Beauty Troubles: Gender and Difference in Nigeria’s Developing Democracy

Rita Kiki Edozie. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb and Marian Lief Palley. Volume 2: Country Profiles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009. 

Written within the policy areas of democracy and globalization, this essay examines the cultural, political, social, and economic context for understanding the roles of women in Nigeria. It does so by exploring the iconic though divergent life circumstances of two women who became transnational feminist symbols in 2002: Agbani Darego, Miss World 2001, proclaimed at her crowning “Black is Beautiful,” and Amina Lawal, after being sentenced to death by stoning, decried, “I’m a good Muslim and am proud of my faith; but I don’t want to die.” In examining the divergent sociopolitical circumstances of these two Nigerian women, this essay will serve to illustrate both the diversity and dynamism of Nigerian women’s citizenship structures and democratic development as they are experienced in the multiple though increasingly overlapping contexts of local, national, and global expressions of feminist identity.

Introduction: The Beauty Queen and Zina

The current debate among feminists about the diversity of gender around the world has a good testing ground in Nigeria. After all, where feminism is understood as having emerged from a woman’s identity, which has been born of her sociocultural experience and political-economic status, contemporary Nigerian women would claim to experience as many as 250 feminisms in relation to the multiplicity of ethnic nations that exist in the country. Nigeria is not very different from many of Africa’s ethnically and religiously plural societies in this respect. In these countries, colonially driven nation-state formation also contributed to the construction of the contemporary modern nations.

Notwithstanding, it would be an exaggeration to suggest that there exists in Nigeria a distinct gender identity for every ethnic identity. It would be much more accurate nevertheless to underscore feminist plurality in Nigeria in ethno regional terms, where distinct cultural markers manifest dualist gender identities that have occurred because of the country’s diverse religious and ethnic-regional identities. Dualism refers to Nigeria’s north-south divide in which there exists a relatively northern, Islamic region and a relatively—though not exclusively—southern Christian region. As a result, in the country’s south, contemporary gender identity emerges from a deep-seated, precolonial, matriarchal, dual-sex tradition where decentralized communities (Igbo, Niger Delta) and city-state (Yoruba) regions have also formed their current identities by adapting to colonial Christian sociopolitical cultures.

These communities tend to be more susceptible to the acculturation of a civic, nationalist, postcolonial modernity. On the other hand, in northern Nigeria, home to some of Africa’s most magnificent medieval Islamic states and cities (Sokoto, Kano, Bornu), centuries of a vibrant Islamic civilization forged powerful gender identities in the past, which have included female leaders such as Queen Amina of Zaria. Yet well before British colonialism introduced new and contradictory gender regimes on Nigerian society, Islamic sociopolitical institutions also introduced such practices as seclusion to separate men and women, thereby beginning a process that began to limit gender autonomy in this region.

Two women from the country’s contrasting northern and southern regions illustrate this history of difference and provide a way to understand the contemporary dynamism and diversity of Nigerian gender relations: 31-year-old Amina Lawal from Sokoto State in the northern region and 18-year-old Agbani Darego from Rivers State in the southern region. Both women crossed paths in 2002 in a global event that captured the news headline “Nigeria’s Beauty Troubles,” which is reflected in the essay title (Isaacs 2002). As an international beauty queen who became the first woman of African heritage to hold the Miss World title, Darego’s coronation appeared to have realized for this young Nigerian woman an expression of all Nigerian women’s civil liberties and freedom of conscience in rather contradictory ways.

As she embodied the role of global feminine spokesperson, Darego’s crown also gave her a political voice to seek political rights and civil liberties for other women, and she lobbied her home government to respect the gender rights of her northern Nigerian “sister” Amina Lawal. Lawal’s own struggle against her sentencing to death by stoning for committing zina similarly propelled this northern Nigerian woman’s gender identity into global negotiation. (According to sharia law, zina is defined by the act of unlawful sexual intercourse including adultery, which is punishable by stoning to death and fornication, which is penalized by whipping.) Yet, drastically different from Darego’s experience, the cruel and unjust punishment imposed on Amina Lawal by her local community made her a symbol for gender marital rights, reproductive rights, and discriminatory crime and punishment.

The 2002 Lawal-Darego “saga” represents a global event that reveals important dimensions of the Nigerian female identity. This essay examines the contextual factors that account for the scenario in which one Nigerian woman attains international recognition for beauty and talent, while another is sentenced to death for extramarital sex. The divergent life tracks of Lawal and Darego suggest a tale of two regions whereby a level of gender freedom and empowerment characterize Nigeria’s southern region, and in Nigeria’s northern region, gender rights recently underwent significant reversals that have led to new restrictions on Nigerian women’s freedom due to the expansion of sharia laws at the gubernatorial state levels.

By illustrating the variability of women’s cultures and political identities in Nigeria, this essay will provide an overview of Nigerian feminism from a policy perspective that examines the historical transformations in Nigerian women’s rights and freedoms as gender identities. The essay will relate ways Nigeria’s gender identities have helped forge and are part of Nigeria’s tenuous multinational democracy in the context of contemporary globalization. The democratic status of Nigerian women will be analyzed against the rubric of civil liberties and political rights as key elements for examining gender participation and its influence on democratic pluralism. Democracy for women in the contemporary global era is based on civil liberties that allow for women’s freedom of expression, belief, and association without interference from the state. Attaining democracy also entails Nigerian women’s achievement of certain political rights that enable them to participate freely in the political process in the public arenas through their right to vote, to compete for public office, and to influence public policy on issues that affect them.

