Yesterday Friday March 8, 2019 was marked as International Women’s Day (IWD). For more than a century, people around the world have been marking 8 March as a special day for women. The Day grew out of labour movement to become an UN-recognised annual event. The seeds of the day were planted in 1908, when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter working hours, better pay and the right to vote. A year later, the Socialist Party of America declared the first National Women’s Day.
The idea to make the day international came from a woman called Clara Zetkin. She suggested the idea in 1910 at an International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen. There were 100 women there, from 17 countries, and they unanimously adopted her suggestion. The IWD was first celebrated in 1911, in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. The centenary was celebrated in 2011. This year, the celebration is technically the 108th International Women’s Day. The IWD was made official in 1975 when the United Nations started celebrating it and setting an annual theme. This year’s theme focuses on ‘Balance for better, women unite.’ Clara’s idea for an IWD had no fixed date. It wasn’t formalised until a war-time strike in 1917 when Russian women demanded ‘bread and peace’. Four days into the women’s strike, the Tsar was forced to abdicate and the provisional government granted women the right to vote. The date when the women’s strike commenced on the Julian calendar, which was then in use in Russia, was Sunday 23 February. This day in the Gregorian calendar was 8 March, which is when the Day is celebrated now.
Almost every day of the year is assigned by the United Nations for the celebration or remembrance of one phenomenal incident, global challenge, or historical event in matters that concern the entire creation including humankind, animals, plants and the ecosphere. Even men have their international day which falls on November 19 although it has only been marked since the 1990s and isn’t recognised by the UN. People celebrate it in more than 60 countries, including the UK. The objectives of 8Men’s Day are ‘to focus attention on men’s and boys’ health, improve gender relations, promote gender equality and highlight positive male role models’.
As part of the activities to mark the 2019 IWD in Nigeria, the Female Artists Association in Nigeria organised an exhibition in Abuja and Lagos for the period March 7 to 13, 2019; in line with the theme of this year’s theme. There’s also a walk tagged ‘March of women for women’ which held yesterday, Friday March 8, 2019 in Abuja. FAME Foundation also organised a football match on Thursday which featured women football teams in Abuja. Regrettably, one is not sure if the ordinary woman in a rural Nigerian community is aware of this Day.
Let us use the occasion of the 2019 IWD to bring some of the challenges confronting the Nigeria woman in to focus. Before going in to the dilemmas experienced by the Nigerian woman, it is important to mention that Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and advocates of the rights of the Nigerian woman spent too much time, at least, in the past three or four decades debating over gender equality, to the detriment of other matters that more critically affect the ordinary Nigerian woman. Illiteracy and poverty are the two fundamental challenges, which in the opinion of this writer, account for the greater part of the predicaments of the Nigerian woman.
Aside of these two elements (illiteracy and poverty), all other dilemmas suffered by Nigerian women in most rural communities of the country are symptoms of these socio-economic factors. The VVF (or obstetric fistula) scourge, the high incidence of divorce in the northern part of the country especially among young couples (most of them in their reproductive age) as well as the needless and sinful trafficking of young girls to Europe as sex workers would probably have been abated if such women who are victims of these socio-economic crises were to have basic formal education and economic empowerment. Unfortunately, CSOs and other specialised interest groups were lost in their campaigns for gender equality; mounting less pressure on issues that concern access of the Nigerian woman to basic formal education, primary healthcare and economic inclusiveness.
From the point of view of Islamic principles provided for in the Qur’an and Hadith, this writer yet has some reservations about the western-world-led crusade for gender equality. Before God, men and women are equal in terms of religious obligations, reward and punishment. Both men and women (as Muslims) have equal responsibilities when it comes to observing the five daily obligatory prayers, the payment of Zakat on wealth (including cash, farm produce, and animals), fasting in the month of Ramadan, and going to the holy land of Makkah to perform pilgrimage (Hajj). Allah (SWT) states in Quran 40:40 ‘He that woks evil will not be requited but by the like thereof; and he that works righteous deed, whether man or woman and is a believer; such will enter the Garden (of bliss)…’
It would be of greater importance especially to the rural Nigerian woman when laws that will improve her wellbeing are legislated. For instance, not all states in the country have enacted laws criminalising rape and violence against women. Kudos to Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo state who recently signed the Violence Against Persons (VAP) Bill into law; to address all forms of violence and protect vulnerable members of the society especially women. Sequel to the signing of the VAP Bill, Edo State government further opened a register for convicted sexual offenders that would be made open to members of the public.
These are the kinds of laws that CSOs should mount pressure on governments at various levels to enact. Laws that will make girl-child education free and compulsory as well as policies that will grant women easy access to medical attention and care are required in order to improve the living conditions of the ordinary Nigerian woman. May Allah (SWT) guide Nigerian men (as leaders and family heads) to understand the need to prioritise women’s needs at all times and in all places, amin.