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"What can a woman do?" Gender norms in a Nigerian university

Are universities necessarily transformative spaces for women students? Research at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, raises critical questions around how conservative gender norms are replicated by young students, in particular in the burgeoning culture of religious student organisations.

What are the perceptions of being a woman on a Nigerian university campus in spaces which are not strictly regulated by the university authorities? What are the perceptions of female sexuality among the students and staff in these locations?

This article explores the perceptions and the lived experiences of female students in the University of Ibadan (UI), the oldest Nigerian university, focusing on the halls of residence and religious fellowships on campus. It also explores the perception of women’s sexuality and its pervasive impact on relationships in the institution.

Like most African universities, UI has been affected by serious transformations in political economy that have occurred at both global and local levels. The university has also been adversely impacted by issues such as national political instability, severe under-funding, academic brain drain, and violent agitations which make its governance appear more suited for men.

It is within this context that the university is expected to fulfil its mandate of being transformative and empowering. It is also expected that women students entering its mainly masculine terrain will be, in some way, automatically elevated. Nigerian women still have unequal access to higher education – about 37% of the total UI student body was female at the time of the research presented in this article. Moreover, as the research found, part of the lived experience of being a woman on a Nigerian university campus is being portrayed and treated as subordinate. This subordination is ostensibly due to “traditional culture,” as well as social and familial factors which view women as inherently fragile, dependent on male protection and requiring surveillance and control.

Religious and residential life at UI

Part of the complex realities that have shaped student life at UI in the last two decades has been the rise of transnational religious movements such as Pentecostalism and reformist (more fundamentalist) Islam. Although students’ religious fellowships have existed since the earliest days of the university, they were on the fringes of the larger student body until the 1980s and 1990s, which saw the emergence of strong evangelical groups of Christians and Muslims.

Approximately 7,500 UI students (37% of the total student population as of the 2004/2005 academic year) are registered as members of religious organisations. These highly structured fellowships have a reputation of providing students with social and academic support networks, and also protection against campus violence.

Less than half of UI students live on campus. At the time of this study, only 44.6% of students (30% and 15% of male and female students respectively) were accommodated in the university’s twelve halls of residence. Eight of these halls were single sex while four were mixed (co-ed). The halls form a strong part of the university culture on account of the deep ties which students forge there, ties which frequently endure beyond graduation.

The method of studying perceptions of women in these religious and residential spaces was mainly qualitative, combining interviews and focus group discussions with both male and female students, including leaders of the fellowships and residential halls. Documentary evidence about the fellowship groups was also used. In addition, the Dean of Students, wardens of selected halls and staff advisers of the religious fellowships were interviewed.

Women’s ‘natural’ place

A major finding of the study was the general perception of, and acquiescence to, a gendered hierarchy which privileged male students. Men were credited with superior skills in leadership and in people, time and crisis management. This position was supported by essentialist notions of women’s ‘natural’ temperament, as well as by various cultural constructs, the generally low status of women in Nigeria and religious doctrine.

The cohort of leaders of the religious fellowships was predominantly male, in spite of the large number of women members. Only two groups had up to 30% female leadership and, even then, these women were in turn subordinate to male leadership. The Amira (female head of the women’s arm of  Muslim Students’ Society) vigorously dismissed the possibility of women’s leadership by declaring: “Astagafulla (God forbids it), Islam does not encourage the female to be head of the community.”

In the women’s halls of residence, women served as executives but even in a co-ed hall that was 80% female, there were no women in the executive. Women’s participation in student politics as potential candidates for elective offices was low and frowned upon, as was women’s activism. A man residing in a mixed hall said that women who engaged in student politics " are probably... those feminists. Those who believe in women’s emancipation. But anybody who is oriented towards getting married, having a family, settling down, definitely,  the man will not want it."

The reasons given for women’s ostensible apathy were astounding: for example, their “fragility,” “lack of courage,” “inferiority complex,” “keeping malice,” “being more controversial.” These traits were opposed to “men’s boldness,” “self-confidence,” and “strong heart.” The resignation of many women to their marginalisation in university politics is captured in the words of a female hall warden: “Some of (the female students) will always say ‘What can a woman do? Let me just face my academics.’” Only occasional reference was made to an institutional culture that inhibited female participation, such as the psychological and physical violence that characterized student politics and made it threatening to women students.