In presenting a historical trajectory of Nigerian women’s democratic rights and feminist identity formation, the essay examines Darego’s regional circumstance and how it has contributed to her abilities to realize her freedoms, liberties, and values to a degree where she not only emerged as a world beauty queen but adopted a global political leadership role to effect political change. Further, the essay analyzes the contemporary and historical circumstances that have led to the subversion of Lawal’s freedoms of conscience and personal autonomy despite belonging to the same statesociety citizenship regime as Darego, who by virtue of her different religious and regional identity is exempt from sharia’s penal code.

In synthesizing Darego and Lawal’s experiences, the essay concludes by revealing the character of contemporary Nigerian feminism where women of all the country’s regions have become gender agents and icons negotiating gender relations at the intersections of the local, national, and global levels. In this respect, Nigerian women have achieved national/global interconnections as they continue to organize around the principles they have traditionally succeeded in—using multiple layers of governance and their activist political culture to mobilize a consciousness around issues important to women.

Theories, Histories, and the Variable Formations of Nigerian Gender Citizenship: The Importance of Ethno Religion-Cum-Region


What theoretical premise explains the variability of gender rights and the capacity of women’s freedoms in contemporary Nigeria? Chandra Mohanty’s representation of the “Third World woman” (Mohanty 2003) provides a useful feminist perspective to begin such an inquiry. Nigerian women of all the country’s religions, ethnicities, and regions are women of the Third World. They are the products of the uneven, and in many areas underdeveloped, nation-state that is Nigeria, and they are part of an increasing incident of global inequality in which they are relatively marginalized.

Mohanty’s theory is relevant to the understanding of Nigerian women for several reasons. Nigeria is geographically located in the region that is controversially referred to as “the developing world” or more contemporaneously as the “Global South.” As well, like other Third World nations, democracy in Nigeria is transitional and developmental; the country thereby exhibits attributes of instability, nonrepresentation, and a shortage of liberal values because of the weak institutional roots that inform the country’s political culture. Similarly, women in Nigeria share with other women of the Third World a common context of identity within a specific type of socioeconomic-cum-political structure.

This is to say that women’s movements and struggles in the country, ranging from Lawal’s struggle for self-determination in the north to the struggles of the women of Nigeria’s Niger Delta region in the south, all reveal the structural contexts that explain the emergence of gender identity in the Third World. These structures include the legacies of colonialism; the problems of postcolonial states, such as complex multinational citizenship regimes; and the challenges these regions face as a result of new trends in global economic production. These structures characterize the contemporary Nigerian state-society regimes and in turn influence the character of feminist consciousness among Nigerian women.

Updated versions of Mohanty’s postcolonial theoretical framework for the women of the Third World have sought to include a more contemporaneous conceptual framework of gender relations that includes globalization. It is understood that, in the global era, the United States, the European Union, and other G8 (Group of Eight) nations have become global capitalist centers of power in which Third World women are immersed in disparate income and lifestyle inequalities within and between nations (Esteva and Prakesh 1998). Such a framework magnifies a certain designation for women that highlights ways in which the fluidity and power of global forces situate communities of people in terms of disparate identities.

The stories of Amina Lawal and Agbani Darego, who are presented as icons of Nigerian gender struggles herein, invoke the dynamism of globalized gender identities in this respect. But, this contemporary circumstance must be understood in historical context. Colonialism in Third World regions like Nigeria has facilitated a structural tie between Western and non-Western cultures that has always been premised on a global context. This earlier form of globalization—Niall Ferguson calls it “Anglobalization” (Ferguson 2002)—has acted as an important platform for formulating the traditional and cultural legacy of Nigerian women’s local experiences; this earlier experience of globalization through colonization plays an important role in influencing the circumstances of Nigerian women today. Nigerian women must be understood within this complexity and existential reality; their experiences must reveal the local, national, and global connective intersections that influence their lives and are manifested in Nigeria’s democracy.

Globalization and Gender Policy

Globalization is characterized by the increasing interconnectedness of politics, economics, cultures, and societies that were once confined to local and national scopes of public policy. This increasing interdependence of national political processes and public policies is often perceived to be marked by the structural, institutional, and ideational homogenization of human societies; it causes all aspects of a nation’s state-society to come under global influence.

Gender regimes—the manner in which a national state-society is constituted in terms of its women—are of particular influence to new global public policies as global conventions, commitments, and associational transnational action are promoted and ratified to ensure that equal rights—political rights, civil liberties, and human rights—are conferred upon all women regardless of national and local identity.

In effect, as global regimes interact with national and local regimes and restructure their gender public policies, it is important to understand the tensions that occur as a result. Globalization in this respect cannot be seen as a one-sided process; otherwise, its legitimacy to influence progressive change would be limited by accusations of an ethnocentric universalism. Local and national experiences and contexts that reflect the ideational structures of women’s everyday lives, ideologies, and traditional legacies must be considered with the broader forces of globalization.

An appropriate public policy perspective for examining globalization and gender policy would best acknowledge that the global, national, and local arenas of feminist identities exist simultaneously to mutually constitute and reinforce each other.

