BBC article about learning a language in cities like Lagos


Lindsey Galloway writes a pertinent article about learning uncommon languages, which includes a section on Lagos.

Dissertation on Niger Delta women and the oil movement published

For a link to my final dissertation, please see:


grounded theory

Exploring the Creation of Nigerian Law

One of the central debates in the study of African politics surrounds the extent to which Africans have created their own legal systems. Is Nigerian law really even Nigerian?  Has it ever been? This is an important question because one of my lines of analysis for my dissertation will be about how the law shapes the forms of both formal and non-formal resistance in the Niger Delta.  If the law is merely an oppressive colonial construct, it would seem a poor avenue for resolving domestic and local level oil disputes. However, if it is the product of indigenous forces then it has a more legitimate claim to be a conflict resolution mechanism.

The first line of thought is that Nigerian law is not truly owned by the very people it purports to regulate and protect, and it is in fact, a Western project of domination. Comaroff and Comaroff describe Africans as “fetishizing” the domestic law they inherited from colonial powers as well as contemporary international law (Comaroff & Comaroff 2006).  By embracing both of these Western legal systems, Africans are actually reinforcing the disorder that law is intended to stop. Lawlessness in the postcolony is a product of artificially constructed legal regimes that are remnants of colonial rule.  These regimes fail to account for indigenous forms of capital accumulation and conflict resolution mechanisms, creating socioeconomic inequality that begets violence and disorder (29). In terms of modern globalization, judicialization of politics works in favor of corporate capitalism, which has used law to create a deregulated environment conducive to business. Human rights abuses surrounding oil indicate how Africa is entangled in a parallel, pariah economy of international scale that is undergirded by the use of Western forms of law (7).

Mamdani argues that democracy did not follow decolonization because in making their own governments, Africans recreated and reinforced despotic and ethnicized patterns in the bifurcated state. He calls this mode of rule “decentralized despotism.” Essentially, British “indirect rule” allowed for tribal chiefs to become their own little despots (as opposed to the French mode of direct rule which allowed French administrators to be centralized despots). This decentralized authoritarianism undergirds contemporary Nigeria’s struggles with lack of accountability and ethnic tensions (Mamdani 1996).

It has been argued that Nigerian law will never have the ability to function well because of its roots as a European means of exploitation of labor and resources, and because it entrenched previous inactive tribal conflicts that continue today. Its original purpose was never to resolve conflicts but to create them, never to limit power but to enable it (Mamdani 1996, 110). And in fact, “state law enforcement tended to rob custom of its diversity, homogenize it, and equate it with the boundaries of the tribe.” (184). With this European appropriate of African law, ethnicity became of categorical importance in land claims. The first constitution was bestowed on, and not created by, Nigerians in 1914 with the amalgamation of the British protectorates, a land consolidation enterprise (An-Na’im 2003, 212). Martin Chanock finds that Nigerian law was aimed primarily at helping Europeans secure their land rights well before that though, and largely through fomenting ethnic warfare (Chanock in Mann & Roberts 1991, 61).

Conversely, a different perspective emphasizes the role Africans have had in shaping the very European law that was bestowed upon them.  This perspective sees Africans and Europeans as engaged in an ongoing mutual construction of a fluid collection of rules and norms. Even Mamdani admits that ethnicity does not just function in a top-down manner as a means of rule, but also that it is and always has been an organizing principle in resistance. This notion is undergirded by sociolegal research that emphasizes understudied forms of resistance in Africa.

An analysis of Kenyan marriage disputes that tend to favor women’s victory in court demonstrates how those women have utilized law in a manner most beneficial to them, and at that same time have had a hand in shaping it. More specifically, these discursive courts offer sites for the complex reworking of gender relations, which creates possibilities for significant changes in social relations (Hirsch 1998). Thus, these courts have becomes sites of protest for women (Sally Falk Moore in Lazarus-Black & Hirsch 1994). Merry sees too that courts can serve as a mode of resistance to social practices such as domestic violence, but such resistance must be framed in the terms of the law itself, allowing protest only within the hegemonic categories of the law (Merry in Lazarus-Black & Hirsch 1994).

