Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar: The Politics of Religion and Gender in West Africa

Tuesday, October 11, 2022
Adama Diarra/Reuters

Vice Dean of Education and Academic Affairs, and Director, SAIS Women Lead, Johns Hopkins University

Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow for Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations


Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and Professor of the Practice of Development, Conflict, and Religion, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

Chiedo Nwankwor, vice dean of education and academic affairs, and director of SAIS Women Lead at Johns Hopkins University, and Ebenezer Obadare, the Douglas Dillon senior fellow for Africa studies at CFR, discuss how religion and gender affect politics and policy in West Africa. Katherine Marshall, senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and professor of the practice of development, conflict, and religion at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, moderates.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar series. The Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar series convenes religion and faith-based leaders in cross-denominational dialogue on the intersection between religion and international relations. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.

As a reminder, this webinar is on the record. The audio, video, and transcript will be available on CFR’s website, CFR.org, and on the iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We’re delighted to have Katherine Marshall with us today to moderate our discussion on the politics of religion and gender in West Africa. Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, and leads the center’s work on religion and global development. She is also a professor of the practice of development, conflict, and religion in the Walsh School of Foreign Service. She teaches courses on ethics of development work and mentors students at many levels. And she was just appointed as a member of the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid at the U.S. Agency for International Development. With five decades of experience in a variety of development issues in Africa, Latin America, East Asia, and the Middle East, particularly those faced by the world’s poorest countries, she is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of CFR’s Religion Advisory Committee.

So Katherine, thanks for all that you do. I’m going to turn it over to you to introduce our distinguished speakers and to moderate the conversation before we turn to the group for their questions and comments.

MARSHALL: Thank you and good afternoon. It’s a pleasure to be here to discuss a particularly important, interwoven set of issues on this, which is the Day of the Girl Child.

So we have two very experienced and provocative speakers today.

First we have Chiedo Nwankwor, who is the vice dean of education and academic affairs, and director of the SAIS Women Lead at Johns Hopkins University. Her primary specializations are comparative politics with a focus on African politics, and women and gender studies. And her research and teaching interests include women’s political participation with an emphasis on ministerial-level politics in Africa, women’s health and health policy, feminism, international relations, and the political economy of gender in Africa. Dr. Nwankwor’s work has been published in a variety of journals, and she coedited a book on the Nigerian National Assembly. She is a fellow of the Center for Democracy and Development in Nigeria and consults for the World Bank, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and Premium Times Nigeria.

We also have Ebenezer Obadare, who is the Douglas Dillon senior fellow for Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Before joining CFR, he was a professor of sociology at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. Dr. Obadare is also a senior fellow at the New York University School of Professional Studies Center for Global Affairs, as well as a fellow at the University of South Africa’s Institute of Theology. He was the Ralf Dahrendorf scholar and Ford Foundation international scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Dr. Obadare was a political reporter for The News and TEMPO magazines and a lecturer in international relations at the Obafemi Awolowo University. His primary areas of interest are civil society and the state, and religion and politics in Africa. And Dr. Obadare is the author and editor of numerous books. His most recent is titled Pastoral Power, Clerical State: Pentecostalism, Gender, and Sexuality in Nigeria.

So you see we have a vast array of experience here on a topic which is very much interwoven, and affects, I think, the national and local level, the Africa-wide level, but also the global level. And we’re listening, I think, to a lot of African voices this week during the World Bank-IMF annual meetings that are taking place in Washington.

So why don’t we start with Ebenezer. Why don’t you sort of—why is religion important particularly? What’s it got to do with gender, and what’s it got to do with politics? Where do we start in unraveling these issues?

OBADARE: Thank you, Katherine. Thank you for having me.

I’m going to—let me, maybe on a broadly philosophical note, maybe just to offer reminders why it’s important to take women seriously. And I think for me it always goes back to the question of—so the question of how much progress a given society has made on the path towards social equality, a question that is often posed in different times. I think for me is best answered with a different sort of question, which is: How free are women in that society?

And you can sort of break down that into further subdivisions. How much control do women in that given society have, all things considered, over their lives and bodies, including—among other things—like sexual and reproductive rights, right to own property, right to dispose of property, right to education. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness—the whole nine yards.