Capturing this complexity, Nigerian political scientist Phil E. Okeke (2000) argues that Nigerian women’s contribution to contemporary democracy, for example, is tied to their social status, which in turn is determined by the regional location from which each woman has historically articulated and acted on her vision of social transformation. Nigerian feminist activist Ayesha Imam would like to see an internationalized rights discourse that recognizes and respects Nigeria’s local cultures and contexts in existing social constructions (Imam 2005).


In exploring the histories of women in Nigeria, Nigerian feminist writers and scholars have made tremendous strides in reinterpreting the precolonial origins of women in Nigeria as a means to understanding their contemporary identity. Two Nigerian feminist scholars, Ifi Amadiume (1987, 1997) and Oyeronke Oyewumi (1997) have written extensively on the historical derivation of southern Nigerian women from which Agbani Darego inherits her contemporary empowerment. For northern Nigerian women, Ayesha Imam and Zaynab Alkali (1988) have done the most work in revealing the historical/cultural contexts from which Amina Lawal has drawn her strength to struggle for and win her battle against gender discrimination in her community. All four writers have sought to reinscribe first-order indigenous Nigerian feminist experiences by challenging the epistemological basis of the mainstream gender myths about women in Nigeria. In contrast to many mainstream anthropological characterizations of African women as victims of a pervasive African patriarchy, these scholars have elucidated ways in which African traditional cultures were indeed empowering for women, and they have harbored strong, relevant leadership roles and abilities.

By tracing African matriarchal institutions among the Igbo women of southeastern Nigeria, Amadiume illustrates ways in which the sociopolitical autonomy and associational activism of women in this region have been drawn from very positive traditional bases. For these women, whose political mobilization and participation are strongly manifest in contemporary Nigerian society, by way of their dominant representations in women’s movements and associations, a tradition of motherhood ideology and gender autonomy has in many ways preserved a contemporary situation of women’s self-determination (Amadiume 1987). These traditional structures allowed women to establish their own political, economic, and social organizations, which gave them decision-making latitude in matters that affected their own lives (other female Igbo writers have developed this line of research to examine traditional female kinship systems). It is appropriate to draw conclusions from Amadiume’s studies of Igbo women—the dynamic southeastern women like Darego who remain empowered participants in the contemporary Nigerian democracy despite contemporary gender inequalities.

The history of southwestern Yoruba women is similar to that of the southeastern Igbo women, although matriarchal foundations are not offered as an explanation for Yoruba women’s contemporary vibrancy. In her seminal study of Nigerian women, Oyeronke Oyewumi (1997) explains the dynamic economic entrepreneurship observed among Yoruba women as having to do with the social autonomy that women enjoyed within the dual gender structures of Yoruba kingdoms before the advent of colonialism. Oyewumi goes even further than Amadiume in establishing a tradition of freedoms of conscience and associational autonomy among traditional Yoruba women whose sociocultural environment, she claims, reflected a “genderless” worldview. Being a male or a female in Yorubaland carried no specific value in discriminating between men and women, a reality that carries over in the present, where being a Yoruba female provides no specific gender disadvantages according to Oyewumi. The notion of the Yoruba “market woman” phenomenon embodies the implications of this gender history of women who are still asserting their socioeconomic rights of conscience, purpose, and autonomy in contemporary Nigeria (see Sudaarkasa 1973).

The gender character of precolonial northern Nigeria is different from that of southern Nigeria, and for a long time it has been complicated by the early development of Islam in the region in about 1000 CE. Histories of pre-Islamic northern Nigerian political communities seem to suggest that northern Nigerian women, like southern Nigerian women, had roles as political leaders and had institutionalized roles that augured political and religious power. Women were known to hold political leadership positions as evidenced by the vibrant history of queens of Daura, Abuja, and Gobir as well as Queen Amina of Zazzau. Women were also known to have been involved in economic and occupational roles such as land cultivation, pottery, spinning, weaving, craftwork, and music.

Nevertheless, these freedoms had been eroded by the time colonialism was established in the region, and the slow eradication of women’s rights can be attributed to the advancement of Islam in the region. For example, the practice of restricting women’s physical mobility to their places of residence (seclusion)—a practice that has been resuscitated in many northern Nigerian states since 2001—is linked to the formation of Islamic states in the region around the 15th century. As northern Nigerian urban spaces such as Kano became important Islamic centers of authority, roles for women in the public arena and religious life became more restricted (Samiuddin and Khanam 2002).

British colonialism formally established Nigeria as an amalgamated single colony in 1914 and thus provided the basis for the country’s contemporary modern liberal democratic state. This new structure that was imposed on the diverse northern and southern communities created the conditions that have enabled the ethno-regional dualist outlooks of the Nigerian woman today. Before 1900, the British ruled Nigeria’s self-governing precolonial nations through two protectorates—north (Hausa-Fulani, middle belt minorities) and south (Yoruba, Igbo, southeastern minorities). Yet many contemporary Nigerian female writers do not believe colonialism did much to improve the status of women in Nigeria. In fact, given the variability of women’s civil liberties and circumstance in the country’s precolonial nations, Nigerian scholars frequently argue that the Western patriarchal institutions and cultural practices brought to the regions they colonized had a contradictory effect on women’s civil liberties. By legally inscribing British common law and Christianity as premises for the country’s modern statehood and law, colonialism may have brought with it modern patriarchal systems that were a product of British Victorian culture.