The domestication of women students was observed in both the secular and religious spaces being researched. Considerable exploitative interactions were reported, mainly in the form of women providing domestic services by cooking for men in the residential halls and doing chores such as decorating, sweeping and cooking in the religious fellowships. Where permitted, public preaching by women was limited.

Infantilisation and control of women

Closely related to the relegation of women students to the background was their complaint of being infantilised by female hall wardens, who enforced regulations on visiting periods, “morality,” dress codes and “loitering” around the hall by “ladies.” That male students were subjected to less authoritarian treatment by their male wardens and hall supervisors was resented and seen as sexist.

Trivialising or labelling of female students was common, for example, in the derisive references to residents of one of the female halls as “butty”, that is, overly westernised, privileged, and not suitable as “wife material.”

In the fellowships, women’s high levels of participation in religious activities were stigmatized as excessive, juvenile, and evidence of their being “somehow feebleminded, more easily moved than guys.” This participation was viewed as advantageous, though, as a strategy for women to identify suitable partners. A male respondent said: “There’s a big rush in the husband market. In the fellowships and crusades, you will see the number of sisters who are there to get a husband.”

Female sexuality and disorder

In striking contrast to the strong emphasis placed on women’s subsidiary role in the university, their sexuality was constructed as powerful and threatening to the social order. According to this discourse, women’s sexuality was overwhelming and also impossible for women to control by themselves. One of the coordinators of a women’s Christian fellowship presented women students as highly subversive of social norms, " female students... go about nude, all in the name of fashion... the way they dress... may directly or indirectly have influence on the male students... like what they used to say, that ‘women and money is the root of evil."

There were recurring references to transactional sex and allegations that women students preferred ‘sugar daddies,’ echoing a dominant media focus in Nigeria on the alleged “immorality” of women undergraduates. Given such views, the residential hall authorities blamed gender-based violence on the victims, holding women responsible for their own sexual harassment because of their “indecent dressing.”

Women’s limited resistance

Women students occasionally contested male control of the fellowship groups and the sexual double-standard. Those residing in one of the co-ed halls, in a proactive move, joined a non-governmental organisation, War against Rape and Sexual Harassment (WARSH) to fight cases of rape and sexual harassment, and secured the support of male residents.

Women students also reported wanting better mentoring by women lecturers and the women’s groups on campus. Some questioned the more conservative agendas of student groups that were preoccupied with producing “good wives and mothers to build the nation.”

Reflecting on the research

The perception of a gendered hierarchy in the religious fellowships and student politics of the University of Ibadan was pervasive. Such hierarchy runs contrary to the stated objective of the university to be an equitable space. The statements of many of the women students in this study denote a disturbing level of resignation to an unequal social status, and a reluctance to exert some degree of agency to empower themselves in either secular or religious contexts. There was also a disturbing regurgitation of age-old stereotypes of women as quarrelsome; as less academically gifted than men; as shallow thinkers and as malicious.

The popular attribution of such attitudes to ‘tradition,’ and the general preference for them rather than the ‘modernising’ atmosphere of a university, suggests that both women and men students have internalised certain gendered beliefs and practices and are unwilling to change them. This is despite the fact that, as university students, they have been exposed to technological innovations and a range of philosophical, political and social theories.

However, we also found evidence of some contestations of the gendered hierarchy in the secular spaces of the university, among hall chairs and female activists. Here, there were remarks that indicate that women can negotiate their relationships with their male friends and academic colleagues. There were also calls for reviews of the university curriculum to include entrepreneurial courses that could make women more employable and thus less dependent on male partners.

Uncertainties about campus life and disillusionment about national life have coalesced in the minds of women students into a state of resignation and frustration. While the individual may feel powerless to effect change, the university institution can restructure its policies and processes to establish gender equality. This might be a painful evolution for a deeply masculine institution; it will have to make deep changes in order to challenge the restrictive social roles ascribed to women in what should be a transformative environment.

This is an abridged version of an article first published in Feminist Africa (Issue 8). Read the full article here. Please use the original source if citing.

 

This article is part of a collaboration between 50.50's Our Africa and Feminist Africa. Feminist Africa is a journal published by the African Gender Institute, University of Cape Town, that offers cutting-edge, informative and provocative African feminist scholarship. View all articles in the series


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