By Chisom Onyekwere
Defining Political Participation
Political participation, to begin with, is the exercising of one’s right to vote, and participate in elections and public life without any discrimination. It comprises a broad range of activities through which people develop and express their opinions on the world and how it is governed, and try to take part in and shape the decisions that affect their lives. These activities take the form of mobilization and formation of interest groups to further a goal or an ideology. It is imperative that every individual present must be granted full access to political participation so that society can be aptly representative of the peoples dwelling in it.
Culture and Religion in Nigeria
With over 250 ethnic groups and diversity in ethnicity, language and culture, Nigeria is a home to individuals and communities that hold religion and spirituality in high esteem (Sarumi, et al. 2018);(Adamu and Para-Mallam, 2012). In a national representative survey, 87% respondents in a national representative survey said that religion is very important in their lives, and about 90% of Christians and Muslims claimed to attend religious services at least weekly. Though the Nigerian Constitution guarantees state religious neutrality, it makes accomodations for cultural and religious sensibilities, stipulating a tripartite legal system that upholds statutory, customary, and Sharia law.
According to Adamu and Para-Mallam (2012), views on women’s rights overall are seen to vary widely between and within religious communities, with some supporting and some opposing the realization of equal rights. However, Sarumi, et al. (2018) insist that religion is reported to have positive impacts on women decision-making and socio-political positions.
Igbo Women and the Aba Women’s Riot
In the 1920s, Nigeria saw officially for the first-time women engaging in political participation. The Aba Women’s Riot in 1929 was the first major challenge to British authority in Nigeria and West Africa during its colonial rule. Launched initially as a nonviolent protest, the Aba Women Riot was led by women from six ethnic groups: Ibibio, Andoni, Orgoni, Bonny, Opobo, and Igbo. The women were protesting against the British’s unjust imposition of taxes on Igbo society—specifically on Igbo women through the mandate of a warrant chief’s representative. In two months, over 25,000 Igbo women joined in the initially nonviolent protest and today is remembered as a phenomenal movement that resulted in the British administration seizing from levying taxes on women, and limiting the power of the warrant chiefs.
That was just the beginning of the influence women mobilizing politically were able to yield. Beginning in 1950, women in the southern region were being enfranchised in stages and in 1959, they were able to vote in the 1959 federal election. This put Nigeria amongst the first 20 countries in Africa to grant some of their women the right to vote. This was not the case for women in the northern region, however, as they were exempt from political participation until 1976.
#BringBackOurGirls and Modern Social Movements
For the past five years, Nigeria has seen women bringing communities across the nation and the world to shed light on issues affecting women and how integral their well-being is to the state of the country. The famous #BringBackOurGirls movement—established to hold the Nigerian government accountable in its declaration and attempts to find the Chibok girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram—was birthed as a hashtag curated by two women Hadiza Bala Usman and Mayam Uwais who refused to take lightly the gravity of the situation. With a growing online presence and multiple emails sent to mobilize as many citizens as possible to take on the cause, Hadiza and Mayam were able to form sizeable coalitions and groups for many marches—and a majority of participants in this movement were women. In 2020 alone, in recent months, protests created and started by women have erupted over the internet to spark public outrage and seek justice for the assaulted. These are only a few of the political movements led by women that have succeeded to shine a much brighter light on the issues almost half of Nigeria’s population face. If not for women taking bold political stands against cruelties in the country, a lot of wrongdoing in the country would be swept under the rug. Also, Nigerian women have overall begun to move from back seat positions in the bedroom and kitchen to roles of breadwinners, decision-makers, and leaders of their immediate families.
FOMWAN and Religious-inspired Movements
This is seen in the achievements made by FOMWAN (Federation of Muslim Women’s Organizations in Nigeria). The organization has been able to unite Nigerian women from different ethnic, educational, social, cultural, and economic backgrounds to share in its goal: to promote more inclusion of women in political decision-making arenas in the country. It has also helped women to participate more actively in decision-making activities, debates, conferences, and most importantly with the national and state governments to bring to the forefront of the political sphere issues of especial importance to the general public. Additionally, FOMWAN uses its the teachings of Islam to promote the rights of women and advocate against child marriage, FGM, and harmful religious and cultural practices that disproportionately affect young women and girls in Nigeria. With empowerment from Islam, FOMWAN is able to encourage and mobilize Muslim women in the North to help them be duly represented in political processes. On top of that, it uses its healthy relationship with Christian women’s organizations and secular organizations to yield higher numbers of female representation in governance and decision-making.