Culture/ Religion/ Tradition vs Modern/ Secular/ Foreign

Implications of Binary Framings for Women’s Rights in Nigeria


  • Chitra Nagarajan



This article examines the binary of culture/ religion/ tradition and modern/ secular/ foreign and its impact on women’s human rights struggles in particular in northern Nigeria. This binary is commonly perpetuated by state and non-state actors, including politicians, community leaders and religious leaders, who weaponise culture, religion and tradition to resist the struggle for gender equality. It highlights how progress around some concerns, such as rape of young girls, has occurred concurrently with attacks on other rights, particularly sexual and reproductive rights including abortion and sex outside marriage, and of those with non-normative sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions. This hardening of attitudes and narrowing of what is seen as permissible not only obscures the diversity of how people lived and thought in the past but is also far from the reality of how people live their lives presently. It further reflects the increased influence of religious fundamentalism and conservatism in northern Nigeria.[1]


[1] I used the term religious fundamentalism as distinct from religious conservatism and to signify the project whereby those engaged in it ‘construct ‘tradition’ in a way that is highly selective, at the same time as dogmatically insisting that their reconstructions of text are ‘sacred’ and so unable to be questioned’ (Cowden and Sahgal, 2017, 15), deny ‘the possibility of interpretation and reinterpretation even while its adherents engage in both’ (Bennoune, 2013, 16) and centre the importance of control of women’s bodies and sexuality and rigid gender roles. Religious fundamentalists ‘believe in the imposition of God’s law, something called the Sharia – their version of it  rather than others’ – on Muslims everywhere and in the creation of what they deem to be  Islamic states or disciplined diasporic communities ruled by these laws,’ denounce secularists, seek to bring politicised religion into all spheres, want to police, judge and change the behaviour, appearance and comportment of others and aim to sharply limit women’s rights, sometimes in the name of protection, respect and difference (Bennoune, 2013, 16). In contrast, while religious conservatism remains problematic, it does not make claims to possessing the only true interpretation and can be ‘protective of certain traditional spaces for women as well as being capable of reform and change’ (Cowden and Sahgal, 2017, 18).


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