In the wake of the unfortunate death of Bilyamin Bello, son of a former Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, there has been a somewhat surprising chatter about matricide. In an ironic twist of Margaret Atwood’s quote, “men are afraid women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them”, Nigerian men are now the ones displaying the fear of spousal violence. While men as victims too should be taken seriously enough, we should also resist attempts by people who want to propagate a spurious idea of gender violence by assessing issues with a false scale. There is no statistical equivalence to the violence men and women suffer in domestic relationships. It is disingenuous to pretend that men are also frequent victims but whose pain is unfairly obscured by feminist sympathies.
The data suggest that at least one in three women has reported a case of domestic violence and as many as double that figure experience one form of domestic violence or the other. The most reliable and recent data is that of Lagos State that showed that in the first nine months of this year alone, 852 cases were reported. Of that figure, the men’s cases of domestic abuse were only 55 instances. If we generalise with the figure, it means about 95 per cent of the time, women are the victims of various forms of domestic violence. Even if we adjust for varying factors such as ethnicity, religion, class, educational level, and so on, women will still be the bulk of the victims and men are the ones who carry out these acts of violence. Bello’s death might have proved that any and every one can be a victim. What it does not change is that women are the more frequent victims.
Personally, I believe that much of the sensation around Bello’s death has been more of the twin interwoven factors: class and ethnicity, rather than genuine sympathies for the deceased. If the couple were not from a prominent family, they probably would not make front page news. Also, they are northerners. In the patronising imagination of the southerners who dominate the media channels, the image of the northern woman must be that of one who is a perpetual victim of Islamist patriarchy; her veiled head symbolic of her equally veiled mind. The one woman that has (allegedly) diverged from this stereotypical script was instantly hailed as a revolutionary heroine by some febrile minds whose small minds turn severe issues to revanchist rhetoric like “battle of the sexes.”
One suspects that those two factors have made this incident compelling to the point that men feel vulnerable in a way they have never done before. If, therefore, men are now afraid that women too can kill them, then they will begin to understand the conditions under which many women have lived for long. If men understand the fear of spousal abuse the way women have lived its reality for many years, then our society might finally have a much-needed enlightened debate around domestic violence and hopefully make some progress. Women have borne the brunt of the unevenness of power and which has predisposed them to domestic violence for so long their suffering is frequently downplayed, normalised, and even rationalised. One can hardly go through three Yoruba films today without being assaulted with narratives that perpetuate violence and aggression against women. These stories are especially disturbing because their anti-women violence is hardly ever interrogated. Instead, women’s pain is represented as some kind of necessity and a self-denial that ultimately induces moral resolve or higher virtue. Whereas abuse is needless and oppressive. It diminishes people’s dignity.
Women themselves tend to accept abuse as inevitable because, really, they have few options. They are bracketed on all sides by their relative lack of economic empowerment, socio-cultural expectations, religion, and legal infrastructures that do not guarantee their rights. I have been part of women support group fora where I have been baffled by how women further victimise one another by telling other abuse victims to seek spiritual help when physically and emotionally abused by their spouses. They tell the victims to pray so that God can change the hearts of their men. They advise them to watch War Room; to minimise one another and maximise their husband’s ego so that the manlier he feels, the less likely he would be violent. They teach one another to live with demeaning situations because, somehow, society has tied their ideas of personal virtue to being coupled. Thank God for other enlightened women who challenged these fellow women on their thinking. The fact that abuse has been ossified into social norms does not make it “normal.”
Men who languish in situations of domestic abuse do so largely because they are entrapped within our society’s outdated ideas of masculinity that thinks “real men” always have the brute physical force to “control” their women. Men who do not fit into these vacuous presumptions of male behaviour find themselves silenced by the social expectations that reserve aggression for only their gender. To win the battle against domestic violence, we need to turn moments of public passion such as this into a productive one. We need to take domestic violence more seriously. Men, especially the ones with economic, physical, and political power who think they are insulated from domestic violence should understand that the campaign against domestic violence is not just a shrill cry by women advocates who want to wave the victim card for nothing. It has been a lived reality for women.
The problem is not the paucity of laws. Despite the few retrogressive religious laws in the penal code that allows men to beat women as a correct measure, Nigeria has enough in her books to fight domestic violence. Lagos State, for instance, has a model that is responsive to issues of domestic violence and which should be imitated by other states. The Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act of 2015 can go a long way to protect victims. There is a lot more to be done to make laws enforceable and effective – from training officials to handle issues better, to providing enough resources to prosecute the overwhelming number of cases. However, domestic violence persists because there is a vast chasm between formal structures that purports to protect victims and the informal means of adjudication that treats these issues as “family matters.” People who should make an official report against their partners find themselves encumbered by cultural sentiments that re-victimise them. Ours is a society where serial wife-beaters are even elected lawmakers. How does a woman win against a system that gives an abusive spouse power to make laws that will ultimately translate to ensuring human rights and dignity?
Finally, a lot of problems can be made less knotty if, collectively, we relax some of our ideas about marriage. We need to tell men and women that no match was made in heaven and people who are unlucky to choose a wrong partner need not die in a ruinous union trying to prove what is not. We should re-evaluate our values and understand that it takes bravery to pick up what is left of one’s self-respect and walk rather than put up a perfect front for social media. Marriage is no ultimate achievement for anyone. No man needs to prove his masculinity by tolerating a violent wife to “tame” her eventually. No woman should be blackmailed with the false notion that they have an intrinsic essence that can change a man; men are not growing babies who forever need mothering. People should be empowered to walk to save their lives and their sanity. Divorce should be no stigma; those who walk out of toxic relationships deserve to live a healthy life, and happily ever after too.