In this light, Shestack comments, “It is no wonder that the doctrine that human rights are contingent on cultural practice has been called the ‘gift of cultural relativists to tyrants’”. Arguments that the GEO Bill are inimical to African culture and religion are merely fronts used to justify the continued subjugation of women in Nigeria.
Moreover, it is not universally agreed that gender equality indeed conflicts with Christianity and Islam, as the opposing Senators suggest. For example, Professor Mustapha Ismail, Executive Director of the Center for Human Rights in Islam, “argued that those who stood as stumbling blocks to the passage of the [GEO] bill under the guise of religion did so out of ignorance”, and that “during the lifetime of the prophet, women collectively and individually spoke out for justice, rights, and stoppage of discrimination against them”. Stories of women speaking out for their rights also exist in the Bible (see the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad, for example).
There are also arguments that gender equality is a part of African culture, because pre-colonial African societies were matriarchal. In Nigeria, we have examples of the courageous Queen Amina of Zazzau and Queen Moremi of Ile Ife. Even during colonialism, women showed bravery through their opposition to repressive policies. The Aba women’s war and the Egba women’s tax revolt come to mind. All of these suggest that there is a place for women’s rights in African culture.
In any case, even if it is true that gender equality is not part of African culture, the fact remains that culture is dynamic and continues to change as we evolve. For example, killing of twins was once practised in some parts of Nigeria, but no Nigerian today will justify killing twins on the grounds of culture. In the same way, it is difficult to see how a practice that reinforces the inferiority of 50% of the population can be justified in today’s world. Having realised the negative effects of subjugating women, we should seek to change that aspect of African culture.
Finally, Shestack makes an important point that “by virtue of their entry into international law […] human rights have become hegemonic and therefore universal by fiat”. Thus, by virtue of its entry into international conventions such as CEDAW, regional agreeements such as the Maputo Protocol, and even national laws such as the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria*, gender equality has certainly become a universal ideal that all countries – Nigeria included – should aspire to.
Unless and until Nigerians are able to overcome the arguments of the cultural relativists within the National Assembly, progress on the GEO Bill is likely to be slow, if not stagnant. Opposition can be drowned out by changing the composition of the National Assembly to include more women and men who support the goal of gender equality, and by changing the mindsets of existing legislators on the place for women’s rights in Nigerian culture and religion. Civil society organisations, as well as cultural and religious leaders like Professor Ismail, have critical roles to play in driving this change.
I will end with my favourite quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I have cited many times:
Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.
* See section 42 prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of, among others, sex.
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