So I think it’s the question of how much social equality you have in society can be approached from the much more fundamental question for me is: How free are women in that society? So that—I think that’s sort of to state the broad parameters of the conversation.

But what is felt toward religion and gender itself, I think one thing to note is it’s a paradox that while religious ideology is often an obstacle or an impediment to the realization and enjoyment of some of the rights I’ve just listed, women surprisingly find opportunities for social maneuvering within the spaces of religious institutions. And that enables them to challenge male domination. It doesn’t mean they are always successful, but sometimes they find those opportunities.

So at any rate, it would seem generally unhelpful to speak of women as a homogenous category especially as we see on the ground that they are constantly divided along the lines of class, profession, education, access to power, and all of that. So a corollary of that point is that women’s role within the contexts of religious institutions—and I find this in the context of my own work—is so far ambivalent, so women are constantly swinging between disruption or revolt on the one hand, and stabilization and consolidation of religious institutions and religious ideology on the other.

Well, let me quickly tie that all by taking those to a different region of the world right now because what is happening there pertains to what we are talking about in a West African context, so—which is that many of the issues at the intersection of religion and gender that we’re talking about today, they are currently on display in Iran—where women are in revolt against an Islamic theocracy that more or less operates like a panopticon that is fundamentalist, suspicious of individual agency and initiative, especially women’s initiative and individuality. And it’s not that we regard and treat women like children in permanent need of adult male supervision. The slogan of the protesters in Iran is a slogan that I think one ought to recommend to women in West Africa, women in every other region of the world: Women, Life, Freedom. I think the slogan itself is a reminder of what is at stake in conversations about religion and conversations about gender.

MARSHALL: Great. Thank you so much.

Chiedo, over to you. How would you frame the issue and the challenges that we’re facing?

NWANKWOR: I thank you so very much for having me.

I think Ebenezer said it all, but let me speak specifically to gender, right? And so, if by way of framing this, one would ask a couple questions like what is gender, and how does this shape women’s lives and experiences across the continent? Two, why are gender considerations critical for politics on the continent? Three, what has been changed, both in the discourse and the reality of gender relations in contemporary signs across the continent? And last, how has gender implicated pathways for outcomes of politics across the continent, right?

And so when we talk about gender, I think often we just talk women, right, but we need to be sure that gender is not just women; gender represents learned behaviors and practices about what it means to be either male or female, right? So when we talk about gender we are talking about relative, core constitution of dynamics across the continent. So in a sense we are talking about culturally constructed ideas of what it means to be me, a female on the continent, and what it means to be Ebenezer as a male on the continent, right? So it’s not so much about male-female as it is about masculinity and femininity and how those characteristics shape and define what it means to be a man or a woman. And because these are socially constructed, right, they are contextual; they vary from place to place and from time to time. For example, gender will therefore account for what women and other people considered feminine, particularly across the continent but not uniquely across the continent because we know that these are global dynamics, right—usually subordinated and invisible.

So why is gender consideration critical for politics on the continent? Because primarily it should [give] access to power and influence, right? It shapes the citizenship rights and status. And it informs public policy and access to resources, right? So it’s critical because, particularly across the continent, gender is the master identity, of hegemonic proportions.

So to the extent that identity consists of repertoires of categories and roles for organizing cells within a society, gender is a master identity across the continent. So gender is primary in—it’s a primary identifying characteristic of an individual, often the most important constituent in an individual’s identity, and is therefore at the core of social identity, and influences roles and behaviors.

So I, on the continent, will primarily identify first as a woman, right? Ebenezer will primarily identify as male before his ethnic and religious—or in reverse depending on what is most salient to him. And so this has real significant implications for public school mobilization. So for example, gender will intersect in very specific ways with religion as Ebenezer has said, and being male and Christian has different life outcomes for being male, than female and Christian. Being male and Muslim has different life outcomes for being female and Muslim, right? But more importantly while gender, as you have said, is hegemonic in terms of identity making and identity conferral, and while it stands at the origin of other differences and subordinations, its pervasiveness and universality makes it a less cohesive and potent base for collective identification and mobilization, kind of like religion, right?