Ifi Amadiume (1995) has shown how British colonial policy attacked Igbo women’s traditional power bases in this manner. This is not to deny the role of patriarchy in Nigerian precolonial societies, yet Amadiume believes colonialism solidified traditional gender structures while imposing Western forms of gender inequality to create the complex dualisms that exist in the contemporary Nigerian gender profiles that are reflected in the stark contrasts between the lifestyles of Amina Lawal and Darego Agbani. Other Nigerian writers have documented the relative loss of economic status by Nigerian women as a result of colonialism. Glo Chukukere (1998) says this occurred when British colonialists promoted cash cropping as a man’s job in southern Nigeria’s communities. Male British colonialists gradually replaced Nigerian women, who had been at the forefront of subsistence farming, with men, who were taught new and improved methods of agriculture. Women began to be relegated to the background.

Abida Samiuddin and R. Khanam (2002), authors of an exciting comparative study of Muslim women in African countries, attribute the expansion of the practice of seclusion among Islamic women in northern Nigeria to the process of colonialism as well. The authors show how colonial agricultural policy in northern Nigeria led to women’s withdrawal from the field labor occupations they had traditionally held. Traditionally, women of Kano had been heavily involved in precolonial cotton production in the fields; however, the boost for cotton and groundnut production for the British cash-crop economy forced them into cotton-yarn spinning, which could be done from the compounds away from the fields.

Nigeria’s experience with colonialism has reshaped Nigerian gender identity in other ways that also had different regional effects on Nigerian gender status. The colonial policy of indirect rule in the north, for example, meant that the British government worked in conjunction with northern Islamic political institutions rather than eradicating them. In the south, the imposition of indirect rule—especially in the southeast and Niger Delta regions—meant the British had to create proxy political institutions where they were previously noncentralized, acephalous, and democratic. As a result, in southern communities, colonial conquest led to resistance by women who sought to protect what they perceived to be the erosion of the democratic space they had cherished since the precolonial period.

In 1929, already fighting for their civil rights, women’s groups in eastern Nigeria challenged the authority of the British-appointed warrant chiefs because these political appointments usurped women’s traditional responsibilities, which gave them the authority to take punitive action against offending members of their organizations. The new political regimes also took away women’s control of the business of the market (Uche 1989; Nwanko 1996). Known as the 1929 Aba women’s tax riot, women entrepreneurs (market women) protested excessive promulgation of tax laws by the colonial powers. The now famous Aba women’s riot succeeded in preventing the taxation of women and led to the dismissal of several chiefs and the enlargement of female representation on the local colonial courts. Nigerian feminists such as Iyabo Olojede use the Aba riots to demonstrate ways in which Nigerian women in the southern regions had to have been consciously and politically organized around activist issues before the advent of colonialism, or they could not have pulled off such successful political actions against colonialism (Olojede 1990).

By default, colonialism also introduced new forms of political action among women. By the early 1900s for example, then nascent Nigerian cities such as Lagos, Ibadan, Abeokuta, Onitsha, Enugu, Benin, and Warri began to produce modern women’s movements and political and professional organizations. Nigerian feminist writer Nkechi Nwankwo (1996) has demonstrated ways in which women’s mobilization during the colonial period proved invaluable for the country’s struggle for independence.

As a result, women’s organizations acted as both interest groups and pressure groups on colonial rule. These groups were the precursors of the modern feminist movement in Nigeria. In the 1930s, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, who had previously organized the Abeokuta anticolonial women’s riot in southwestern Nigeria, brought women together to discuss gender issues that affected the new female professionals. Some issues included the plight of young women newlyweds who were becoming victims of domestic violence. The discussion group evolved into the Egba Women’s Union, which became one of the earliest feminist groups to improve literacy among rural groups and to fight indiscriminate taxation imposed on market women (Oyewusi 1996).

Although the modernization of social processes of gender in northern Nigeria during the colonial period was much less apparent than in southern Nigeria, some mobilization did occur among women despite the fact that the religious culture limited women’s activism against colonialism. Women-organized activism in non-Muslim northern women’s groups occurred in the 1950s as pro-women welfare initiatives were led by prominent northern women such as Mrs. Comfort Dikko; the late Madam Shehu from Sokoto; Madam Zakari, the mother of Mrs. Victoria Gowon; and Hajia Joda. It wasn’t until after independence in 1964 that a Muslim women’s organization was formed, the Jamiy’yar Matan Arewa or Northern Women’s Association. In the wake of decolonization, during the Nigerian nationalist period, the Northern Elements Progressive Union, a northern “middle belt”3 political organization/party argued for women’s full enfranchisement and rights to education. For example, northern Nigerian nationalist and region premier Aminu Kano, who headed the party at the time, related northern women’s human rights to Islamic surahs, which referred to the religious rights and duties of women and men among Muslims (Samiuddin and Khanam 2002).

Nigerian history demonstrates that while gender structures in southern and Islamic regions of the country are still very much influenced by customary traditional patriarchal practices, these structures also tend to be disproportionately distributed among precolonial regions that have been transformed by colonial practices. In capturing this diversity, Zaynab Alkali (1993) acknowledges that the Nigerian woman is a woman straddling three cultures: the African traditional, the Western European, and the Arab (through the Islamic religion).