A study of the bandits of the Chad Basin shows how West African bandits have generated an “ethics of illegality” etched out by unregulated commerce that exists not as a form of resistance to the state, but in tandem with it.  In fact, “unregulated economic activity and road banditry are necessary entailments of the state in so far as they circumscribe new forms of economic rents and political constituencies. However, the state is also a necessary entailment to these activities insofar as they are dependent upon relations forged with customs officials, governors, mayors, and the police or gendarmerie” (Roitmann in Comaroff and Comaroff 2006, 250). This study speaks to the reciprocity of African law and society.

Exploring the Creation of the Nigerian State

Where does Nigeria fit into a discussion of how states are made? It is weak by nearly all measurements, and Foreign Policy magazine even labeled it a “failed state” based on its poverty and governance in 2010. To answer the Nigeria question, we might look to the institutional approach of state theory. It asserts that institutions—the way societies are organized—are the fundamental cause of countries’ underdevelopment. This traditional institutional explanation, built mainly on case studies in European countries, offers a helpful but incomplete framework for analyzing current conditions in Nigeria. It is deficient due to Nigeria’s unique human geography, colonial history, and resource endowment.

To remedy this weakness in institutional models, Jeffrey Herbst makes two key arguments about African state formation. First, he identifies population density as the causal factor behind institution building and a source of institutional comparative statics, not institutions themselves. His story is that Europe was scarce in land and high in population, whereas Africa had abundant land and fell short in population. This meant that Africans did not have to wage wars of land seizure or land defense that led to state-making and institution building, alá Charles Tilly. Furthermore, colonization in the name of resource plunder replaced the phase when institution building should have taken place. Colonization was followed by the Cold War in which the Western and Soviet powers were vying for allies in African countries, and this Western or Soviet financial support also replaced what would have been a period of institution building.

In Robert Bates’ state-centric mixed method analysis, he argues that the collapse of the state causes war and then violent political disorder, and not vice versa. The author focuses on what he identifies as the three keys to state failure in Africa aside from the destructive force of colonialism.  The first is ethnic tensions, which are the result of state failure and not of ancient hatreds, and the second is natural resources, which he finds to be a correlate but not a cause of war (as opposed to Collier and Hoeffler, or Fearon and Laitin).  The third cause for failure is a lack of strong democracy, and he maintains that competitive parties are required but not sufficient for order. Lastly, he concludes that public revenues matter more than private income, which is essentially an issue of poverty levels (Bates 2008). Bates and Barzel both think that strongly democratic states have greater productivity because individuals enjoy residual claims, thus giving individuals an incentive to be efficient (Barzel 2002).  Conversely, without rule of law the government keeps residual resources for itself, giving individuals no incentive to be efficient. Propositions by the two can aptly be applied to a reading of Nigeria.

Nigeria’s current economic, political and social conditions are best explained by research on oil politics specifically. For one, the stimied capacity of the state to raise revenues and its growing reliance on powerful interest groups conspire to limit the range of policy choices open to the government, paralyzing the process of institutional development. Thus, most extractive states like Nigeria develop similar institutional frameworks that encourage political leaders to pursue politically painless policy solutions. The end result is an institutionally weak state reliant on oil rents and beholden to rent seekers (Karl 1997).

Some argue that oil revenues interfere with state evolution—the competition for the survival of the fittest country. Most of Europe’s states did not survive because most of them were weak and unorganized; those that still exist today were simply better than the others.  Conversely, all of Africa’s modern states have survived, even bad ones.  Foreign influences and oil revenues has allowed weak states that should have died out continue on (Herbst 2000). Soares de Oliveira claims that oil may very well be the single factor allowing weak African nations to survive despite failing to meet Weberian criteria for stateness. He calls these “successful failed states” because they have immense amounts of money and can at times use ample force, yet are barely functional (with functionality defined by their institutionalization, legitimacy, and degree of rentierism). Their failure is a continuation of politics by other means (Soares de Oliveira 2007, 56).

Such a portrayal of African oil-rich countries accords with that of Scott, who conceives of the state as being an inherently extractive entity (Scott 2009). He adds to the discussion by describing how countries will use resources, e.g. oil revenues, to invent development schemes that inevitably fail because they ignore the complexity of practices, processes, and relations present in those environments, the value of everyday local knowledge. They continue to push forward these improvement plans because of their ongoing attempts at being more modern, which means greater “stateness” that justifies their own governance (Scott 1998). Oil actually exaggerates the phenomenon that Scott describes by providing almost limited resources. Nigeria has engaged in these modernizing development projects and virtually of them have been a failure.

