The Marriage Between African Laws and Patriarchy
The legal profession practised in Africa today has its origins in ancient Greece and Rome. Colonialists introduced these foreign systems to most parts of Africa and African countries have clung to them with little or no development. Prior to colonialism, the legal system was informal with various levels of law making and enforcement, the highest level being the traditional leader in most cases. Men and women were jointly involved in the making and enforcement of laws under African traditional systems although the status of women remained subordinate to that of men.
Laws are now made in very formal settings –legislative houses- through very formal processes, by very formal men. Yes, men. Colonial practices introduced the education of men differently from women and this very effectively began the exclusion of women from public spaces, a new level of subordinating women. Under colonialism, women chiefs/leaders lost their ruling and law making powers; they were excluded from political participation and their customary roles ignored. This was very beneficial to men alone and the system has remained, (long) after colonialism.
Across Africa presently, law making, law enforcement, the interpretation of the law is male-dominated and forcibly patriarchal. Women, due to society’s idea about gender roles, did not venture into the legal profession in Africa for a very long time. Algeria saw its first female lawyer, Blanche Azouley in 1908; Tunisia saw Juliette S. Zerah in 1916 and South Africa, Irene A. Geffen, in 1923. Nigeria’s first female Chief Justice was appointed in 2013 after about 40 years of an indigenous legal profession.
There are thousands of female lawyers across Africa now, all under the hand of patriarchy. While more women than ever can now be called lawyers and judges, their presence alone cannot remove the layers of subordination they face within the profession or make for gender equitable laws. For instance, the Nigerian legal profession does not recognise that there are females in the legal profession. All judges are ‘Your Lordships’ and ‘Learned Brothers’, all lawyers are gentlemen, whether biologically female or male. The reason? There are no ladies at the bar. Hilarious? NO. I served for six weeks in the Federal High Court of Nigeria earlier this year where I observed my Judge chastise witnesses who addressed her as ‘Ma’.
As first-year law students, we were told vehemently during orientation that we would be addressed as gentlemen and gentlemen in skirts. This was only logical, right? For those of us females that dared study law it was only fair that they ‘elevate’ us to the status of men. Only men can participate in this esteemed profession. Fast-track to third year in the university. In Criminal Law we learnt that rape had to be proved by penetration only, and therefore no female could rape a man. Wow. Meanwhile in the real world there are a good number of cases where men have been raped by women. Even as a kid I’d heard stories of women, particularly gang members, raping men. Yet this age-long supposedly learned profession was turning a blind eye and refusing to acknowledge the glaring truth. Reason why? Sexism is the wig of our legal profession. In this aspect, men receive drawbacks from patriarchy, a system of which they are the primary beneficiaries.
The laws promote patriarchy in Africa, theirs is a marriage of mutual benefits to the exclusion of all others, including and especially women. Marital rape is largely unrecognised, the rape of a man is largely unrecognised, maternal health care and reproductive laws are non-existent or unimplemented, international human rights treaties and laws that promote women’s rights are not ratified or unimplemented. Lawmakers do not help because our legislative houses are flooded with men and patriarchs. African politics are a male-space with very few positions of authority occupied by women and only the ‘Women’s Leader’ position in political parties reserved for women. Quiet embarrassingly for Nigeria, affirmative action policies with regard to women have only been implemented up to 5 percent.
Where a society moves away from chauvinistic and prejudicial attitudes towards women, the results are astounding. In 2017, Rwanda was ranked as the highest country in the world with the number of women in parliament where 49 women sit in a house of 80 members. Other African countries that are ranked within the top 20 are Senegal, South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Angola.
Rwanda’s journey to development after the horror of genocide is laudable. Its population after the genocide was about 65 percent female, with women not being able to own land or work outside the home. Policy makers realised they needed women to be actively part of rebuilding the country and workplace was opened to women. The government declared that 30 percent of parliamentary seats be reserved for women, and educational opportunities for girls soared. Rwanda has repealed laws prohibiting women from owning land, laws which are still prevalent in many parts of Africa, and has enacted laws to stifle domestic violence and child abuse.
These obvious successes do not mean that gender equality now exists in all sectors in Rwanda. But the country is moving forward and its young women are changing patriarchal perceptions every day.
As Africans we need to accept that the patriarchal system will not produce the desired growth for our continent. Sustainable development can only be achieved where men and women are freely allowed to contribute equally to their countries without any form of discrimination. Gender equity must be applied in policy making, creation of jobs, employment decisions and in politics. We need a seismic shift in thought; we must realise that men and women are equal; socio-culturally, politically and economically. We are the change we need.