Nigeria, and indeed in much of Africa, is a land of massive injustice.
Injustice is clearly evident in the electoral process. It is undeniable in the legislative process. It is an open secret in the operations of the executive arm of government. Even the judiciary, the palace of justice, has become a place where the presence of justice is seriously doubted by many.
Injustice is found in religion where scams are presented as divinely revealed messages and politically sponsored propaganda is presented as prophecy. We got an overdose of that blasphemous behaviour during the last campaign season.
The family, the nucleus of our common life, is the first school where human beings learn how to be just or how to be unjust. A family begins in the relationship between a man and a woman. They bring forth offspring, hopefully out of love and not out of lust, not out of mutually depersonalizing sexual alliances, not out of sexual relations that reduce the man or woman into nothing different from a sex toy, but out of sexual relations that genuinely express lifelong and mutual love.
Considering the most vital importance of man-woman relations to the human race, with the intent of specificity and candor, we need to consider the way women are treated in our society. There are soul-searching questions to be raised and addressed.
Do we recognize that women are human beings? If so, do we acknowledge their humanity? If we do, do we acknowledge their full humanity or do we simply treat them as beings of abbreviated humanity? In other words, in practical terms, do we or do we not treat women as second-class human beings?
While it is true that gender equality would be erroneously conceived as gender-sameness — for if gender-sameness were to be posited the question of equality or inequality would not have arisen—it is my submission that, in our rhetoric, tradition, disposition and practice, the answer to the first question appears to be negative.
A common but unexamined exemplification of this denial of full humanity of the woman is an expression that has gained currency. The expression is “wife material”. It has become so frequently used that even some women are willing to accept its usage. Many young women are thinking of how to make themselves or package themselves into “wife material”. It is a case of being socialized to accept one’s oppression.
A woman is not a material. She is a human being. The expression “wife material” is an insult to the humanity of a woman. Seen as wife material, an exorbitant “bride price” is placed on her head by people who, wittingly or unwittingly, place her on the market of “prospective husbands”, ignoring the fact that there is a world of difference between a man and a husband. This calls for interrogation, not of culture per se, but of our conception of culture.
We Africans find it convenient to hold tenaciously to an understanding of culture as a product. That is why our schools and places of worship organize “cultural days”, days on which we betray our reduction of culture to dress, dance and diet. Cultural days are days we invade our wardrobes, bring out exotically designed dresses of antiquity, and put them on, in celebration of our “culture”.
One can understand the cause of this as the cultural alienation and deracination that accompanied our encounter with western civilization during trans-Atlantic slavery and western colonial imperialism. But these tragedies of history do not dispense us from re-examining and interrogating our notion of culture.
Culture is not just a product. It is a process. It is a process of continuous cultivation of the human spirit and fruits of this continuous cultivation. We cannot claim to do justice to our culture when in fact we are fixated on a fixed conception of culture. A culture is an idea or a body of ideas. Ideas develop. They are transformed as they interact with other ideas, just as a seed, interacting with the surrounding humus, brings out a harvest of fruits.
Considering the imperative of continuous cultivation of the human spirit, corresponding consequences of such cultivation, the use of the expression “wife material”, and the related practice of “bride price” call for urgent interrogation if we are to discontinue with the reification of women in our collective psyche.
Bride price would seem to give some people the licence to think they are buying the woman. It presupposes that the woman is a “wife material”. We should be talking of “exchange of gifts” between the families of bride and groom.
It could be said that the expression “wife material” is a figure of speech. But that does not by any means mitigate the tragedy that this expression connotes. Figures of speech are like works of art, and art unveils the hidden depths of our thoughts and experiences. This particular manner of speech unveils the reifying mindset with which our society looks at human beings, especially women. No human being is to be spoken of or treated like a commodity, a material to procure. No human being, male or female, is a commodity. A spouse, wife or husband, is not a material. Even if it is rarely used, the expression “husband material” is equally objectionable. To paraphrase Martin Buber, no human being is an “it”, every human being is a “thou”. An “it” is an object to be manipulated. A “thou” is a subject to be related with.
“Wife material” is an expression that legitimizes dehumanisation of the woman. She is not perceived as fully human unless she is married. Unmarried women are being told that for the simple fact that they are unmarried, they lack human personhood. And this dehumanization manifests itself in the way society has reduced women to three things: domestic slaves, objects of sexual gratification, and baby producing machines. Reduced to any of these, the woman is taken as disposable. If she cannot fulfill any of these roles assigned by our “culture”, she is either discarded like used tissue paper, or her spouse keeps her in the house while keeping a standby generator outside. So, we find ourselves in a situation where some married men have wives and deputy wives, just as some married women have husbands and deputy husbands.
When women are unjustly treated, the whole human race is unjustly treated because women are bearers of life. The same is true when a woman maltreats a man. For that too does occur even if it is rarely admitted. If we care for justice, for rectification of relationships — which ought to be the case — we must build a civilization in which the dignity of every human person is acknowledge, respected and protected irrespective of age, gender, ethnic or religious affiliation.