The difficulties women and young people face in Nigeria when trying to assert their independence is underlined by stubborn social norms.
In a recent article published by the BBC, Abigail Ony Nwaohuocha highlights the difficulties young, unmarried, middle-class women face in Nigeria’s urban centers when they try to move into rented apartments of their own. Her report features several young women who’ve had to deal with landlords insisting that they can’t possibly earn enough money to rent their own flats without the support of men, be they boyfriends, husbands or “sponsors.”
Most urban Nigerians live in rented property, with rents representing as high as 60% of total disposable income. Middle-class renters are generally required to pay rent on an annual basis; some landlords even require two years upfront from new tenants, on top of which the tenants also pay a lump sum to cover legal and agency fees. This initial capital outlay for moving into a new place, which doesn’t even include the cost of making the place liveable, is enough to deter many young people from seeking to live on their own. Further disincentives are the cost implications of having to provide your own electricity, security, and other public services, as well as the middle-class Nigerian idea—which has only recently begun to very slowly change—that young people, particularly women, ought to live with their parents until they marry. Imagine, therefore, being willing and able to navigate all of these challenges, only to then come up against a brick wall of literal gatekeepers who cannot comprehend female economic and social independence.
This reasoning—displayed by landlords who are overwhelmingly male—is an unfortunate manifestation of the hostility that Nigeria shows its women in general. Our society, at least on the surface, is ultra-religious, and its norms are extremely conservative and patriarchal. Many Nigerians are incapable of recognizing or respecting women’s full humanity if those women are not in social or physical proximity to a man who can “claim ownership” of them, be he a father, a brother, or most effectively, a husband. Hundreds of millions of Nigerians believe that marriage is not just an important life event, but also a fundamental measure of responsibility, respectability and decency, particularly for women. As such, the social expectation of marriage to a man—preferably by the age of 25—is a heavy burden that Nigerian women are forced to navigate, as it impacts almost all, if not all facets of female life. Girls are groomed for heterosexual marriage from an early age, regardless of their sexual orientation, and women who remain unmarried are often subjected to a wide range of indignities, of which the discrimination that single middle-class women face when house-hunting is only one type.
The control of women’s lives, through strict regulation of their social and sexual activity, is crucial to the maintenance of the Nigerian sense of order and propriety. Misogynistic harm is rampant in our society; generalized abuse such as workplace harassment (male bosses, colleagues and even junior staff often feel empowered to direct sexual and/or romantic advances towards female staff); street harassment (cat-calling and unwanted touching are endemic in public spaces); indecent exposure, and sexist verbal abuse are all normalized, occurring every single day across the country. These kinds of harm are considered unremarkable and treated as “part of what it means to be a woman.” Graver misogynistic violence also occurs in “normal” settings, including physical abuse, sexual assault, or demands for sex in exchange for jobs, grades or positions that women are in many instances already qualified for. Professor Oluremi Sonaiya, a retired academic and Presidential candidate who once lectured at the university where 23-year-old Monica Osagie recently outed a lecturer named Richard Akindele for aggressive sexual harassment, described the pressure placed on students to have sex in exchange for better grades as “something that happens frequently in our universities.”
Fortunately for them, Nigerian women who are married to men can often interrupt or even end these misogynistic abuses by invoking their status as wives. Many women, married or not, have anecdotal evidence of appreciable improvements in the quality of their social interactions when they wear a wedding band or similar jewelry on their ring fingers. This is because a married woman, taken at face value, fits most neatly into the narrow ideals of acceptable femininity prescribed by Nigerian norms, placing wives at the top of our hierarchy of womanhood. Still, this hierarchy is ultimately a disservice to all Nigerian women, as it only grants some women conditional access to respectful treatment through husbands who are understood as being “in control” of them. This logic of husbands-as-overlords is then used to justify the domestic violence, emotional abuse and rampant infidelity that mark far too many marriages between Nigerian men and women.
