In Nigeria, laughing at sexualized violence is no joke
Nigerians have a good sense of humor and certainly enjoy having a good laugh. It’s almost sacrilegious to host a corporate event, wedding party, or an award show without incorporating the wit of a comedian, some of whom are paid millions of naira to perform for a few short minutes. Indeed, comedy is booming in Nigeria, having morphed from a side hustle in the mid-'90s to a serious, full-fledged business.
But, as with most male-dominated fields, the Nigerian comedy scene has a misogyny problem, with women being the butt of jokes.
I saw this firsthand as a writer for a new political satire show mirrored after Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show”—the first of its kind in Nigeria. The writers’ room, which should be a safe, experimental space for unfiltered material, was a den for ribald jokes crafted by (some) male co-workers and aimed at female colleagues. Rude comments about women’s body parts and filthy sex jokes were par for the course. When I publicly reproached a male co-worker for implying I had given another colleague oral sex, he grew indignant, asking how many followers I had on social media. Who knew a woman needed a million virtual followers to demand respect?
During my stint on the show, I also experienced a subtler form of sexism, the kind that seeks to gently drown out a woman’s voice. Once, after an episode’s post-mortem, the executive producer reduced my critique of the host’s performance to a case of petty animosity and repressed passions. It was neither.
On another occasion, the male head writer asked that I “tone down” a feminist segment I’d written skewering gender-based violence. The show doesn’t permit curse words so “tone down” was not referring to expletives; it was simply code for “cool it with the male-bashing.”
This bias, and desire to coddle men’s egos and maintain patriarchal social structures, is what motivated the show’s host to change a question I had prepared for a guest about sexism. It explored the sexist reasoning behind asking women—and not men—how they balance work and family life. The host never conferred with me or the other women on the team. It also explains why the host, a man, concurred with a female guest’s misguided remark that women are guilty of provoking men into beating them, and why the male line producer cued the audience to applaud the statement. And applaud they did.
Nigeria’s popular stand-up scene is no better at respecting women either, with novices and established comedians alike featuring jokes in their act that demean women. In one set, a comic advises men not to hit their wives, but instead to “shake them” violently enough to give them a headache, to the amusement of his audience. Another mocked the idea of marital rape, claiming the bride price entitles men to sex whenever they want it. He also went on to praise the Nigerian police for dismissing such frivolities, unlike cops in the West.
Last year, a famous comedian drew the ire of Nigerians for making light of a “Big Brother” housemate’s improper sexual conduct towards a female contestant, joking that the man couldn’t contain himself. Prior to the wisecrack, he objectified the woman in question on stage, spinning her around to “show your goods.”
Forced to apologize, the comedian’s watery mea culpa illustrated a lack of empathy and understanding as to why his joke was distasteful. Not only did he explain the act as “pure comedy,” he reiterated to Nigerians that the deviant contestant—who was dismissed from the show for his behavior—“deserves total forgiveness because he has asked for it.”
Naturally, in a patriarchal society like Nigeria, men can act inappropriately toward women and expect to be pardoned by merely asking for it. Women, on the other hand, are automatically expected to forgive and move on with their lives as though female dignity and trauma are trifling inconveniences.
While the #Metoo and #TimesUp movements in the U.S. have exposed the virulent sexism of comedians like Louis C.K. and caused men to re-evaluate their interactions with women, no similar campaigns in Nigeria have gained enough momentum to force comedians to contend with their sexist material.
“Basically, patriarchy is unapologetic in Nigeria [and] guards jealously its turf,” says Nigerian culture critic and journalist Molara Wood. She added that Nigeria has been slow to respect women’s rights and that many women have been conditioned to accept misogyny as the norm. “This is reflected in comedic acts, with many stars reaching for crude tropes for cheap laughs, and the audience—including women—cosign by laughing along,” she adds.
This is not just bad for women. It’s bad for everyone who hears this debasement bolstered, especially in a country that is the ninth-most dangerous place to be a woman, according to the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Nigeria is a place where survivors of domestic and sexualized violence are stigmatized or bullied into silence.
“I think that sexist language and rape jokes do have some power in promoting sexual violence,” says Chioma Omeruah, one of Nigeria’s foremost female comedians, who is better known as Chigul. For that reason, she believes such jokes should not be part of any comic’s repertoire.
But no comedian, as long as they’re being rewarded with laughs, sold-out shows, and lucrative sponsorship deals, will deliberately alter a routine. For change to happen, activists, viewers, audiences, and even comedians themselves have to demand better material by boycotting sexist shows and pressuring corporate bodies, event planners, and venues associated with these errant comedians to sever ties.
“Let us remember it was a male comedian’s denunciation of rape that led to the reckoning that should now see Bill Cosby ending up in jail in his twilight years,” says Wood, referring to a bit performed in 2014 by American comedian Hannibal Buress in which he tears down Cosby’s self-righteousness by calling him out for raping women.
When it comes to having a similar kind of reckoning, Wood says, “Nigerian comedians have no excuse.”