So in the case of religion and maybe ethnicity, you have this cohesiveness around geography, right? But gender is geographically separated and divided also by all these other identity categories. So class is also fragmented by ethnicity and religion. So for gender to be in any way, shape, or form, active, right, and successful as a form of political mobilization, it has to ally itself with other more cohesive identities to inspire collective consciousness and action. And so that is why gender becomes very key—critical for policies across the continent.

MARSHALL: I’m interested in following up on one issue—that in many cases, religious communities or religious practices and beliefs are seen as anathema or hostile to women’s more active public roles, and there can be tensions between feminists who are so-called feminists and women who come with a religious identity.

I’m curious as to whether you see anything along those lines in Africa.

NWANKWOR: I think I missed the question. Do you want to just repeat this?

MARSHALL: I’m asking about the religious role versus feminism.


MARSHALL: And the fact that, in many situations, feminist women who do not come from a religious perspective may be uneasy about religion and women’s religious roles, and vice versa where religious women are uneasy about feminism. And you’ve emphasized that it’s very contextual—it depends on the context. But if we’re trying to generalize about Africa, how might you look at that issue?

NWANKWOR: So it’s—this is, as you rightly put it, a complex issue, right, because of the multiple imperfections of identities and subjectivities inherent in feminism and religion, and the imperfection of those. And again, it’s also to identify as to acknowledge that when we’re talking about these intersections—it’s not just religion and feminism—gender and feminism, it’s also the inherent and overlapping other identity markers, right, that strategically ally amongst themselves to adapt to what has become a rather problematic issue.

So when we are talking about this, we typically go to ideas—traditional versus progressive ideas of womanhood and feminism, right? But it’s also to recognize that there is no fundamental contradiction between religion and feminism. If feminism is the strive for equality, male and female created He them, right? And so that’s typically, most times, is what is lost in this debate.

And I would dare say that parts of this debate generated from patriarchal—(inaudible)—and patriarchal attempts to dislodge and disrupt the movement for gender equality, right, in creating in most instances—and this is not to say that we don’t have differences in interests—women’s interests—based on where women stand at their social locations on the spectrum. But it’s to say that despite these differences as a function of social location and positionality, that there are what we—and research—has seen to be collectivism of interest that connects women across the board. And so those then become the basis for cross-mobilizations, and most times we tend to focus on the differences that lead to policy paralysis rather than focusing on the commonalities that will drive some form of change in public policy and women’s empowerment.


Ebenezer, let’s throw the question to you of trying to tease out a little bit some of the distinctive challenges, but also—we could also call them opportunities as well as distinctions within the African continent. What is—there’s a lot of data that shows Africa may be the most religious continent, whatever that means, and it also has some remarkable women, obviously, but also a lot of women who suffer. So I’m interested in your take on what—how you would point to things that are distinctive about Africa.

OBADARE: So thank you for the question. I think maybe there are two things for me with respect to what we are saying right now. So the first one is about what you might call the fundamental frame of reference for people, and this is not just about gender. I think it cuts across your class, ethnicity, and all, identity markers—that for a majority of Africans, the fundamental frame of reference is still spiritual, and what do I mean by that? That when people think about power, when people think about authority, for instance, there’s always that general understanding. Not of who’s speaking, but the assumption that behind that power there is this other power that is ineffable, that is unsaid, but that has a road and often controls the things or the powers that you see. And I think that’s one element that fundamentally unite civil society and the state in Africa, a common subscription to that frame of reference. So that’s the first point.

With respect to women, let me go back to one of the first—the initial points I made, which is that the spaces of religious institutions are very anti-women spaces in terms of how they allow women to exercise power. So on the one hand, you would expect that because these are notionally conservative spaces women would have no agency and that whatever agency they have would be diminished. That is often the case. But you also find out that sometimes it is within the parameters of those institutions that women are also able to affirm their own agency and challenge male domination.

So the most interesting for me is the ambivalence of female agency within the context of religious institutions. There’s a chapter in my new book, the book that you mentioned, in which I sort of talk about this in my discussion of what I call “useless women.” “Useless women,” women who, according to the male gaze, according to male judgements, are not conforming to the norms that are associated with feminine behavior. So the point in the chapter in the book is to say that actually, within the context of this new religious movement in Africa, women are actually—women are often coming forward and challenging male pastoral power within those institutions. But also to make the point—and this is the paradox—that often that challenge is subverted and undermined not just by males, but also by other women within the context of those institutions.