Women in Modern Nigerian Politics: Variations in Democratic Participation


Nigerian women entered modern politics in 1960 as the country gained formal independence from Britain. Her identity as a Nigerian citizen, however, remains as divergent as the pluralistic histories, regional contexts, and cultures from which she has emerged. During this period Nigerian women began to display new kinds of complexities and transformations ascribed to their Third World profile. Postindependence Nigeria represents new distinctions for Nigerian women’s participation in their country’s modern democracy so that they can advance women’s interests, rights, and liberties as well as those of the nation.

During this early period, however, women in Nigeria did not have a unified identity as Nigerians. Rather, like their Third World counterparts, Nigerian women are postcolonial hybrids who are characterized by an identity that is not simply traceable to a precolonial formulation; neither has their historical progression into contemporary society produced a homogenous citizenship status. It is important to recognize contemporary Nigerian women’s variable roles as mothers, wives, queens, community decision-makers, traders, and farmers, as these identities provide important starting points for examining their contemporary place as citizens and as a gender social group (Nwankwo 1996). During this period, Nigerian women’s previous ethno regional identities began to be reinvented as they adjusted to a new kind of civic nationalism.

In the early post-independence period, at least two distinct identity features began to reflect the pluralism of Nigerian women. The one identity was the regional identity derived from their precolonial cultural heritage. The other was their newer, more ideologically feminist consciousness, which had gradually derived from their interactions with modernity and globalization. These two interactions—often wrongly characterized by some as a clash between tradition and modernity —in fact inform a contradictory sociopolitical environment in which the Nigerian feminist difference emerges. For example, monogamous marriages that come with the privileges of individual choice, formal education, careers, expanded commercial activities, and family planning facilities are many of the benefits to women that were brought about by the country’s modernization period after independence (Chukukere 1998).

Individual citizenship rights, including gender rights, were officially guaranteed and conferred as rights to Nigerian women in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (chap. 4, sec. 30-40) at the time. Of benefit to Nigerian women was the fact that the country’s founding constitution guaranteed substantive and procedural justice; the right to participate in the governance of one’s country; the right to food, livelihood, and an adequate standard of living; and the right to participate in the cultural life of the community (Ezeilo and Afolabi 2002).

Despite the fact that the country’s post-independence constitution conferred upon Nigerian women the civil liberties and political rights that women in other parts of the world have had to struggle for, in actuality, it is the variable cultural contexts in which Nigerian women live that tend to limit the full realization of Nigerian women’s democratic empowerment and full citizenship rights. That is to say, since independence, women in Nigeria have enjoyed constitutional rights that include equal pay for comparable work, abortion rights, and maternity rights for working mothers (Chukukere 1998), but social and cultural practices such as the historically bred structures of patriarchy in Nigerian communities and the dominant cultural legacies carried over from the country’s precolonial framework inhibited the postcolonial constitutional gains made by Nigeria’s women during this period (Okeke 2000).

Nigerian women’s studies scholar Molara Ogundipe-Leslie (1985) has identified the institution of family and marriage as one example of a social structure that subverts the liberties of Nigerian women. Phil Okeke (2000) supports Ogundipe’s observation. Ogundipe argues that although Nigerian marriage ordinances sought to establish monogamous practice to weaken polygynous customary marriage, these constitutional provisions did not, however, establish firm conditions for women’s security in “statutory” monogamous marriages. As a result, what emerged in contemporary Nigeria was the simultaneous practice of both traditional and modern norms for regulating marriage; furthermore, these norms were conveyed in different ways among the northern and southern regions. In the north, polygyny under Islamic and later regional customary law was merely reinforced despite constitutionalism, whereas the south adopted monogamy among elite classes and its practice was accepted only to the extent that it remained compatible with traditional requirements that legitimized men’s privileges.

The extended family system is another example of the way polygynous social practice overrides monogamous constitutional statutes. In situations where women were absorbed into their husband’s extended family in settings in which they had to present themselves as proper wives, constitutional statutes protecting monogamy were undermined. This is because autonomous and individualized spaces that would be required to succeed in their new careers and social obligations in the workforce took a back seat to women’s traditional roles as mothers and wives.


Notwithstanding these complexities, which at best limit the full realization of civil liberties and gender equality in Nigerian society, postcolonial Nigerian society did foster a women’s movement that sought to raise feminist consciousness and deepen Nigerian democracy. Nigerian women’s studies sociologist Mere Kisekka (1992) has argued that although Nigeria does not have a women’s movement that is vociferously engaged in the exposure and challenge of gender inequality in a rigorous way, several women’s associations have striven to operate cautiously within traditional gender boundaries, and they are steadily articulating the theory of complementary rather than competitive roles in gender relations. Consistent with Nigerian feminist writer Obioma Nnaemeka’s (2003) version of this style of feminism—she calls it “Nigerian womanism”—the Nigerian National Commission for Women has characterized Nigerian feminism as an unarmed movement that is nonconfrontational and advocates the progressive uplifting of women for motherhood, nationhood, and development (Samiuddin and Khanam 2002).

Two aspects of modern Nigerian state-society relations reveal the development of Nigeria’s feminist consciousness. One aspect is the pluralistic advocacy by distinct, nonstate women’s organizations and communities within Nigerian civil society. The other is the “woman-in-development” gender initiatives embarked upon by various Nigerian governance regimes. A host of women’s movements have operated in Nigeria since independence and since the early launching in 1953 of the pioneer Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies (FNWS), which became the Nigerian Council of Women’s Societies in 1959. Led by Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the FNWS’s primary goal was to bring Nigerian women together to protect their rights under colonial rule and to raise the status of women to win equal opportunities with men.