Resistance (III): The Expansion of Culture—Developing World Movements and Gender

The focus on the cultural dynamics of resistance paved the way for analyses of social movements in the global south and for a focus on mobilization and gender specifically. In a study of the former, Clifford Bob asked what inspires powerful transnational networks to spring up around particular movements. He aimed to demonstrate that hard calculations of costs and benefits in the competitive marketplace for recognition and aid appear to outweigh sympathy and emotion in determining which of the world’s myriad of oppressed groups profit from globalization (Bob 2005). The book underscores the elements of competition over cooperation, interest over principle, and strategic and structural advantage over the justice of a group’s cause. Paradoxically though, his “global civil society approach” notes the emergence of principled forces arrayed against various injustices. These principled forces play a large part in the story of transnational advocacy networks (TANs).

In their grounded theory study, Keck and Sikkink concentrated on these TANs, groups often omitted from traditional social movement research, that have proliferated across the globe.  In some ways their narrative is rationalist in nature. TANs use techniques such as information politics and leverage politics. They engage in creative use of strategic information and are employed by NGOs in sophisticated political strategies for their campaigns.  On the other hand, they also employ culturally symbolic politics and accountability politics. They all have principled ideas at their core as well as the belief that individuals can make a difference. TANS often advocate for purely moral causes that are not their own and causes in which they, at least initially, don’t have much of a stake. Furthermore, the authors point out that the biggest challenge to the environmental movement is lack of a “face of victimhood” while the greatest strength of gender-based violence movements is that there is an instinctive, transcultural repugnance of “practices that result in bodily harm to vulnerable individuals” (Keck & Sikkink 1998, 195). In other words, activists attract outside participants and supporters partly by globalizing their rhetoric to make it seem as sweeping as possible rather than particular and contingent (Jasper 1997, 292). So, although Keck and Sikkink cited rationalist scholars such as Tilly and Tarrow, their account is largely cultural.

Fully embedded in the cultural camp, Sally Merry has emphasized the “translation” necessary for gender violence activists navigating both international law and their local communities in the developing world. NGO workers must frame their issues in a manner acceptable to global north donors at world conferences, legal hearings, briefings, and UN meetings, all while speaking in the lingua franca of international human rights, English. Additionally however, activists must then “translate” those same global human rights laws into local social movements and rights awareness through cultural transformation and mother tongue communication (Merry 2006).


Along with the research on social movements outside the West, gender has come to the fore as an important dimension of social movements studies. Espoused by Bahati Kuumba, Susan Staggenborg, and Verta Taylor, this lens assumes that gender is a basic organizing principle in human society and that gender roles, relations, and inequalities impact social processes in complex ways. The power, resource, and status differentials between women and men in broader social structures like economies and political systems, as well as in individual lives, must be taken account at each stage of the social movement analysis. Furthermore, it assumes that gender interacts with other systems of stratification, such as race, ethnicity and sexuality, which mediate the institutional context, organizations, and collective identities and strategies of movements (Taylor 1999, 26). Social movement outcomes can be both liberating and subordinating for women at the same time.  Gender hierarchy is so persistent that, even in movements that purport to be gender-inclusive, the mobilization, leadership patterns strategies, ideologies, and even the outcomes of social movements are gendered (Taylor 1999, 9). Sites of resistance can also be sites of exclusion, such as when many women were left out of anti-apartheid struggles (Meth 2010).

To this end, there is now increased emphasis not only on the role women in social movements, but also of non-Western women as well.  Ifi Amadiume shifts the discussion of social movements from the usual gender-neutral state-civil society paradigm (alá Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject) to the concept of women’s anti-power, anti-state movements. In other words, these are political struggles which are not out to wrest power from anyone, but simply to defend and maintain their autonomy. African women’s movements have been a perfect example of these anti-power efforts, struggling against domination and violation without seeking to take power or resources from others. Women have struggled to defend their autonomous organizations, as well their structures or systems of self-rule since the colonial era and continue to do so today (Amadiume in Mamdani & Wamba-dia-Wamba 1995, 35-60).