NWANKWOR: And so, if I may just follow up, so I think, Katherine, this is evidence of this strategic alliance, right, between gender and other salient careers by identity, religion, region, and even culture, right? So this strategic alliance maintains a chokehold on women’s ability to—women’s ability to be political agents across the continent. And what Ebenezer—I completely agree with what Ebenezer has just outlined, but I also think that we need to look at the temporality of these changes, and the waves of these changes in women’s agency across the continent in terms of disrupting political, religious, and patriarchal domination, right?

So not to go back to precolonial women’s agency, but looking postcolonial and how that has married with—or feed into the women’s movements—the women’s and feminist movements. One would argue that this ongoing “uselessness of women,” so to speak, in quotes, right, as you argued, is a relatively emerging disruptive agency that women have taken upon themselves. And I would also argue that this has been shaped in a large extent by the advancements in information technology, particularly Twitter, Facebook, and all of that, because that has given women this agency and this—and given women this platform to be able to mobilize a defense against these structures.

So, yes, we have a number of “useless women,” so to speak, growing out of Pentecostal and patriarchal domination. But we also have to kind of look at the emergence of this destructive agency and how that has been shaped by new advances in information technology.

MARSHALL: And that also, of course, brings us to the question not only of distinctions and differences by context, but also how things are changing. What are the disruptive factors.

But let’s turn now to questions from members. And, Riki, you’re going to guide us through that process.

OPERATOR: Absolutely. Thank you, Katherine.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

It appears we don’t have any questions at the moment. So, Katherine, if you would like to follow up.

MARSHALL: Great. Well, let’s follow up on the challenge that I as just putting to you, and maybe start with Ebenezer. Do you see, as Chiedo does, some of the major disruptions, linked particularly to information technology and to other factors? Including, I would also add, economic ups and downs, and some of the political turmoil that we’re seeing in parts of the continent?

OBADARE: Yeah, I do. I mean, so one of the most interesting developments in Nigeria over the last twenty years for me, as a student of civil society, would be the “End SARS” protests of October 2020. For those who may not know about that, that’s the mass protest against police brutality in Nigeria. SARS was the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, that was visiting violence on every—on citizens. So why is that important? So it’s important because if you look at the iconic images from that—from those protests, one—there is one of Aisha Yesufu. The woman was in full hijab but who had the Statue of Liberty posture, basically challenging power and the state and authority, which I thought was quite interesting.

But the other thing is that it was actually a group of women—and I’m blocking on their name now—I think it was, like, Nigerian Feminist Movement, something like that. I remember Jack Dorsey led sort of—people started donating money to them after Jack Dorsey brought what they were doing to popular attention. So inasmuch as that was a protest, and this is my point, about the use or the abuse of law enforcement against ordinary citizens, it also then became an opportunity for women themselves to say, hold on, we all suffer. That’s true. But women suffer doubly on account of their being women. So I thought that was really quite interesting.

But the other thing is, as we are talking about gender, and to sort of circle back to some of the points that Chiedo made earlier, is that it was also an important moment not just for women but for LGBT individuals, right? And I think that was one element of the protest that hasn’t quite received as much attention as one would imagine that it should. That it was a moment where a few—a handful, but people emboldened by sort of the courage and the energy of the moment, LGBT individuals, who came out and said: It’s true that men are oppressed by law enforcement in Nigeria. It’s true that women are oppressed by law enforcement. Oh, what about us? We suffer untold hardship because we’re LGBT people, or we are perceived to be LGBT people.   Police stop us at random. They abuse us. They brutalize us.

So in that context, the use of social media, the mobilization in the context of the opportunities and affordances of new digital spaces, I think women have been among the primary drivers of that. And I think it’s an important part of just the idea of civil society, not just in Nigeria but in other African contexts.

MARSHALL: Yeah. I think we’re seeing that also in some of the peace and conflict issues, where there’s some interesting very innovative approaches that bring things together.

We do have a question now that’s come in through the chat, from Charles Robertson. So let me read it, and then see who wants to answer it: The power of women leaders among the faith communities in Africa is a force to reckon with. Independent churches led by women are growing fast in Nigeria, Kenya, and even Uganda. While these women leaders may not identify with feminism, how could other women leaders globally inspire this new brand of women leaders to become an enduring and lasting change?