Significantly, this organization played an important role in fighting for the enfranchisement of women in northern Nigeria as well. In the 1980s, Women in Nigeria (WIN) was established as an urban-based women’s movement aimed at transforming Nigerian society. In addition to articulating the importance of gender inequality, WIN advanced the debate on Nigerian feminism to include issues of women’s reproductive rights and choice, sexual harassment and violence, and consciousness-raising programs in the broader discourse on women. Another important representation of women’s groups in Nigeria is the largely rural-based organization, Country Women Association of Nigeria, which provided services to women at the grassroots level and directly participated in the country’s pro-democracy movement beginning in 1993.

As a developing nation, Nigeria’s governmental regimes have made significant efforts to improve the conditions that foster women’s full integration into Nigerian society. In 1982, the government launched the National Committee on Women and Development (NCWD) to liaise with the numerous women’s nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The NCWD’s main function was to coordinate the activities relating to women, advise the government on women’s issues, and design programs to facilitate women’s integration into the development process (Samiuddin and Khanam 2002). In addition, the Babangida regime introduced the internationally acclaimed Better Life Program, which had the goal of bringing rural women into mainstream society. Myriam Babangida (1991), the program’s award-winning leader and wife of Nigeria’s president, claimed that her program’s objective was to create a new rural woman who would be strong, politically active, socially aware, psychologically fulfilled, and equipped to play her role in society to the fullest.

The country’s post-independence era demonstrates that the feminist movement in Nigeria has been gradually achieving distinctly observable outcomes, such as shaping the contemporary female Nigerian identity and helping women realize civil liberties. However, the era also exposes the reality that political rights for women—defined by the extent to which Nigerian women formally participate in Nigerian democratic regimes—have had less of an overall impact in breaking male dominance in the political system. Female political participation for Nigerian women still reflects a north-south dualism where even though women in the south have voted and contested elections since before independence, northern Nigerian women were refused suffrage and the right to participate in the political system. The Federal Constitution of 1960 (sec. 44 [b]) stipulated that only a male person is qualified to seek office in the House of Representatives in the northern parts of the country, and the northern regional constitution denied women in the north the right to vote. This situation did not change until the new 1977 constitution granted universal adult suffrage for all Nigerian citizens aged 18 years and older (Omonubi-McDonnell 2003).

Moreover, although southern and non-Muslim Nigerian women did not have to struggle for suffrage rights during this era, their participation in electoral politics has also been low. During the country’s First Republic (the first democratic regime), of the 36 members of the assembly, only one woman, Warola Esan, was appointed to a ministerial post. In the 1961 postindependence general elections, three women were elected to the Eastern House of Assembly, two women were appointed to ministerial posts, and several women were elected in local posts.

Subsequently, with the collapse of liberal democratic politics and the onset of Nigerian military political regimes in 1967, aside from the occasional appointment of women as commissioners, women’s participation was equally minimal. However, as Nigeria’s military vanguardist regimes (Edozie 2002) began to embark upon a federalist policy of ethno-regional equality, they also enacted a policy of encouraging the appointment of at least one female commissioner per state (Mba 1982). As the country began to debate and deliberate democratic transitions and constitutional engineering, few women were represented. Of the 250-member Draft Constitution Committee only five women were included. Despite this meager representation, however, these women were very influential in including into the constitution, the “freedom against sexual discrimination” clause that sought to socially and culturally enfranchise women in northern Nigeria.

Nigerian women also participated in the country’s 1978-1979 democratic transition: they attempted to create their own women’s parties, but when they achieved little success, they began to open up women’s wings of the major parties. During the country’s Second Republic, three women won seats in the House of Representatives, five won seats in various state assemblies, and a woman from each state was sworn in as a federal commissioner. In the subsequent 1983 elections, Franca Afegbua, an Igbo woman from the southeast, was the first Nigerian woman elected as a Senate representative.

During Nigeria’s Third Republic, women began to increase their participation and representation in democratic politics. Of the 1,297 nationwide local electoral seats, women won 206. Twelve women won seats in the 638-member House of Representatives, though only one woman was elected to the Senate. Two women contested the presidency—one northern Nigerian woman (from Nigeria’s middle belt), Sarah Jibril, and the other a southern woman, Bola Kuforiji-Olubi. Table 1 reflects Nigerian women’s representation in the 1999 elections. Once again, the numbers demonstrate a negligible pattern of Nigerian women’s representation in electoral participation. The House of Representatives elected 13 women representatives, which has been Nigerian women’s largest share in democratic politics.

