The gendered double standard of adultery in Nigeria
In some parts of Nsukka, Enugu state in Nigeria, women who commit adultery, and therefore violate the oath of fidelity they took before marriage, are said to be struck with madness by the gods. I learned this belief while I was completing my tertiary education at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. I remember asking the local women who told me about this belief if the oath also applies to men. She replied to my question with a nonchalant shrug and robotically said, “How could it? African men are naturally polygamous. You know women are different from men.”
While this theory of madness in unfaithful women may be one of the more extreme in Nigeria, adulterous men are commonly excused and the blame for their actions is placed squarely on women. Wives are expected to pray and fast for their unfaithful husbands — demons could have plagued them, and would have been stopped by prayerful wives. Wives are blamed for failing to have cooked their husbands good meals or looked sexy enough for them; they practically forced men to look outside their marriage.
It’s a huge double standard. Adultery is a grave sin when you possess a vagina. When you do not, then it's a natural byproduct of your inherent irresponsibility; vagina-less people just can't help but cheat. In fact, not only is it perceived as normal for Nigerian men to sleep around with many women, but it is expected. If they don't, it's often assumed that these faithful men are actually gay or impotent.
This double standard starts early. Young girls are told in childhood to close their legs. Young boys see their mothers or other women around them cheated on and then held responsible for the infidelity they experience; they learn by example that they will one day be permitted to do the same. Teenage girls are commonly discouraged from and punished for having boyfriends while parents will turn a blind eye to their brothers’ relationships. Should a teenage boy impregnate a teenage girl, the girl will be socially ridiculed and sometimes driven away from her home by her parents, while the boy is commended by his father for proving himself to be a “real man.”
The double standard is also enforced in other perhaps less obvious or direct ways. For example, my cousin is in law school in the northern part of Nigeria. Earlier this year, she told me that female law students were instructed to wear ankle-long skirts to “save” the male students from being distracted and thinking unwholesome thoughts that could lead to sexual harassment. The school was basically saying that male students are uncontrollable beasts who cannot help but go crazy at the sight of women’s bodies. Instead of cautioning or controlling these beasts, however, the school determined the best thing to do was to tell the women to cover their irresistibly attractive ankles to “save” those beasts.
Nigerian men’s unapologetic infidelity, therefore, doesn’t start when their marriages do, therefore, but is ingrained in him, as well as the whole society, much earlier and in many ways throughout their lives. And ultimately, this dynamic results in many Nigerian women struggling to do anything they can to stay in marriages that continually strip them of their dignity because doing so allows them to obtain the ultimate social badge of honor, being a “good woman,” by the same people who reinforce their husbands’ right to infidelity. It's like having two people on a team. One follows the rules, the other does not, and we expect it to work. These marriages are unhappy because they are sustained on the silence and tolerance of the women.
And should a woman dare to push back on this unfair pattern and say she does not want to get married, she inevitably faces outrage and shock from men and women in her community who consider marriage to be African women's most important calling.
No one seems to see the irony in this sexual control of women essentially positioning men as weak and in need of protection from ravenous women who can't wait to aggressively seduce them into letting go of their morals and values. In reality, this irony exists because a society that blames women for men’s promiscuity doesn’t have a problem with promiscuity so much as it has a problem with women.
So how do we address this double standard? First, we must question everything we’re taught about gendered norms regarding sexuality. We can’t just accept and recite things without properly understanding their meaning.
We also must ask others to question this “logic.” For example, an acquaintance with whom I had conversations about rape always argued that the way women dress is the cause for this violence. If women properly covered themselves, he argued, no one would rape them. One day, this acquaintance’s laptop was stolen from one of our university's male hostels. I asked him how he had wrapped the laptop. “What do you mean?” he asked. I told him that he must have wanted the thief to take the laptop because he didn't cover it very well. If he had wrapped the laptop well it wouldn't have been stolen. Though he didn't speak to me for a while after that, he understood my point then.
We can and should enact laws that attempt to institute gender equality, but if people do not change the way they think about these issues, laws will not work effectively. Going forward, we have to ask people to stop and think: Would they make similar comments about women’s sexuality to men? Only when we question this long-standing mentality can we hope for change.
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