I think that’s an interesting question about the leadership—distinctive kinds of leadership coming out of some of the religious traditions. So maybe, Ebenezer, you start. And maybe, Chiedo, you can see what reaction you have.

OBADARE: So I agree, they’re absolutely important. And I think this is one of the sort of side benefits of Pentecostalism. To the extent that in doctrine, it’s highly deregulated. Meaning that anybody can just sort of say, I want to become a pastor, and all of that. And many women are embracing the opportunity. So I wrote about, what was the name of the woman again, Mummy G.O., in my blog, about, three or four months ago.

But the point I would like to make, which I think is actually the depressing point, is that the fact that you have a woman as leader in a church does not necessarily mean—and you see this—are reminded of this often and again—that it doesn’t mean that the woman necessarily represents the interest of women. Oftentimes, because of the constraints and the strictures of religious spaces themselves, women are often playing other roles that are already predetermined, that are already delineated as masculine roles.

So if you think about some of the female pastors, the most influential female pastors, Pentecostal pastors, in Nigeria right now, yes. It’s interesting that they are women. And oftentimes they talk about women’s rights. But most of the time, they operate within the strict confines of roles—the narrative already set by men. So one time actually—I think it’s not helpful to draw a straight line and say because you have a woman in a leadership role within a strict—religious context, that you then have somebody who necessarily represents the interests of women. That’s not always the case.

MARSHALL: Chiedo, do you have any comment at this stage on some of these leadership issues?

NWANKWOR: Right. So, two things. One, I think we need to also realize, inasmuch as there is a huge opportunity for global women leaders to inspire this brand of women religious leaders, I want us also to acknowledge that this idea of normative division from the West to the South is not—does not always hold true.

And I would say, in this case the reverse is actually the case because across Africa, prior to precolonial times, women were in fact the keepers of the faith, right? And so with the disruption of colonialism, there’s been the institutionalization of women’s subordination across all the bodies of power, including the church. So I would say that, yes, there is—there are opportunities for global women leaders to inspire a continuation in this. But it’s also to take a step back to say that this trend has been indigenous to Africa, right? And so it continues.

Secondly, just to echo what Ebenezer has said, there’s also a fundamental problem with assumptions around access. Women’s access to our bodies, our power, right? This assumption is that women’s inclusion in these bodies automatically dislodges the norms and regimes, and values and cultures that have set— traditionally set these bodies. Which have been created around this perspective, the male perspective, the male gaze, right? And male benefits.

So, for example, in the church, like we said, the idea that women are now assuming pastoral leadership does not mean that their leadership automatically dislodges these dynamics. The same thing in political bodies—in some of our political bodies, right? The assumption that women’s inclusion and women sitting at the table automatically engenders a change in public policy is a bit of a fallacy, right? So that there is a need for sustained advocacy and activism, not just for the women leaders, because onus is not just on the women but on society at large. To continue to sustain advocacy and activism, right, to effect change in these norms and not just the automatic inclusion of women’s presence and the assumption that it does change things.

MARSHALL: Right. Oversimplifying gets us into trouble every time. Riki, I think we have a question.

OPERATOR: We do. Our next question comes from Jonathan Golden from Drew University.

GOLDEN: Hi. Thank you so much. So perfect, just picking right up on the previous comment, because I do think it’s something different to say that there is leadership in separate religious communities, and then—but looking at it, it’s something different to say leadership within an interfaith movement, right? So my question is sort of what are the opportunities for the intersection of Muslim and Christian women, if we’re thinking, say, a Nigerian context or some of the other West African countries in particular, where Muslim and Christian women, and women even of others faiths—there are small Jewish populations in some of these countries as well—can actually find affinities with each other, and build that sort of movement?

Because it does seem like there’s a growing interfaith movement, but that still seems to be—not that women don’t participate—but still may be dominated as you were just saying, with the older paradigm. And I also think of the famous example in Liberia, of the peace movement which was clearly an interfaith religious women’s movement, to end the war there. So just looking, what are the opportunities, specifically within an interfaith setting of women’s leadership, and to reach across the religious divide, and connect just as women at this sort of intersection?