Women’s unique forms of mobilizations have only recently been the subject of increased study. Overall, the rationalist explanations for resistance strategies that focus on structure and opportunity ignore the largely female ways of mobilizing that include grassroots networking and organizing people (Christiansen-Ruffman 1995). The dominant literature has gendered the political as “male,” emphasizing the importance of top-down speech-making over organizational bridging, that latter of which is more common in women’s activism (Robnett 1997). When women are political in their own ways it is viewed by academics and laypeople alike as “working for their communities” and not using conscious political tactics. Tarrow argues that politics of order (non-violent sit-ins) and disorder (roadblocks) are women-friendly while politics of violence are male and this has been overlooked (Kuumba 2001).

Four scholars claim that regardless of how women choose to mobilize, their best chance for organization always comes after a conflict.  Conflicts are politically empowering to women because women do not have as many male incumbents to contend with since many of those men have fallen to violence.  Conflict also offers women an opportunity to mobilize on one side of the struggle and thus empowers them, and women are not willing to give this up just because the conflict has ended. Moreover, in post-conflict environments, Western international donations go up and with those the pressure to include women in politics increases as well. Their last explanation is long recognized in the work on post-WWII gender dynamics: women take up men’s business roles in conflict and want to protect those business interests during peace as well (Tripp, Casimiro, Kwesiga, Mungwa 2009).

For an excellent perspective on The Women’s Colloquium in Liberia, the only African country with a female head of state, please see:

Resistance (II): A Cultural and More Emotive Perspective

A change in rationalist modeling of how resistance functions was preceded by those espousing a more cultural and emotive perspective at least a decade earlier. The first cultural analysis to emerge on the framing of resistance movements was not incompatible with notions of opportunities. This stressed the effort that goes into symbols creation, establishment of solidarity, and portrayal of grievances. Framing, including identity shaping, is an important process that determines who joins a movement based on whether issues resonate with potential recruits, the media, outside leaders, and the public at large. Acknowledging that framing was a central dynamic in understanding social movements, Benford and Snow focused on how collective action frames have been conceptualized, framing dynamics and processes, contextual factors that constrain and facilitate framing, as well as framing outcomes (Benford and Snow 2000). They later agreed with Oliver and Johnston that frames and ideology are definitionally and analytically distinct entities that merit studying in their own right, and that the relationship between frames and ideology needs to be elaborated further. Snow argued for the study of identity frames as both dependent and independent variables, as well as stressed the dearth of scholarship on frame transformation and diffusion of identities (Snow in Snow, Soule, & Kriesi 2004, 391).

Framing and identity activation are culturally contingent, and culture is now widely accepted as being key to understanding social movements. For one, identities may be taken for granted, but in other instances activists must convince recruits of their cultural identity to get them to join, or those identities may be culturally constructed during the movement (Goodwin & Jasper 2003, 103). James Jasper has been prolific in linking culture and emotion. He writes about “the satisfactions of protest that derive from highly emotional, often ritualistic, collective activities.  These are some of the most striking achievements of a movement, a vibrant culture that gives participants a strong sense of movement identity, and internal movement practices that yield immense solidarity.” Protestors can care about reinforcing their subculture and networks as much as about their publicly stated, instrumental goals (Jasper 1997, 209). This identity activation and formation is both a cultural and emotional experience for many mobilizers.

It is so strong in fact, that such emotions can even overcome challenges to resource mobilization and can be much stronger impetuses than traditional political opportunities for getting a movement started (Jasper 1997, 292). Emotions also answer the question of why individuals continue in a social movement when it becomes clear they could quit and become a free-rider (Goodwin & Jasper 2004).

Interestingly, Francesa Polletta has argued that even structures are in part cultural. Past literature has tended to see culture as subjective, malleable, and enabling of protest, as being mobilized by the powerless to challenge structure. All of these have been described as being opposite of the political structure model, but should not be. Culture shapes our perception of reality and therefore our behavior, which in turn shapes social movements. Aspects of culture such as collective memory, perception of state repressive capacity and legitimacy, and personal identity give form to collective action. Culture helps activists to discern possible strategies for mobilization, e.g. what strategies would be socially acceptable or not (Polletta in Goodwin & Jasper 2004, 97-109).