In addition, this hierarchy is sustained by the further devaluation of unmarried women in relation to married women. The value of “wife” as a social status depends in large part on the derogation of people who are not wives, with the possible exception of widows, who occupy a “special” position due to the manner in which they arrive at husbandlessness. However, never-married women, divorcees, single mothers, and sex workers a.k.a. the “prostitutes” described in Nwaohuocha’s article, are all ranked ever lower in the pecking order of inferiority and undesirability. This pecking order is then socially reinforced in such a way that the sexism and/or misogyny that these categories of women face is considered not just normal, but sometimes even necessary. Tellingly, the idea implied in the BBC article that landlords are within their rights to deny well-heeled “prostitutes” housing is couched in culturally accepted norms regarding which kinds of women are understood to deserve respect—or, more relevantly, disrespect.
It is also pertinent to note that the problems posed by Nigerian social norms, many of which are informed by religious fundamentalisms and state failures, don’t exclusively affect unmarried women of a certain age. It is unarguable that women are significantly and disproportionately impacted, but the Nigerian socio-economy, which runs largely on patronage, log-rolling and favors from the government, is incredibly hostile to its young people in general. According to the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics, youth unemployment is generally high and has only worsened under the current government, reaching 33% in July 2017. Yet, this 33% does not reflect the rates of under-employment, nor does it capture those young people who have jobs but are regularly unpaid or underpaid by their employers. Irregular or no payment is a much-neglected employment issue which occurs across a multitude of sectors, due to weak labor laws and impunity informed by the desperation of a large, chronically unemployed population. All of these problems are further exacerbated by youth unemployability, which is also a significant problem stemming from the low quality of education available to the mostly poor Nigerian public.
Unfortunately, instead of recognizing and holding government accountable for these obvious obstacles to economic stability for young people, many Nigerians choose instead to normalize these obstacles, and believe that no young person can achieve financial independence through respectable methods. Thus, young women of means are indiscriminately accused of prostitution which, like in most parts of the world, is criminalized in Nigeria; and young men are accused of being fraudsters or, in popular slang, “Yahoo boys.” Now, most young people in Nigeria do face an astronomical struggle in trying to access wealth or even simple economic stability, and the majority do not succeed. Corruption is deeply entrenched, and access to opportunities and resources is starkly unequal. Thus, an appreciable number of young Nigerians end up engaging in economic activities that are considered criminal or illegal, including activities that are mutually consensual between sellers and buyers, like street trading or sex work—neither of which are limited by gender—and activities that are not, like fraud or trafficking.
Still, the existence of young people doing ”shady” deals does not negate that there are those whose businesses are in synchrony with Nigeria’s conservative ideals. Further, that some Nigerians access wealth through difficult-to-trace means does not justify discriminatory behavior towards young women and people. This is especially relevant, considering that the majority of Nigeria’s political and economic elite—who are by no means young—generated their wealth precisely through shady and corrupt practices. Contrary to President Muhammadu Buhari’s derogatory assertion at the Commonwealth Business Forum earlier this year, Nigerian youths are not lazy, and many do manage to achieve economic independence despite the significant barriers to do so. So, for those youths who are able to overcome the treacherous terrain of Nigeria’s labor market and/or business space—whether due to inherited class privilege, innovation and foresight, dogged hard work, or sheer luck—it can be immensely frustrating to then be forced to bear the consequences of myopic, willfully obtuse prejudices like those espoused by the country’s president and sexist landlords.
It is an indictment of Nigeria’s economy, political landscape and social norms that young people are often unable to enjoy the benefits of their incomes, including renting an apartment of their own, without facing persistent discrimination. But if we are to evolve past these unfortunate stereotypes, then it is crucial that we recognize the systemic nature of the issues and address the various mechanisms that sustain them. The fact that middle-class Nigerian women are required to portray themselves as being subject to husbands before being allowed to pay their own money for a flat is only the tip of the iceberg. And, like the ill-fated Titanic, this country is doomed to sink unless we address the society-wide scope of problems faced—across all class levels—by Nigerian youths in general, and young Nigerian women in particular.