Table 1. Elective Political Positions in Nigeria, by Gender, 1999-2003
Position Men Women Total % Women
Source: Women’s Consortium of Nigeria (2004 ); Olateru-Olagbegi and Afolabi (2004) .
President 1 0 1 0
Vice president 1 0 1 0
Speakers 35 1 36 2.7
Governors 36 0 36 0
Deputy governors 35 1 36 2.7
L.G.A. chairpersons 765 9 774 1.2
Councilors 8,667 143 8,810 1.6
State Assembly Members 978 12 990 1.2
Senators 106 3 109 1.2
House of Representatives 347 13 360 3.3

New Challenges and Opportunities for Gender Liberties: Northern Islamism And Southern Secularism


No less than in any other country in the developing world, globalization began to influence international relations in Nigeria by the end of the Cold War. These new trends in internationalization have also shaped Nigerian national and local gender norms in complex ways. Global associational organizations and international institutions are collaborating with national and local civil-societal organizations to form a new genre of global governance. These kinds of new global interactions have had an effect in enforcing the idea of global rights, in which gender is at the center of many current debates. The United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is one of the most overarching of these new globalizing influences. Nigeria became a signatory to the convention in 1979, and since then the country has used the International Women’s Year to embark upon an extensive, state-led focus on programs to assist women’s advancement at the national level that has done a lot to improve the plight of Nigerian women.

Also, nonstate Nigerian women’s civil-societal organizations have participated in the global struggle for women’s rights in various world conferences on women. NGO forums of the 1980s (Copenhagen 1980, Nairobi 1985) and the series of agenda-setting United Nations world conferences, including the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, in which Nigerian women made up one of the three largest delagations, are examples of these sociopolitical influences.

Economic globalization has also influenced changes in gender regimes in Nigeria. Nigerian feminist Amina Mama (1997) has argued that since the economic crisis that gripped Africa in the 1980s, women have increasingly become subjected to harsher living conditions and human rights abuses. World Bank/IMF economic reform policies have also restructured the Nigerian economy so drastically that they have led to the realignment of the country’s income levels and social classes. These influences from economic globalization have exacerbated poverty among women in the country. Nigerian political economists Olukoshi and Olukoshi (1995) have argued that structural adjustment policies destroyed the Nigerian textile industry and led to the decline of female wage labor in the country’s economy. As structural adjustment polices deindustrialized the country’s infant industries and small-scale enterprises, especially Nigeria’s textile sector, firms were forced to lay off workers, most of whom were women in their prime employment age (Olukoshi and Olukoshi 1995).

The effect of political globalization (global norming of ideas, identities, and values) and economic globalization (global harmonizing of economic rules and practices) on gender rights became glaringly apparent after Nigeria’s 1999 democratic transition to a Fourth Republic. Occurring in a post-Cold War era of democratization, Nigeria’s third democratic transition was both a national and a global event. As a national event, the transition boasted female heroes such as the late Kudirat Abiola, a prominent pro-democracy activist and wife of the symbolic leader of Nigeria’s June 12th movement of democratic alliance, the late Chief Moshood Abiola. Kudirat was assassinated by gunmen on June 4th, 1996, because of her political activism.

Ironically, it was the successful outcome of the prodemocracy movement and subsequent establishment of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic that unleashed globalization’s starkest restructuring of state-society regimes. This transition had a pernicious effect on Muslim women living in northern states and ushered in the highly symbolic, transnational struggle for human rights and democracy for Amina Lawal.

Beauty Queens

While underscoring the tenuousness of the rights of all Nigerian women, which had previously been guaranteed by the constitution, the Lawal event captured the dynamism of the emergent Nigerian women’s movement in both regions. Other prominent Nigerian female participants in this struggle, aside from Amina Lawal and Agbani Darego, were Hauwa Ibrahim, the northern Nigerian lawyer who successfully defended Lawal in her appeal. Ibrahim had served as defense counsel in 47 sharia cases, and she was a senior partner and pro bono legal aid counsel for a law firm located in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.

Another important participant in the crisis was Isioma Daniel, a 21-year-old southern Nigerian who was known as the Nigerian Salman Rushdie. Daniel’s controversial story in the Nigerian newsmagazine This Day instigated violent riots against secularist southerners in Abuja; the subsequent crisis led to the cancellation of the 2002 Miss World pageant, which had been scheduled to be held there. While exercising her rights to freedom of speech, Daniel received a fatwa from the Zamfara state government for the controversial statements she made in her article, “Miss World 2002: The World at Her Feet(Daniel 2002). In her stinging social commentary that criticized the global attention that the country was receiving for hosting the pageant, Daniel wrote, “What would Mohammed think?” This sentence caused the young journalist’s forced exile to Europe for fear of her life.

The Lawal and Darego stories serve to underscore the drastic differences that exist in the exercise of gender liberties among northern and southern Nigerian communities. In the north, the application of sharia’s zina penal code to Lawal’s extramarital affair introduced a riveting debate about women’s reproductive and sexual rights (Imam 2006). In addition, the adoption of sharia laws in northern states triggered a broader constitutional debate over the role of religion in politics and its implications on human rights.

The crisis began in October 1999 when Governor Sani Yerima, the newly elected governor of Zamfara state—one of northern Nigeria’s newest states—expanded the jurisdiction of sharia laws (including zina) from their local municipal civil authoritative base. During colonial administrations and in subsequent postcolonial constitutions, sharia laws had been established according to customary law in northern Muslim communities. Sani Yerima expanded this previously established jurisdiction to come under the law of Zamfara state. The governor explained his controversial adoption of sharia laws as a democratic campaign promise that had been reinforced by the waves of political Islam and the activist promotion of Islamic doctrines among northern Nigerian civil societies, like the student-led Umma Islamic statists and the Izala anti-Sufist movement. After Zamfara State adopted sharia law, State after state in the north officially enacted all or some aspects of sharia law. In 2002, Amina Lawal became just one of the many women prosecuted under the zina penal codes to be convicted for adultery in a northern Nigerian state.