A James Jasper talk:

Resistance (1): An Economic Perspective

An analytically sound assessment of Niger Delta politics would take not only the oil state and law into account, but the vast body of literature on resistance as well.  Initially, social movements were largely regarded as being unpredictable mobs of emotional rioters, which has clearly proved not to be the case. In 1965, Mancur Olson brought economic rationality to the subject by arguing that individuals are self-maximizers who will mobilize once the potential benefits outweighs the high costs, in other words, when there are enough “selective incentives.” Although his account failed to explain how large groups with a higher mobilization costs than small groups still manage to organize, and failed to solve the “free-rider” problem, his seminal work inspired subsequent social movement theory by posing important questions about the conditions that determine both the degree of groups’ mobilization and how individuals decide to join.


In the following decade, Resource Mobilization Theory was first ushered in by Mayer Zald and John McCarthy who agreed with Olson’s economic view but focused on the rational nature of organizations rather than individuals.  Social movement organizations (SMOs) were described as business firms that utilized political and financial resources in competition with other SMOs (Zald & McCarthy 1979, Introduction). These scholars, joined by Charles Tilly, Jo Freeman, and Gary Marx, stressed the importance of movements seizing political openings provided by the state or elites. They all argued that the best way to understand collective behavior is to study how social movement organizations acquire and use resources, and that most of these resources comes from elite “sponsors,” e.g. churches, labor unions, NGOs, etc. In this model, there is little emphasis on the individual participants and long-term actions are not accounted for. There is also not a clear definition of “resources” and there is an obfuscation of the concept of grievances. There is difference between objective social conditions and their subjective perception, and this difference is not clarified (McAdam 1999, Introduction).

Political Process Theory first emerged in the 1970s to focus on the interaction between mobilizers and the state, while emphasizing the foremost role of political opportunities in explaining and when and how a social movement operates. Doug McAdam and Sidney Tarrow (a student of Charles Tilly) continued to adhere to rationalist interpretations of social movements, but saw movements as part of normal politics. In this model, it was not just the movement against the state, but the movement being influenced by and responding to the state. Three factors were seen as crucial to the generation of social resistance: level of organization within the aggrieved population (“organizational readiness”), collective assessment of the prospects for success (“insurgent consciousness”), and the political alignment of groups within the larger political environment (“opportunity structure”). Contrary to the previous school of thought, advocates of PPT saw that some resources can be detrimental to a movement and they de-emphasized the importance of elites (McAdam 1999, Introduction). This was better than previous paradigms for analyzing long-run political contexts over time as well as demographic or migratory shifts in mobilization. However, Goodwin and Jasper charge that the theory has been stretched too thin to cover too many cases, and has thus lost analytic potency.  Plus, it suffers from selection bias in choice of cases and ignores the fact that social ties may constrain as well as encourage activism (Goodwin & Jasper 1999).

Tarrow's Power in Movement

Tarrow’s Power in Movement

Several publications that include work on “framing” demonstrate that the economic explanations, namely Resource Mobilization Theory and Political Process Theory are still strong but not necessarily dominant. In 1996, McAdam, McCarthy and Zald published a compilation of comparative essays with three sections. The first two, on political opportunities and mobilizing structures, the nuts and bolts of their perspective, are unsurprising topics of study for them. However, the third section on framing demonstrates that rationalists had to contend with the scholarship on the newer cultural and emotive accounts of social movements. Sidney Tarrow’s Power in Movement argued that contention is more closely dependent on the POS than by the persistent social or economic factors that people experience. These opportunities, he wrote, depend on state strength, prevailing strategies, and repressive capacity. However, he too included work on framing. Then in 2001, McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly, traditional structuralists, engaged in a theoretical reorientation of their past work and even pointed out its inadequacies (McAdam, Tarrow, & Tilly 2001). They admitted that political opportunities, master frames, and structures offer a static view of movements that are unable to deal with the transforming and contingent nature of variables. Their newer emphasis in this comparative study was on mechanisms and processes.

Gender Essentialism (Part III)

When is it not in women’s best interest to embrace the motherhood frame to propel forward female protests? The problem with this essentialism in resistance is that it may compromise an ideological tenant for a pragmatic one. By definition, essentializing must simplify the experiences and forms of knowledge of participants in resistance, and thus inevitably omit those that are outliers. It is tempting to suspend a commitment to including individual needs if it means substantively furthering a cause beneficial to the subaltern group as a whole; it may serve as a means to an end.  Tangible gains for social movements through the use of strategic essentialism may not outweigh the ideological costs of its use.

