By Owei Lakemfa
I am blessed because I am blessed by women. This Wednesday, March 8, I received messages from some women wishing me a happy International Women’s Day. They know I am not part of their gender. But they are aware that I support, speak and fight for gender equity, equal rights and justice for all irrespective of class, race and gender. One of the earliest such messages I received came from the Cuban Ambassador Clara Pullido.
She dotes on some of us like a mother hen protecting her beloved ones.
She sees herself as a daughter of Africa. Her Masters degree was in Ghana where she studied Nigeria political history and she has been Cuban Ambassador to the African Union, Ethiopia, Algeria and now, Nigeria. She advocates on women and their role in emancipating humanity. It is through her I met the female ambassadors and diplomats from Asia, Europe, Caribbean and Latin America that I have come to know.
This 2023 Women’s Day, to me, was a particularly sad one as I watched with sorrow many petty traders in the streets, almost all of who are women, turned destitute because the Buhari administration’s currency policy has made cash so scarce that they barely have customers. Things are so bad that even to buy a small packet of biscuits, some pepper or an orange on the streets would require cash transfer which in many cases, gets stuck. So, their perishable goods have perished; some rotting in the farms. So many have become impoverished, and needless to state, the vast majority of these victims of the inept and thoughtless implementation of a new currency change, are women.
However, these adversities and a climate of impunity and violence has not stopped women from being courageous and standing their ground. When during the Presidential and National Assembly Elections of February 25, political thugs invaded a polling station in Surulere, Lagos and stabbed Mrs. Bina Jennifer Efidi, they must have assumed they had discouraged her and other voters from casting their ballot.
They were mistaken; they had taken on a woman who they assumed is fickle. But after her wounds were treated, even with blood trickling down her face and in her blood-soaked T-shirt, she returned to the polling station, daring the thugs, and casting her vote. Mrs. Efidi has become the symbol of resistance against street thugs and political violence in Nigeria.
Efidi reminds me of the resistance of Rosa Parks, the African-American lady who on December 1, 1955 in racist Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat for a Whiteman. Her resistance violated the segregations laws then in place. She was arrested for civil disobedience, detained and fined. But she refused to bow. Her resistance inspired the Blacks’ one year boycott of the city’s bus service, and the November, 1956 ruling that under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the American Constitution, bus segregation is unconstitutional.
The on-going mass protests in Iran was triggered by the killing of Jina ‘Mahsa’ Amini, a lady arrested on September 13, 2022 for allegedly not properly wearing her hijab. She was allegedly beaten and died three days later while still in police custody. Women spearheaded and sustained the protests. The religious police took on the wrong gender and got dissolved.
There are lots of conflicts in the world and women, who tend to take care of the family, including their husbands and children, suffer a lot. But where the men are intimidated by forces of oppression and repression, women in many cases, step forward. For instance, in the on-going Israeli genocide against the Palestinian people, many women have become involved, including engaging in physical combats with Israeli soldiers who come to effect the demolition of Palestinian homes to give way for illegal settlements. One of the most famous is Khalida Jarrar, a 60-year-old Palestinian lawmaker whose last stint in Israeli prison was two years ago. She had been jailed at least four times on the nebulous charge of belonging to ‘a terrorist organisation’ which is what Israel calls all organisations that reject genocide in the Palestine.
During her last imprisonment, she lost her 31-year-old daughter, Suha Ghassan Jarrar, a human rights activist. But she also began the education of Palestinian women prisoners. By last year, seven of her protégées in Israeli jails were enrolled for degree programmes. Jarrar’s conviction is that: “Education is liberating for women, because it helps them expand their knowledge, strengthen their personality, and gives them a degree of independence to face society and its problems, as well as helping them find work after leaving prison.”
But the most famous woman of Palestine origin is Al Jazeera’s Shireen Abu Akleh whose coverage of the region for 25 years became authoritative. She gave the Israeli authorities who could not fault her professionalism so much sleepless nights that they decided to kill her. On May 11, 2022, in Jenin, an Israeli marksman took her out. Even the United States, US, which traditionally covers Israeli atrocities, admitted the Israelis killed her.
Its report “concluded that gunfire from IDF (Israeli Defence Force) positions was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh.” Cornered, Israel admitted that she was “accidentally hit by IDF gunfire” but would neither allow its troops nor the marksman interviewed or brought to justice for murdering the 52-year-old journalist.
The struggle against Apartheid in South Africa was long and bloody because the regime was supported by powerful countries like the US and United Kingdom. As the repression grew and men were targeted, women stepped forward with the famous Women’s March of 1956. In that march, the women adopted a South African proverb: Wathinta Abafazi Wathinta Imbokodo, which meant: “You strike a woman; you strike a rock.”
The leaders of that march on the Union included Helen Joseph who gave up all her privileges of being a White woman to fight for social justice; Lilian Ngoyi, the first woman member of the African National Congress National Executive Council; and Albertina Sisulu who later led the largest coalition that saw the back of Apartheid.
They were followed into battle by formidable women, the most famous being Winnie Mandela. The Apartheid regime found too late that when “You strike a woman; you strike a rock.” This is a truism that many regimes across the universe are yet to learn. I imbibed my pro-women culture from my mother, Ebibo, who as an illiterate petty trader ensured the education and well-being of all her children. She taught us contentment, humility and service to all irrespective of religion, race, ethnicity and gender. On Tuesday April 3, 2023, which would be the tenth year she departed, I will observe a special prayer and thank her that she was my mother.
Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), is a human rights activist, journalist, and author.