MARSHALL: Ebenezer, do you want to start on that?

OBADARE: Yeah, yeah, sure. I can. It’s a great question. And my take is maybe slightly different. So I know where the question is coming from. So the question is coming from the specifics of particular societies where religious differences are sort of split the social fabric. And this is part of the solution that people are looking for, that if people are sort of holed up in their different religious communities, we must find a way to build bridges so that women or men from a particular religious community will be kept in touch with women or men from another religious community. So that thinking, and I think it’s a fair thing.

But that will only work in places where religious identity is the primary identity that people mobilize, right? Because so if you think about the part of Nigeria I come from, which is western Nigeria, Yoruba, you’ll find that there’s a sense in which people’s identity as Yoruba, their ethnic identity, sometimes is—most of the time comes before every other—any other consideration. So you’re a Yoruba first, before you’re a Muslim or you’re a Christian. So the assumption itself that because people subscribe to different religious faiths that they are then in tension and do not connect, that assumption does not exactly work out in everyday life.

So there are places where people—the fact that you’re a Christian and a Muslim, you have to sort of remind yourself—like they would be, oh, yeah, I forgot you’re a Muslim, or I forgot you’re a Christian. But the question becomes redundant in communities—and I don’t think this is just a western Nigerian thing—in communities where a master identity, if you will, an overriding cultural identity, supersedes the other kinds of identity. So it’s—I think that’s—that’s worth keeping in mind.

I think Katherine is muted. Katherine, we can’t hear you.

MARSHALL: Sorry. Chiedo, do you have further reactions on the interfaith or intra-faith, and women’s roles in that ecumenical or interfaith context?

NWANKWOR: Yes. And I want to use the back and also the analogy of women’s distinct and different interest in political studies, right? Because at times, these kind of tend to overlap. And it’s to say that, for example, I am doing currently engaged in a project that seeks to explain why women remain marginalized in politics across Africa, right? And so it seeks to explain the intransigence of African—(inaudible)—in political—women’s political maximization. And the argument is that women’s continued marginalization derives from their inability to cross-mobilize, right, across—to mobilize across the various groups.

And this is the same thing that the question is asking, is it impossible? Is it possible that women mobilize across the various states? Is it possible that women find common ground even within the distinctness and the differences in theologies and tenets—ideological, religious tenets, that women find commonalities that would bring them together? And like Ebenezer said, yes, absolutely it happens. We have evidence of that across. We have evidence of that in Nigeria as women continue to mobilize against the state. The various million women marches. This has been cross-mobilizations across religious women’s political participation across different parties.

And the same thing happens. We have various interstate organizations mobilized by women across Africa. So the idea is, again, that cross-mobilization is impossible in interstate organizations. Again, it is one of the patriarchal narratives that has sought to continue to divide women to ensure that you don’t have this broad-based mobilization that will provide credible threats, right, to include that women are included—meaningful inclusion.

MARSHALL: Yeah. There’s some very interesting, dynamic women who are leading interreligious activities both in Africa but also globally, coming from Africa. So the idea that through that means that women can help to transform what’s happening in their own communities.

We have one question from—a written question from Celene Ibrahim and then another one coming in. So let’s first take this one: In terms of women’s roles in contemporary Nigerian politics, do you see any notable alliances between Christian-identified organizations and actors, and those who are Muslim-identified? How are Christian-Muslim tensions impacting women’s abilities to be in strategic alliances for political rights and representation? Do you see notable differences between women’s political representation between northern and southern Nigeria? That’s getting right into the specifics, so I guess we’ll throw that to Ebenezer.

OBADARE: It’s a good question. It’s also a very complex question. And I think one of the things that I just would remind you of is that while women may have common economic interests, as they often do, they do not necessarily work under common political umbrellas, which I think is their right. And I think it sort of reinforces the point I was making earlier about the heterogeneity of women and why it would be unhelpful to sort of put all women under the same umbrella.

So I think we can all say that for the most part women in Nigeria face common challenges. But they’re also divided along regional lines. They’re divided along ethnic lines. And they’re also divided across political lines. So in terms of a common front for women in terms of political representation, I don’t think any exists at the moment.