It can be problematic for a social movement to use this maternal identity as the basis for political authority, as it excludes those who are not mothers and confines participants to the mothering role.  As Tripp, Casimiro, Kwesiga, and Mungwa (2009) describe it, “their roles may limit them to [only] that of mother. It also associates women’s participation with what many consider a natural role rather than agency and choice. It may prevent women from entering into politics on an equal basis with men if the focus is on their roles as mothers”. Additionally, such a tendency simplifies the variation in women’s lives.

In the Delta context, for example, the role of chiefs’ wives in resistance is very different from that of non-elite female farmers. Elite wives must navigate a different social terrain, in which their husbands may be using them to influence the actions of women in the community or, conversely, in which they may be able to exercise an unusual amount of autonomy. The princess of * told me, “My grandfather was founder of * [so] no, I cannot really go to protest, but I can tie my wrapper and turn it upside down to protest when I want in my house”.  Farmers, on the other hand, may act with more freedom since they are not royalty or, conversely, their positions may mean they don’t have the resources or social capital to behave as autonomously as an elite woman.  So, not only must one eschew gender essentialism and cultural essentialism but also socioeconomic or any other essentialism that discounts the variations in the ways that women experience society based on their economic, educational, or marital status.

One of the disadvantages of mothering as a frame can be found in a paradox: being mothers can justify women’s presence but, once they are engaged, then it constricts their actions within the movement. As an illustration, a majority of the two dozen female protesters I spoke with at Occupy Nigeria reported that their husband or a male organizer had directed them to come.  None of them had made their own signs or banners. They all said that they would not return to protest for another day. They didn’t take up the bullhorn as often, nor did they chant very loudly, and they marched together in back of the procession behind the men. If women were not choosing to protest on their own, or were not exercising autonomy during protest, then it presents a paradox: Motherhood is their justification for public engagement, yet that same gender construct constrains their independent participation within that space of engagement. So, in all, the maternal frame offers the contradiction of empowering women to demonstrate while also possibly limiting their chance for success.


Gender Essentialism (Part II)

Mother protesting in Jos, Nigeria

Mothers protesting in Jos, Nigeria

Women across sub-Saharan Africa, not just the Niger Delta, have used the motherhood trope in both formal and informal mobilizations, engaging in what Molyneux (1985) has termed “combative motherhood” to justify and frame their resistance. Formerly apolitical mamas from rural Kenya marched through Nairobi and then disrobed to demand the release of their sons from political imprisonment, acting on principles of care and justice and strategically employed motherhood. Ivorian women marched through Abidjan to speak out against the violence of the Gbagbo regime and, later, to force peace talks in order to end the civil war there in 2011. Aya Virginie Toure, the leader of the “One Thousand Women March” in 2011, remarked that they were just marching as their mothers had done when their fathers had been imprisoned under colonial rule, and that mothers make the best last resort in resistance (Bannister, 2011). In Nigeria, Maryam Babangida’s Better Life for Rural Women and Maryam Abacha’s Family Economic Advancement Program placed women within the role of wife and mother, thus arguing that government policies aimed at helping women should focus on their ability to financially provide for their families. In the Niger Delta protests, women’s main grievance was that companies had not offered enough employment to the women’s sons. During my observations of protests, women also regularly chanted that they couldn’t afford to provide “chop,” i.e. food, to their children and that their babies were sick because of environmental damage.

Aya Virginia Toure, leader of the Thousand Women March

Aya Virginia Toure, Ivorian leader of the “One Thousand Women March”

This essentialization of female identity (see previous post) can be a benefit for protesting women in that it draws upon the one ability that men can never have—bearing children. Discursive exploitation of motherhood can give women an edge as they attempt to enter male-dominated political space. It can reify their collective identity as they attempt to come together in resistance and can help bridge cross-ethnic or cross-religious boundaries. It can place a burden on power holders to respect protesting women enough to listen. For example, Congolese women convened inattentive male negotiators to see a play depicting the suffering the civil war had caused the country’s children, “humbling” the men into returning to the negotiating table. Essentialization of motherhood may also be embraced because it appears to be an indigenous frame of resistance in a way that the contemporary human rights paradigm, often viewed as Western, is not.

