On the 25 February Nigeria will experience its seventh consecutive general election – the longest streak of democracy the country has witnessed in over 60 years. What could the election campaigns and results mean for women in Nigeria who face discrimination and violence just because of their religion and the way they dress?
Ordinarily, the long consecutive cycle of elections should indicate democratic stability but with fears of violence always looming large as witnessed in elections since 1999, exposing ongoing ethnic and religious tensions, these elections remain a high-stake make-or-break occasion. The 2023 elections might prove to be the most pivotal yet.
The elections will be happening at a time the country is going through an economic recession, increased levels of poverty, widening and deepened footprints of insecurity; increasing instances of inter-ethnic and religious tensions, and disillusionment with the general state of governance, especially among young people.
In many ways, the elections present both a challenge and an opportunity for citizens’ engagement. The high level of competition and uncertainty of who might emerge as the winner of the Presidential election presents an opportunity for issue-based campaigns, increased citizens participation, and dialogue. The challenge will be how to refocus discourse on issues that are most important to citizens and to ensure that the voices of the most vulnerable are heard – most importantly the experiences of women who are usually at the margins, with no voice or power.
Many women in Nigeria face discrimination not only because of their gender, but also because of their religion and where they live. What does it mean to be a woman, and a member of a religious minority in different parts of Nigeria? How does this heighten experiences of socioeconomic exclusion and discrimination? How do these experiences differ from one location to the other?
Women abused for how they dress
A research report due to be published next month by the IDS-led Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID), details accounts of women being subjected to insults, physical assaults, and even flogging for ‘provocative’ or ‘inappropriate dressing’.
In the farming village of Ungwan Bawa, in one of the largest local government areas in the state of Kaduna and a multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious society, women share disturbing experiences of how they constantly face discrimination. This includes sexual harassment, restrictions on their movement and access to certain services – just because of the way they dress and the religion they profess.
The stories from women in Ungwan Bawa also reveal that women of all levels of education and socioeconomic standing, including teachers, have suffered similar discrimination for being different just because of the way that they dress. These incidences are not limited to Ungwan Bawa alone but evident in the other Nigerian communities studied.
Women marginalised and misunderstood
In Wase Local Government, Izala women, who belong to a reclusive sect, and are not permitted to intermingle with other religious groups, including other Muslim women, reported that they faced multiple levels of discrimination. They are secluded and marginalised within their communities because they cannot go out except in the company of an adult male.
They are also misunderstood when trying to access public health service because of how they dress- their dress code requires them to be completely covered except for their eyes. This stands in diametric contrast to the experience of Christian women in Ungwan Bawa who faced discrimination for not dressing properly and often felt the need to comply with a certain dress code to be accorded respect and not face harassment.
When women were asked to rank issues that they believed were important to their communities, the lived experience of Christian minorities living in Muslim-dominated areas and Muslim minorities living in Christian-dominated differed quite significantly. While Izala women in Wase considered poverty, education, and health as priority, Christian women in Wase in addition to education, mentioned unity and peace across religious divides, and understanding between them and their fellow Muslim community members as important to them.
In Ungwan Bawa and Saminaka christian women felt that they faced institutional discrimination by being excluded from accessing opportunities that were more available to their Muslim counterparts. They felt that they did not receive equal opportunities because they did not belong to the majority religion in those communities. It is imperative that the voices of these vulnerable women are elevated within governance and policy discourse, and heard in the run up to the election.
A common thread that runs through the experiences of the women highlighted in the report is that while their priorities and needs may be different, they all wanted to be treated as equal without bias or judgement based on their mode of dressing, way of worship or belief system. The lived experiences of these women is perhaps a subset of what women go through when seen as only belonging to the margins of society or facing just one form of threat or vulnerability. Where a woman lives or how she dresses should not matter when it comes to accessing healthcare or boarding a commercial vehicle.
Candidates whipping up religious sentiment
As Nigerians prepare to elect a new leader, the issues of marginalisation and exclusion and threats of violence loom large. The three major contenders are bogged down by accusations of religious exclusion, ethnic perpetuation, and leaning on religious sentiments.
At a time where the campaigns should be dominated by policy analysis and candidate’s manifestos, the same identity problems that plague the minority women in Plateau and Kaduna state also weigh down political discourse. This risks the possibility of exacerbating the threats and violence the women in these communities already face. How will the leading candidates deploy a common narrative of citizenship and inclusion; where no part of society is excluded and all voices are heard? How will Government policies and institutional arrangements be reflective of this?
The experience shared by the women in Kaduna and Plateau State are symptomatic of the grave challenges the country is facing and the need for urgent action to provide a different narrative. One that encourages mutual coexistence and amplifies the call for good governance as a fundamental tool to addressing ethnoreligious divisions and challenges of exclusion in the country. This is crucial for the women experiencing profound discrimination and violence because of their gender and religious identity, and must be reflected both in the campaigns and post-election governance agenda in Nigeria in 2023.
Catherine Angai is a PHD candidate at IDS, studying how power is conceptualised within behavioural change interventions in international development.