A few months ago in Toronto, I had dinner with a Nigerian male colleague. As we sat to enjoy a spread of delicious Cantonese meals, our conversation drifted towards women’s rights and practices in the workplace. With glee in his eyes and admiration in his voice, this colleague told me about how young girls in his former workplace in Nigeria were often harassed by their male bosses and were at risk of losing their jobs if they did not oblige the men who owned all the power. When my face contorted in response to what he was saying, he quickly issued a disclaimer:
“These men are very gentle men. They don’t harass the women like that. They ask calmly and pay the girls a lot of money. In fact, one of my bosses gave a young lady a huge sum of money to shop for new clothes.”
“Were her clothes tattered?” I asked
He laughed. “No. He saw her in a skirt and said he preferred her in skirts so he gave her money to buy more skirts.”
My face contorted even more. He continued.
“Look this man is a married man. Everyone knows he loves his wife. He just likes to play with the girls at work but he respects his wife a lot.”
“What if the girls at work don’t want to play with him?”
“Then, they will lose their jobs. It’s that simple.” He said.
When #sexforgrades started trending, I remembered those words. I remembered the finality of his tone and in some way felt the helplessness of the women who had been told to give in to the will of tyrannous men or lose their jobs, their education, their promotions, and every other thing they worked hard for because in the minds of these rapists, the choice was just that simple. You either want to have sex with your boss or be unemployed. You either want to meet up with your lecturer in a hotel room or fail a course you are good at. In the minds of these rapists, there is no in-between where what the women want and deserve gets any attention. If the desires of the men are not fulfilled, then the women lose. If the desires of the men are fulfilled, the women still lose. As far as the men are concerned, it is that simple.
The trending hashtag on sex for grades is not exposing a new culture in Nigerian universities. If anything at all, it is exposing the historical practices of men who have an erroneous perception of ownership over women’s bodies, women’s rights and women’s access to resources. These men, who are cushioned and protected by the a strong rape culture in Nigeria believe that they are invincible, and will go to any length to ensure they conquer a headstrong female who tickles their fancy. Interestingly, they also launch attacks against young men who are friends with the women they intend to rape, sometimes saying to them “how can you a young man want to eat what the elders like to eat?” In other words, how can a young man dare to compete with a lecturer/boss for the attention of a woman the boss desires strongly to rape?
Rape, either through coercion or intimidation is a well-known practice and many can attest to the fact that it is woven into the fabric of many institutions. Yet, sexual harassment policies in Nigerian institutions are non-existent. Instead, rules are made to control what women wear. Shorts skirts are considered an invitation to be raped, and in a country where the heat from the sun is hot enough for you to cook an egg on the sidewalk, wearing camisoles to the classroom is considered an invitation to be harassed by your educator or even your male colleagues.
When women report harassment in these institutions, they are often asked to verify they did not ask for it with questions such as:
“what were you wearing?”
“why were you walking on the same side of the road as him?”
“why did you sit in front in class?”
With such questions following reports of sexual assault, it is no wonder the rape culture in Nigeria thrives gloriously. Tyrannous men are brazen in their pursuits of their prey, because they know that even if they are reported, there will always be a way to absolve themselves of taking responsibility for the heinous crimes they commit against women.
In the wake of #sexforgrades, women have been advised to avoid the lecturers who harass them by skipping classes, told not to wear makeup to class so they are not attractive to lecturers and in some tweets, women have been advised to avoid showering, wear unattractive clothing and sit at the back of the classroom so they can protect themselves from rapey lecturers whose zeal for life lie in their desire to break and humiliate the young women they have been employed to educate. As far as society is concerned, it is really that simple.
There are many simple approaches we could take to sexual harassment in Nigerian institutions. The government could prioritize the development of a sexual harassment policy; there could be weighty consequences for people who are reported for harassment; there could be disciplinary action against those who support and protect the culture of harassment. There could be many simple approaches that will ensure women are not treated as mere objects or game caught in the midst of several traps.
But instead, many seek to justify harassment and in cases where there is proof beyond doubt, women are asked to forgive and let God judge. Why?
Because in a country where rape is culture, it is difficult to draw the line between normalcy and sexual harassment. It is difficult to understand why women are so angry that their bodies are considered fair game. It is difficult to see why they feel humiliated after they are raped, coerced and harassed. While it may be clear-cut in regions where women’s rights are a priority, in Nigeria, it is not just that simple.
Featured image: from harassed.com