Personally, I’m not even sure we need one, because the last thing you want—you want women often to be able to speak with the common voice who say, take us seriously. But in terms of—take our agency seriously. But in terms of how they approach that, how that breaks down, you also want women—want to give women the freedom to be able to pursue their own. So I’m sort of happy that there isn’t a single party that is accommodating of the interests of women in Nigeria.

MARSHALL: Chiedo, do you want to get into the Nigeria complexities?

NWANKWOR: Right. So I think the Nigerian case is a rather interesting case study, right? Both for its historical failure, so to speak, to include women. And when I say “failure,” I don’t mean necessarily women’s failure, but just the abysmal low representation of women across Nigeria, and also for the multiplicity of platforms for women’s mobilization across. But I do think that actually there’s been learned lessons, in the three, four decades of women’s attempts to mobilize.

And in current times, like we’re saying, women are actually breaking down those walls. And we have a number of national women’s organizations. And I say national because these cut across ethnicities, they cut across religion, they cut across political parties. Because women have come to realize that this fragmentation of women across all these identity matters is, in fact, a strategy to ensure that women remain un-mobilized. Because if women are able to mobilize then they can drive a credible electoral threat that would actually cause political parties and the state to pay them attention. So it’s to say, yes, that, indeed, actually that we have some form of national women’s cross-mobilization on the continent. Now, how effective has that been is another story.

MARSHALL: (Laughs.) Riki, do we have other questions coming in?

OPERATOR: We have a written question from Dr. Mary Nyangweso.

She asks: Can you highlight other challenges women face towards efforts to include gender equality, and especially political representation? Patriarchy is always cited, but it helps to outline implications of patriarchy.

MARSHALL: Well, let’s start with Chiedo this time, and then go to Ebenezer.

NWANKWOR: Right. So women face a myriad of challenges in accessing political power, particularly across the continent. But we must also realize that women have made dramatic strides, right, in accessing power, despite the odds, right? Despite the hydra-headed constraints, and discrimination, and oppression, women have actually pushed against all these challenges to achieve significance in some places, right? Political leadership.

And so it’s sort of we don’t discount actually these achievements and these gender shifts in the composition of formal bodies. This is real. In fact, we know that Rwanda is the first in the world, at 61.3 percent, of women’s political representation in the lower house. And then you have five, six other countries on the continent who have surpassed 40 percent, right? And it’s just so that we know this.

However, we still have countries like Nigeria that just has a 3.6 percent representation of women. So, yes, the challenges are myriad. One is with just lack of access to resources, both financial and material resources. And this becomes significant where political machinations and campaigns are finance-heavy, right? So where you have a commodification of elections, finances become key. And when you have women just abysmally reduced in their ability to access these resources, it becomes significant.

And then you also have laws, right? You have regulations. You have norms. Part of that, women in the past have really mobilized to get these equality bills into the constitutional amendments, which have failed woefully. And so it’s, one, resources. Two, it’s laws and regulations. As Nigeria has also been unable to get some affirmative action for women’s political participation in the books. And then it’s also continuing social roles, right? Patriarchal ideas of what’s—of who a woman is, right? The woman’s place being in the house, and all of that.

And this there intersects with religion, right, to have even greater implications and constraints. So women in the north, this is not to say that you don’t have agency—political agency among women in the north writ large. But it’s to say that in a large extent women in the north, right, find that they are more constrained than women in the south, in terms of political leadership, as a result of this strategic alliance between gender and religion. And I think I’ll leave some of the other parts of the story for Ebenezer to talk about.

OBADARE: Thank you. I’ll just add one other element to that, which is access to education. I think this is extremely important. And I was going to talk about northern Nigeria as well. It’s where you have the lowest levels of literacy, the highest fertility rate, and the highest maternal mortality rate, all under the star of conservative Islamist ideology. And I think it’s important to talk about, because at the end of the day what it means is that you continually have generation after generation of women without basic education, without an understanding of how the system works. What you’re assuming is that those women are continually susceptible to the manipulation of men. So access to education, for me, I think is an extremely important thing. And women—the fact that, especially in the northern part of the country, because of conservative Islam, women are continually denied access to education, I think is an extremely important thing that warrants mediation.

NWANKWOR: And so just on—

MARSHALL: And the age of marriage.


