News: Nov 16, 2012
In Nigeria as elsewhere, religion and culture can be instruments of women’s oppression. Hauwa Mahdi is an activist and human rights lecturer who refuses to give up. Structures can be changed but we need a reformed United Nations, among other things, she says during Global Week.
Gender in Africa was the topic of yesterday’s seminar held in the lobby of the Faculty of Social Sciences on Sprängkullsgatan. Dressed in a red t-shirt and jeans, Hauwa Mahdi, lecturer in human rights at the School of Global Studies, passionately talked about gender issues in Africa, and more specifically about the situation in her home country Nigeria.
‘My interest in gender and in human rights began as I was trying to understand the condition of women in the Nigerian society when I was a university undergraduate. ’
She has lived in Sweden for about 20 years but is still very active in Nigeria.
‘I describe myself as a researcher, an activist and a transnational. I exist in Sweden but also in Nigeria. I started as an activist for women’s rights in the 1970s and had to fight to get a scholarship for a Master’s degree at the university. And when I suggested that I would study Nigerian women, my university colleagues just couldn’t believe it.’
Mahdi wrote her doctoral thesis in history at the University of Gothenburg. She was focusing on the position of women in West Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Nigeria she, together with other women, started a women’s movement and became a trade union activist who strongly challenged the policies of the International Monetary Fund as well as the World Bank's influence on the Nigerian state. She felt that the measures put forth by these organisations had serious impacts on women's position and livelihoods in Nigeria.
In her research, Mahdi has tried to understand why women are discriminated against. Women often have to fight the institution of the state but also the cultural frameworks of society.
‘According to the law we’re equal. But African women do at least 30 percent more work than men, and most of it not recognised, especially care work. Care work is not valued.’
Mahdi emphasises that human rights are very important, but says that the struggle for disadvantaged groups in particular has had a much longer history. The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948, a recent development in human history, is a landmark in legitimating the rights of women.
‘The drafting of the declaration was male-dominated and based on the notion of atomistic autonomy of the individual. This perspective has been criticised by feminists, who, like me, believe that we as human beings belong to a community, in relation to other people. All individuals are relational, that is how we construct ourselves. Every day.’
Discrimination comes in many different formats and contexts, Mahdi points out. In Nigeria the women’s movement, which started in the early 1980s, is very strong and vocal, but in the last decade the progress women have made has faced a backlash.’
Since 1999, Muslim sharia law has rapidly gained a foothold in parts of the country. Nigeria is roughly half Muslim and half Christian, with the Muslims being concentrated in the north and the Christians in the south. The northern states have adopted sharia laws that for example force women to wear the hijab.
‘In Nigeria there are powerful religious organisations and organisations that want to take society back several hundred years. They believe that we should live according to the Qu’ran. But I know for a fact that Muslim women haven’t always worn the hijab.’
She still hopes that a reformed United Nations can make a difference:
‘The role of the UN must be revised so that they work more efficiently to bring women’s rights to the forefront. Today we can use new tools of communication to make a difference. We need to think globally and act locally. After all, the UN body is the only global forum where we can discuss global issues. We cannot give up, we have to fight. Yes, I am still an activist.’
Photo: Allan Eriksson