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, 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.