MARSHALL: Age of marriage is obviously an important issue.

NWANKWOR: So I wanted to say that, and violence, right? Gender-based violence. To the extent that that translates to political violence as a separate phenomenon also imposes very serious constraints on women’s access to power across continent, as a result of patriarchy.

MARSHALL: I think a lot of good illustrations. Another one that we’ve heard is that women sometimes have an advantage by being basically invisible, or less visible, particularly this applies, I think, to Catholic sisters. But that also deprives them, as you’ve mentioned, of resources.

So, Riki, I think you have another question for us. And we’re coming close to the end, so we’ll need to keep it fairly short.

OPERATOR: Yes. We have time for one last question. And this question comes from Millicent Akinsulure , whose hand is raised.

MARSHALL: Go ahead.

AKINSULURE: OK. Can you hear me?

OBADARE: Yes, we can.


AKINSULURE: I am going to ask—I am not a Nigerian, by the way. I’m Sierra Leonean. Have you seen any backlash against the men—I mean, against the women from the male parts against women priests? Because I noticed recently that female priests are rising up. I went to a function in which all the priests were women. And they are accepted by the male, and it’s rising. I just wondered if your studies if you’ve seen any reaction from the side of the male pastors or the men?

OBADARE: Thank you. Do you want me to take that, Katherine?

MARSHALL: Yes, go ahead.

OBADARE: Yeah. So within the context of the Pentecostal churches that I study, I don’t think there has been any pushback, because the place of the men is secure. The leading Pentecostal pastors in the country are all male. They are all well-resourced. They have connections to power. They have transnational connections. They know all the statesmen and women out there. They have bottomless pockets. So there is no—to the extent that those women pastors are there, and that they are doing their own thing, the important thing is that they pose no challenge to the authority of the male pastors. So they are tolerated.

MARSHALL: Chiedo, any comment?

NWANKWOR: I completely agree. So, women play out—women pastors’ lives are written scripts within churches. You have to play out the script that has been given to you. Anytime you deviate from that script, it’s considered a challenge to the authorities and the status quo as they are. And most often the consequence—the logical consequences is swift and decisive. So that’s why most times you don’t have this backlash, because women stay in their places, even in those leadership roles in churches.

MARSHALL: We’re coming very close to the end. So, let’s see, Ebenezer, do you have any final question or thought? And then Chiedo. And then I’m afraid we’ll have to close this fascinating discussion.

NWANKWOR: My final thought would be I think it’s extremely interesting that we’re having this conversation. And we’re having it on the International Day of the Girl Child. I think it’s something that everybody should think about. But more important, I want to call our attention—as I did earlier in my preliminary remarks—to what is going on in Iran. Women in Iran are organizing around the banner of women’s life and freedom. Everywhere we are we should support them. We should support them not because they are Iranian women, but because the principles that they are articulating and championing and losing their lives over are the same principles that women in Africa and other places are articulating, championing, and losing their lives over.


NWANKWOR: And so just to add to that, I think it’s also important that as we discuss these identity categories, particularly gender, and how it shapes women’s political mobilization, and the fact that there’s been significant increase in women’s access to these organizations, to these bodies that we also do not forget the fact that we need to move this discussion beyond just numbers, right? And look at continuing to lobby and pressure for a kind of transformative model of leadership that moves just beyond the rhetoric of presence, right, to empowering women in these organizations to actually push for systemic change.

To the extent that these changes then become real for ordinary women, for whom these representations are—(inaudible)—so it’s to move the conversation beyond we want more women to not just women. Women, yes, but also principal actors, and to create women’s policy agencies and missionaries, right, and build all these bridges to these women as well as other critical actors in these bodies, to ensure that public policies change. And not just that public policies change, but that there is implementation of the change in public policy so that we close the loop around public change to affect lives.

MARSHALL: Well, thank you, both. Those are very strong final statements that, I think, highlight, first of all, the direction that we all are hoping to move in, or determined to move in, but also some of the subtleties and the nuance that takes use beyond platitudes into some of the hearts of the issues, but also the policy implications. So thank you, all. Happy day of the girl child. And hope to see you all again, soon.

OBADARE: Thank you.

NWANKWOR: Thank you, Kathrine.


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