Additionally, embracing this gender construct protects female protesters from the repressive violence that men experience. The maternal frame adopted by groups demanding information on the disappearances of loved ones in El Salvador, Argentina, and Guatemala protected them from the extreme violent repression that was prevalent against dissidents in those countries in the 1970s and 1980s. Likewise, the Federation of South African Women used their motherhood as a shield from violence during their work with the anti-pass campaigns of the 1950s.

Nigerian women have voiced the belief that soldiers are less likely to fire upon or use violence against women, especially mamas.  An interviewee said that in the Niger Delta, “Army and police will start beating and shooting people. It is only the women that they will not do that to, but the men they will beat and some will die”. They have demonstrated that by bringing children to sit-ins, holding green leaves, wearing their wrappers upside-down, and baring their breasts, they use their motherhood as both a conduit for their demonstrations and as a shield through which they may protect themselves from violence. This protection then extends to men who are engaged in gender-mixed demonstrations, which is a significant reason that elite men in the Niger Delta have encouraged women’s participation in resistance. Celestine Akpobari, a local NGO Director, described how, during Saro-Wiwa’s movement, “[FOWA] women began to stay at the front of demonstrations because of the belief that the military wouldn’t shoot women” (2/9/2012).

Although the motherhood identity may seem to empower women towards greater political engagement, it can also be a constricting force as well, as described in Gender Essentialism (Part III).

Demonstrators protest in Warri, Nigeria in 2005. The protesters demonstrated against what they claim to be the shooting death of activists and demanded that ChevronTexaco implement the July 17, 2002 Memorandum of Understanding and threatened to carry out more protest on ChevronTexaco oil facilities if their demands are not met.

Demonstrators protest in Warri, Nigeria in 2005. The protesters demonstrated against what they claim to be the shooting death of activists and demanded that ChevronTexaco implement the July 17, 2002 Memorandum of Understanding and threatened to carry out more protest on ChevronTexaco oil facilities if their demands are not met.

Gender Essentialism (Part I)

An encyclopedia entry of mine, “gender essentialism,” was just published in the Encyclopedia of Diversity and Social Justice (2015) by Rowman & Littlefield. The entry stemmed from my research on the motherhood trope common in African women’s protests. During Occupy Nigeria in January 2012, women’s reverberating chants were always about needing jobs to provide for their children, or how they needed oil spills cleaned up so they could grow food for their children.  They regularly framed their resistance in terms of their role as mothers, thus essentializing their gender and their role in the resistance. Here is the text of the encyclopedia entry to offer further background:

Gender essentialism is the view that people have inherent and immutable personal characteristics based on their sex, and that these characteristics give rise to gender-specific experiences. This notion is often linked with the “difference” model of feminism (contrast with the “equality” or “social constructivist” model), both of which posit that fundamental dissimilarities between men and women explain their material and social differences.  Some gender essentialists may argue that women are naturally more peaceful, nurturing, communicative, and moral than men, thereby affecting their personal relationships and careers. Other essentialists focus on women’s shared social conditions rather than their attributes, and emphasize their marginalization within the economy and family unit, e.g. the gender wage gap. More specifically, some essentialists find that women’s childbearing alone fundamentally defines their social role and status.

Gender essentialism has been espoused by those who wish to undergird and explain role differentials among men and women, as well as by gender-equality activists wishing to create solidarity among women. The latter claim that certain generalizations can be made about “womanhood,” “motherhood,” and “the family,” and that these serve to further global standards for the status of women. Gayatri Spivak unintentionally began a movement towards “strategic essentialism” when she speculated that marginalized groups may find it advantageous to temporarily act as if their identities are stable and homogenous in order to achieve their political goals.

In response to essentialism, anti-essentialists maintain that all aspects of gender are socially constructed. Particular contexts create the class, race, and cultural differences among women’s interests. They charge that essentialism is marred by ahistorical, racist, classist, and heterosexist elements. Postmodern and particularly Black feminists emphasize that every perspective is socially situated, and charge that essentialists fail to see the “intersectionality” of discrimination.  Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, the study of “intersectionality” examines how biological, social, cultural, and economic categories interact on multiple levels in order to create inequality; intersectionality is at odds with gender essentialism. Some Postcolonial/Third World feminists have charged that, in trying to avoid gender essentialism, anti-essentialists have in turn actually engaged in a form of “cultural essentialism,” defining women’s identities and experiences not by their gender but rather by their nationality or culture.”

The encyclopedia can be found on google books.