She’s bent on changing the world

Jacintha Bent, Nigerian feminist

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari recently courted controversy for describing his nation’s youth as lazy and dependent. Jacintha Bent is a bright young thing whose work challenges that notion. She tells Osemome Ndebbio why the women of her country  must hold their half of the sky.

Jacintha Bent, Nigerian feminist

Young, gifted and feminist

Jacintha, we have followed your *blog and read your works for a while now. They are quite engaging. Tell us more about yourself and what inspired you to research women’s issues?

Thank you very much!  I am 17 years old and the youngest of four sisters. I recently completed my secondary education and foundation program in Nigeria and Dubai respectively. My attraction to feminism came from watching my mother, Senator Grace Bent, break the glass ceiling of patriarchy to become the first female senator in  North-Eastern Nigeria. Also, reading other feminists’ works online and following social media discussions about female liberation gave me a sense of what it means to be a woman,  and encouraged me to take a closer look at feminism.

Watching my mother break the glass ceiling to become the first female senator in North-Eastern Nigeria inspired me to become a feminist.

Does patriarchy really exist or are women confusing male authority with oppression?

Many women have really never had a problem with the idea of male leadership; it is rather comforting sometimes. However a [problematic] system which allowed men to control every aspect of a woman’s life emerged. For example, a lot of men see it as their right to own a woman’s body. This can lead to domestic abuse, rape and violation of other humans rights. Patriarchy also demands that women respect men but does not oblige men to reciprocate such honour. If a couple struggles to balance work with family life, for instance, the woman is often expected to give up her career or other  aspirations in order to save the marriage or look after the home.

Do you have actual experiences of being oppressed because of your gender?

I feel almost every female person, whether in Africa or elsewhere in the world has experienced one form of oppression or another. Girls tend to be burdened by high and unrealistic expectations, even from a young age. For example, they are taught to be ashamed of their bodies or ‘cover up’ in order  to not seduce a man. The real solution should be to address the man who finds a young girl ‘attractive’! Also, girls are usually groomed to be wives and taught cater to men’s egos from a young age, while boys are encouraged to develop into whatever they choose to be with few social repercussions or humiliation.

Girls are taught to ‘cover up’ in order to not seduce a man. The real solution should be to address the man who finds a young girl attractive.

Many women are mortified by the idea of being called feminists. Why is this the case?

A lot of women have been programmed to see oppression as standard, from childhood. It is what they have witnessed from seeing how their parents and other family members relate to the opposite sex. Years ago, women were not in a position to freely express their thoughts or feelings because that would have been seen as a challenge to their men. So a lot of relationships revolved around  the three deadly weapons of  silence, tolerance and endurance. Many mothers hid their pain under fake smiles and this normalised their condition for the children they raised.

Jacintha and Senator Grace Nemt

Jacintha & Mother, Senator Grace Bent

How would you define feminism so that more women could understand the case for it?

The term, from my perspective, is more of a quest for equal rights socially, morally and politically. It  does not eliminate the old fashioned love that one may have been dreaming of having, but it allows the woman  to consent to it. Feminism helps women to speak out against what they don’t like instead of suffering in silence. It is not against women or men but seeks equal happiness for both sexes. Feminism does not only advocate the rights of women but it also challenges  unrealistic social expectations of men. For example, many regard the notion of men showing sadness is ‘feminine.’

Patriarchy seems to be institutionalised. How can advocates for feminism change things for the better?

Education can bring about change. However, that can only be effective if the recipients are receptive of the message being passed across. For them to know that it is not against them but the system that oppresses both sexes. Despite their potential, women usually have to constantly prove themselves more than men do in the workplace. Also, more men occupy CEO and other powerful roles, so no matter how much we advocate for women’s rights, we also need their support. Consequently, they continue to allow us strive for it. Feminists will speak up more and in different ways, like protests, until they achieve equality.

In 2016, Aisha Buhari, First Lady of Nigeria, made some political comments and her husband, President Muhammadu Buhari responded with statements that were considered misogynistic when he affirmed that his wife belongs in the kitchen and “the other room.” Recently, Honourable Mohammed Gudaji Kazaure moved a motion that women should “not be given too much opportunity.”  What does being under such leadership spell for Nigerian feminists or Nigerian women who are struggling to assert themselves and find their voice?

I do not think it is anything different from what we have been experiencing as feminists in Nigeria. You must understand that every leader has their own idiosyncratic trait on how they perceive women. Men have always been vocal about the subordinate roles of women, but what Nigeria has now is misogynistic men in powerful positions where they can further exert their voices without any type of consequence.

Women today have more opportunities in the workplace. You talked about more men being employed than women. Besides gender discrimination, what other factors do you think could have resulted in this difference?

Traditional and cultural beliefs play a big role in the male to female employment ratio. The popular notion that a woman’s place is at home enables employers to underestimate a female employee’s potential to succeed. Harmful practices that force women to give up their careers, bring down the number of women who could have been CEOs or even presidents. Another major issue is the shortage of qualified women in many industries, partly because of a lack of access to education in areas where it is deemed culturally unacceptable to not send girls to school.

Patriarchy demands that women respect men but does not oblige men to reciprocate such honour.

Times have changed and male strength isn’t required for a lot of jobs. As a result, women can compete favourably with men for these roles. You’ve previously spoken about engineering and military positions being withheld from women despite their obvious success. Some of these jobs are carried out under hazardous conditions and require strength levels that women do not have the physical capacity for. Is it possible that these jobs are being withheld because of physical strength issues? How can women ask for equal treatment here even when they can’t compete equally?

Similarly to men, women apply for these positions  after undergoing a series of training programmes. Evidently, some have surpassed their male colleagues in the Nigerian military. Focusing on Nigeria particularly, the news about stopping the admission of female cadets into the military was a big blow, which even led a General (who spoke on condition of anonymity) to reveal that the female cadets’ achievements were being suppressed by military hierarchy in order to sabotage leadership opportunities for women. C. Lord Mallam, a female cadet in the Nigerian Navy won the highest medal in her category, K. O Dayo-Karim won the second highest award in the army and O. S Ijelu won the Air Force Silver Award. All three of them notably being women.

You state on your blog  that men earn more than women.  Are you saying that in banks in Nigeria and corporations like the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC)  for instance, a male member of staff  earns more than their female colleague with the same rank and qualifications?

I would not be able to speak for specific corporations because I do not personally know how things are run there. However, what  I mentioned on my blog was based on information I got about some banks in Nigeria paying men higher rates than women. The only way women earn higher is when they are used as sex symbols to attract huge deposits of funds to the bank. Many other industries also underpay their female employees.

In the struggle for equality how can both sexes work together to ensure that they complement each other?

Setting aside egos is essential, so as to ensure a better understanding for the importance of the other sex. This is because education will not help solve anything if the other party being spoken to is insensitive to the issue and not receptive of the message. Once sensitivity to the topic is achieved, the rights of women will automatically have  been fought for. Progress will start with better treatment of women in the household and move beyond its boundaries.

*Jacintha blogs at Jacintha Bent’s Insights