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How Nigerian languages could be promoting gender bias

Written By Melissa Mordi

It is not meant for women

So when are you getting married?

Don’t you know you are a woman?

Let boys be boys

I have your type at home!

Act like a lady

Conversations around women’s rights in Nigerian has been on the rise. Movements reclaiming women’s ownership of their own bodies like the #YabaMarketMarch and #JusticeforOchanya have taken place over the past year. On the recently celebrated International Women’s Day, politicians and a large number of companies made statements celebrating women. While it may seem like social change is sweeping through Nigeria, there’s one aspect of Nigerian culture we are yet to tackle, language.

These are common statements in Nigeria. The message behind them is the same detrimental vitriol that has haunted women in African culture since the dawn of time: women are lesser.

In a poll conducted by TheGuardian, 69% of people believed their ancestral language has misogynistic phrases while 31% believed there were none. All reported hearing misogynistic language in the past — The most common sayings were:

These are common statements in Nigeria. The message behind them is the same detrimental vitriol that has haunted women in African culture since the dawn of time: women are lesser.

Ma se bi obirin

Stop behaving like a woman

Onbirin je nie oh

And you’re a woman

Ti ko ba nidi obirin ki je kimolu

If there is no special problem, a woman can’t be considered the head of the family

Onye nwe pant no na iro

You don’t wear underwear?

Bí obìnrin ò bá jowú, ọbẹ̀ rẹ̀ kìí dùn.

If a woman is not jealous, her soup cannot be tasty

Ọbẹ̀ tí baálé kìí jẹ, ìyáálé ilé kìí sèé.

The soup the husband doesn’t eat; the wife doesn’t make.

À ńsọ̀rọ̀ elégédé, obìnrín ḿbèrè ohun tí à ńsọ, a ní ọ̀rọ̀ ọkùnrin ni; bí a bá kó elégédé jọ, ta ni yó sè é?

We are discussing pumpkins; a woman asks what we are discussing, and we respond that it is men’s talk; after we have gathered the pumpkins, who will cook them?

(Women have a place in the kitchen-not men’s conversations.)

Akẹ̀sán lòpin Ọ̀yọ́; ilé ọkọ nibìsinmi obìnrin.

Akẹ̀sán is the frontier of ọ̀yọ́; a spouse’s home is a woman’s place of rest. (Just as Akẹsan is ọ̀yọ́’s city limit, so a spouse’s home is a woman’s final destination.)

Esu l’obirin

Woman is devilish

Owu ti ya gbon, Lomo o ran

It’s the mother’s responsibility to raise a good child

It might seem insignificant, there are women being raped, assaulted and murdered on a daily basis that should take more importance, however studies show that language might be just as important, possibly even more than all of those things.

Language affects the way we think, it carries meaning if you constantly refer to something in a certain way, it’ll change the way you think about even subconsciously. Studies show that the way we talk to young girls matters. And most linguists agree, including Dr.Taiwo Conde, professional linguist and a director of the PEA Foundation.

“The language we use on children has a huge impact on how they see themselves. If we praise them constantly and affirm their worth, they see themselves as bright, intelligent, beautiful or handsome. But if we continually hurl words like ‘stupid’, ‘clumsy’, ‘bad’ ‘dumb’ or a ‘disappointment’ their way, they inadvertently believe that they are. It is very important that we are careful about what we say to children, because they might agree with you, and define themselves by what they ‘hear’ rather than what they ‘are’.”

“Language in Nigeria is misogynistic and harmful because it reflects the way men see women as inferior to them. I have a PhD and I am often told “why go all out when you would have to end up in a man’s kitchen”. Or, you “wouldn’t find a man that would get married to you because he would feel threatened by all of your achievements.” Or, “You read too much for a girl.” This linguistic bias constitutes a male-oriented perspective of the world and has led to the belittlement of the women play in the society. As if all of my worth, all I am capable of being can only be found in the kitchen. The most annoying part is that these statements are also said to me by women.”

“What these kind of statements does is to place one gender (men) above the other (women) in terms of how much they can achieve with their life. It tells women and girls that there is a ceiling, and you have to be of a particular gender to get to that ceiling talk less of breaking it. It tells young girls that their place is in the kitchen and not in academics or the workplace or business. What these kind of statements would not tell them is that women can be in the kitchen, in the home, in academics, in business and in the workplace smashing and breaking the glass ceiling. So yes, misogynistic language is harmful as it promotes ideologies and beliefs that should not be promoted.”

“The steps that need to be taken is to educate both genders on the fact that there is not an ‘us’ (men) vs ‘them’ gender war going on. It’s true that both genders are different physically and psychologically, but that should not be the basis to measure how far one gender can go professionally.”

This report is undertaken with support from Code For Africa to amplify the Gender Gap conversation.

Originally published at on April 11, 2019.



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