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Beyond the battleground: Rethinking gender discourse at Ake Festival

The Ake Book and Arts Festival has always prided itself on creating a field of intellectual and social contestation on social and cultural issues. The…

The Ake Book and Arts Festival has always prided itself on creating a field of intellectual and social contestation on social and cultural issues. The 11th iteration of the festival, which occurred last week in Lagos, was no different.

Of all the hot-button issues, gender has to be one of them and the inimitable convener of the festival, Lola Shoneyin, has always favoured having a panel on gender discourse. This year’s was titled “What’s Cooking in Nigeria’s Gender War.” As was the case with several panels on gender I have witnessed, this one, too, degenerated into a war of sorts, with hostile takedown of conversations, belligerent paraphrasing, emotional commenters and undue aggression, often from the moderator.

But should the discourse on gender and the changing gender dynamics in this age be treated as a war? A confrontation or a negotiation?

Right off the bat, the token male on the panel, Mr Buchi Onyegbule, hemmed by two women, Maryam Laushi and Oluwatofunmi Alo, was put on his toes by the moderator, Aisha Salaudeen, who insisted on rephrasing everything he said to suit a preconceived narrative even when he positioned himself as an ally to the course of women’s right. The reason for her posturing was not what Mr Onyegbule was saying, because it was doubtful, she was actually listening to him, but rather the fact she couldn’t look past his gender.

The Audience, both men and women, at least those sitting around me, instantly felt he was stationed on that stage to be the object of feminist angst. At least the moderator made it seem that way.

While that is not entirely a new thing, as has been demonstrated on numerous gender panels in the past, the issue is that that stance has not brought about the desired change and will not bring about the desired change. Gender discourse is not a war of the sexes and should not be treated as one. Both the men and the women alive today were born into the patriarchy that feminists are trying to upstage. While it is true that this system has unfortunately bred generations of men who do not understand the peculiar challenges that women face on a daily basis, it has also raised generations of women who have no understanding of the pressures men face to fulfil their gender roles. For instance, men are tasked with the challenge of providing and protecting. While this is a social role, it is also gendered due to the biological build of men that makes them faster and stronger. While we have since advanced from the hunter-gatherers that our ancestors were when these roles were established, the duty of protection is still largely male-oriented because men are built for it.

Yet, society has changed, no doubt. As a result, gender roles have evolved since the Industrial Revolution and the First and mostly the Second World War, when the men were off fighting, and the women had their first real taste at working, building a career, and becoming breadwinners, we must understand that that change, especially in Europe and America was midwifed by a global conflict that uprooted centuries of social structures.

Conflict is a catalyst for change, and we can see that in the changing gender roles in the Northeast of Nigeria, for instance, where the Boko Haram crisis has stripped some men of their breadwinning capabilities—with crippled businesses, unsafe farmlands and travel opportunities. The women, through menial trades in household items, cap weaving and other productive engagements, have had to step in to provide for their families. One documentary produced by the non-profit, PAGED Initiative, captured this transformation and demonstrated how some of the men have grown to appreciate their wives’ industriousness and their support of their families in these times of conflict.

So, while Nigeria and countries in Africa are still behind the West in terms of these social changes, which have also had grave consequences on familial and societal structures, it must be pointed out that we have not had that kind of tectonic shifting conflict on a large scale that would suddenly and permanently change gender roles as it did elsewhere.

This, among other reasons, is why gender discourse must not be treated as war, like that panel at Ake, which in the end degenerated into a shouting match that made no sense nor advanced women’s course in any meaningful way. If some women think that shouting down men at panel discussions and scoring epic put-downs equates to winning, then I think they must have misunderstood the assignment.

The way things are, both men and women will continue to coexist in this space; they will continue to form unions as families that will procreate and raise children—both male and female— and will be co-parents, coworkers, collaborators and everything else. In this case, they can’t afford to be enemies but allies.

And I say this very much aware of the injustice that women have been subjected to in this country and elsewhere. The former Emir of Kano, Muhammad Sanusi II, once discussed how inherently unfair it is for a woman to be married to a man for 30 years, to offer up her best years and dreams to raise a family with him, only for the man to decide one day to proclaim divorce on her, leaving her with no education, no resources and without any means of sustenance. Where does she start from? He had proposed, at the time, the institution of a compensation system for such women. Of course, some people shouted that argument down. But the point is, there are allies of this course that angry women too obsessed with vilifying men based on their gender alone should be wary of pushing away.

One of the proposals that came out of that panel was for stronger laws to protect the female gender, to punish abusive males and to recommend stringent jail terms. I think that is a simplistic approach to the issue. The issue is not a stronger law for gender-based violence but a stronger, more professional and efficient justice system.

As we have seen with the child rights acts that have been adopted in numerous states, it doesn’t matter what the law says on paper if the law enforcers are not trained to enforce them. It will be the same with any proactive gender-based law that would be enacted. The reports of such felonies and misdemeanours would perish at the hands of unprofessional policemen and women and their bungling procedures. If it makes it past those, it will suffer the ignominy of incompetent prosecution or die a natural death in the interminably long period it takes the Nigerian justice system to reach a resolution. What if we enhance the laws on GBV and ignore, as we have often done, the Children’s Protection Act? That would ensure that we are not raising uneducated children, male and female, who are unloved and neglected by their parents and are often abused, who might in the future turn into resentful, spiteful and abusive adults.

What this says is that the reforms must not be treated in isolation, just as they must not be pushed in isolation with one gender being on the warpath and antagonising the other gender, which must be a party and ally in these negotiations.

What some of these angry women must understand is that men are not the enemies of women, generally. And if they choose to go on a war path over this opinion too, well, God help them. I am not responsible for the anger that drives them.

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