To the credit of Nigerian women, Lawal’s case was immediately adopted for defense by a coalition of domestic NGOs that provided her with lawyers. Hauwa Ibrahim represented just one of the many Nigerian civil-societal organizations that had actively organized to establish protection for women’s rights under the new sharia laws in the north. Two of the women’s groups involved in these campaigns included the nongovernmental organizations Baobab for Women’s Human Rights and the Women’s Action Collective. These groups engaged themselves in a number of activities in the northern sharia states that sought to minimize the reversal of women’s human rights and civil liberties. They brought appeals for convicted women like Lawal to the region’s higher courts and targeted the rules that were friendlier to women. They also sought to demystify sharia among the general public by embarking upon democratic awareness campaigns for female communities (Imam 2006), highlighting ways the sharia legal system violated the human rights of women. They argued that because the code disallowed the association of men and women in public, sharia law violated freedom of assembly and association as provided under Section 40 of Nigeria’s Constitution and thus infringed on the individual rights of citizens’ minority groups.

The Nigerian Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), headed by a southern Nigerian woman, Ayo Obe, highlighted the human rights abuses of the Islamic code; the group declared the adoption of sharia law by northern states as unconstitutional in accordance with the 1999 Nigerian Constitution; and argued against Zamfara’s pro-sharia activist interpretation of the constitution. Obe stated that the right to freedom of religion did not allow the imposition of a particular religion on an individual. Arguing against zina laws, the CLO also pointed out that the constitution already guaranteed the right to life and dignity of persons, including guaranteeing their personal liberty and freedom from cruel punishment. Sharia laws abrogated these constitutional guarantees by resuscitating traditional penal codes such as amputations, stoning, and beheading for nonheinous crimes.

Lawal’s case soon became the object of world attention as media and national protest campaigns urged the Nigerian government to respect international conventions that it had ratified. CEDAW clearly identifies the need for member governments to confront the socioeconomic, cultural, political, and religious causes of women’s inequality that lead to their discrimination in the private sphere. The new democratic regime of President Olusegun Obasanjo attempted to settle Nigeria’s sharia crisis by declaring the strict version of sharia practices to be illegal under the country’s secular constitution because they discriminate against Muslims. The country’s justice minister, Godwin Agabi, proclaimed that Muslim women should not be subjected to a punishment more severe than would be imposed on non-Muslim Nigerian women for the same offence.

Eventually, a Katsina Islamic court cleared Lawal of the zina adultery charge, releasing her from a sentence of death by stoning. Many human rights activists in Nigeria commended their government for resolving Lawal’s fate locally within the Katsina appeal court on procedural, appellate grounds. Doing so, they felt, reinforced democracy in the local and national arenas. For them, the Lawal acquittal occurred because Nigerian women exercised their capacity to agitate for the protection of their rights of due process by appealing against injustices handed down by the state. By allowing the case to proceed and be won in the first of potentially three appeal courts, Nigeria’s democracy demonstrated its own endogenously emergent culture of human rights and democracy within the rule of law. Lawal’s defense lawyer, Hauwa Ibrahim, expressed this position when she proclaimed that her client’s acquittal was “a victory for law, for justice and for dignity and human rights for Nigeria” (Agence France Presse 2003).

Conclusion: Contemporary Nigerian Gender and Global Unity

Amina Lawal, Hauwa Ibrahim, Agbani Darego, and Isioma Daniel are the faces of contemporary Nigerian gender identities. Chandra Mohanty (2003) would have described the events that brought them together in terms of her “One-Third/Two-Thirds” feminist solidarity model where women living in the wealthy western cities of the advanced industrial world are privileged compared to women living in the poor, developing world regions. Lawal, Ibrahim, Darego, and Daniel all came to symbolize dynamic points of connection and distance among and between communities of women marginalized and privileged along local and global dimensions—Sokoto, Katsina, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The new faces of Nigerian feminism are “daughters” and “sisters” of dynamic though divergent sociocultural histories whose legacies are exhibited in their contemporary mobilization around gender issues. Their encounters illustrate the link between the grounded experiences of Nigerian women’s everyday lives and their local gendered contexts and ideologies among broader transnational political and economic structures of contemporary globalization.

The 2002 sentencing of Amina Lawal served as the event that brought these women together. However, the event also demonstrates ways in which the global and the local exist simultaneously to forge a unique form of Nigerian feminist solidarity. When one woman’s rights were violated by the 2001 judgment, other women sought to ensure that Nigerian women’s rights would be “guaranteed, claimed and respected” (Imam 2006).

It is an important marker for Nigerian women’s civil liberties and political rights that the appeals court decision that acquitted Lawal of any wrongdoing did not result from international pressure alone. That Lawal was acquitted due to the historical Nigerian gender struggle, by the continuously changing forms of local and national power politics, and as a result of the long-standing cultural traditions of the country’s political alignments and groups, is the expression of contemporary Nigerian feminism.

Moreover, despite the pluralist and dualist dimensions of Nigerian feminism presented throughout this survey of Nigerian women, the country’s regional gender identities are not so different after all. When faced with challenges that confront their gender identity, Nigerian women are using contextualized discourses and transnational tactics of struggle to deepen their own empowerment, and they are participating in the consolidation of their country’s slowly emerging multinational democracy.