By Asma’u Joda & Iheoma Obibi

Grace Ushang was a young Nigerian woman who had every right to expect a bright future. Now she is dead merely because she was female. On the day that Nigeria celebrated its 49th Independence Anniversary on 1 October 2009, NEXT Newspaper reported that Ms. Ushang from Obudu in Cross River State, a member of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) serving in Maiduguri, Borno State, was raped to death by some men still at large, who, according to the story, “took offence because she was wearing her Khaki trousers – the official uniform of the youth corpers.”

The cavalier brutality of this morbid tale of criminal vigilante action is compounded by the official response to it. The Director-General of the NYSC reportedly travelled to Maiduguri ostensibly to discuss this crime with the State’s law enforcement authorities. Rather than denounce this for the crime that it is and reassure our young graduates on national service that their wellbeing preoccupies the highest levels of decision making, the Director-General merely advised Youth Corpers to “take their personal security seriously because whatever we provided is not enough. They must learn to be security-conscious.” Pray, how?

The compounded crimes that killed Grace Ushang painfully return our attention to the pervasiveness of violence against women in Nigeria and the growing resort to vigilante action to police vague notions of feminine propriety and decency.

In 2008, the Chairperson of the Nigerian Senate’s Committee on Women, Senator Ufot Ekaette introduced a bill in the Senate to prohibit so called “indecent dressing”. At the public hearing on the Bill in July 2008, there was a consensus that its provisions portended great danger for the safety and security of Nigerian women. The Bill proposes to grant intolerably dangerous powers of arrest and invasion of the most intimate privacies of the woman’s body imaginable to both police officers and ordinary citizens to undertake vigilante action against women they merely perceive to be “indecently dressed”.

Senator Ekaette’s Bill covers any female above 14 years wearing a dress that exposes “her breast, laps, belly and waist… and any part of her body from two inches below her shoulders downwards to the knee” (such as the much-admired Fulani milk maid). Also liable to become a criminal if this Bill were to become law is any person dressed in “transparent” fabric (such as Lace) as well as men who expose any part of their bodies between the waist and the knee (such as men relieving themselves by the roadside). All these people and more would presumably attract arrest from zealous policemen. If this Bill becomes law, there will not be enough prisons or mortuaries in Nigeria for its victims. It will licence vigilante violence against women, leading to fatalities like the fate that befell Grace Ushang.

Grace Ushang’s story demonstrates the fallacy of the justifications for laws like the Senator Ekaette’s Indecent Dressing Bill. Those who wish to commit crimes of sexual violence need no excuse. They must be treated like the predators they are. If a woman, like Grace Ushang, dressed in regulation clothing prescribed by the Federal Republic of Nigeria is considered to be so indecently dressed as to be put to death by the most vile acts of violence imaginable, how do we guarantee the safety and security of Nigerian women in the uniformed services, such as the Armed Forces, Police, Prisons Service, and Immigration?

The killing of Grace Ushang is part of a pattern of violence against women that deserves urgent attention across borders in this year of the 30th Anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). In some countries of Sahelian and East Africa and the Middle East, women who survive rape get put to death for allegedly bringing dis-honour to their families. Or are charged with zina (adultery) as they “have made love”; as any form of sexual intercourse consensual or non consensual, can be translated to mean “love making”.

Only recently in Sudan, Lubna Hussein, a former employee of the United Nations, along with 12 other Sudanese women, were charged with the offence of dressing indecently for wearing trousers. Sudanese law prohibits ‘dressing indecently’ in public. Absurd? Yes, certainly, by Nigerian standards, where no person bats an eyelid at the sight of women in jeans, or in offices, clad in trouser suits – or so we thought until Grace Ushang was raped to death. Sudan’s laws, however, criminalise a woman’s dressing, prescribing lashing and an unlimited fine for any woman ‘in public’ dressed like a ‘man’.

Lubna resigned her employment at the UN, which would have granted her immunity from trial, to compel the courts to take a stand on an issue she feels (quite rightly) should be a matter of public concern, because they impact directly on her human dignity, freedom of choice and privacy. By her action, Lubna placed Sudanese ‘justice’ in the global spotlight and should, hopefully, trigger change in policy and law in that country.

We may not yet have a law that determines what a woman (or man) can wear but there can be no tolerance of the growing tendency towards vigilante enforcement of notions of indecency. Sudan and Nigeria have similar lawmakers it seems. Surely, someone sat down and determined for Sudan, in his opinion, what is permissible as a woman’s choice of dress, and garnered Parliamentary support for his personal belief that wearing trousers was an abomination that should be penalized. In the same manner, some persons in the Nigerian Senate are unilaterally and arbitrarily attempting to decide for Nigerians what should be the acceptable form or mode of ‘dressing’ for women. No account has been taken of the diversity and the culture in both countries, or even of the fact that in African rural settings, women routinely expose much more, without giving a thought to it being ‘indecent’. Nor has there been any reckoning of the effect that this will have on the safety of women.

As Sudan struggles with the implications of its indecent dressing laws, and its courts struggle to find ways around it, Nigeria’s own lawmakers appear bent on imposing these retrograde and potentially explosive laws over here. While they are looking for ways to move forward, our legislators seem determined to throw us back into the past.

Our lawmakers should focus on passing measures that promote human dignity, preclude discrimination, and guarantee human wellbeing. Instead of a law on indecent dressing, they can accord priority to enacting a law to protect all Nigerian women from the wanton violence and ensure that all perpetrators of such violence are brought to justice. As a first step, the Senate should vote down the Indecent Dressing Bill and firmly close any further arguments on it. In its place, and in memory of Grace Ushang, we need a federal law on violence against women. That would be an appropriate way to commemorate the tragedy of her senseless killing.

Asma’u Joda & Iheoma Obibi are on the Steering Committee of the Nigerian Feminist Forum (NFF)


September 1, 2009

To Eudy and Girly and all the sisters whose flame was cowardly extinguished but whose fire lights my soul.

You killed her.

How do I explain this to my child?

People hate that we love women

Their masculinity depends

on our non-existence.

Their whole being is so unsettled

By the mere idea

Of love, pleasure, sex, song and dance between women

Between men, between sheets, behind doors

You don’t understand?

Baby, neither do I.

But, they killed her.

And I see the images of her partner,

Her mother, her people, weeping, mourning.

They killed her.

And I can’t explain it.

We killed her.

And I just can’t explain it.

Sisters scream STOP

The war on our bodies

STOP the violence.

And they are brave

And they are strong.

And they are beautiful.

In their fearlessness, I see vulnerability.

I see pain. I see Black Woman. that I want to keep safe.

And I am scared.

What will you tell my child when they come for me?

It always takes 5 or 6 men to rape, to kill a woman.

Is that your masculinity?

You proved it? You proved that you hide behind others.

You proved you are not man enough to think.

Not man enough to love.

Not man enough even to fight as equals.

You proved our brutality.

This made you a man, my brother?

YOU explain it to my child.

You who is silent.

You who doesn’t like them but,

No, of course, you don’t condone violence.

You who said it is unnatural.

You who just doesn’t have an opinion.

You who thinks God will judge.

You who hides in your closet amongst our bones.

You who thinks that there are more important issues.

You who doesn’t think that my life depends on it.

You who won’t join the scream


And explain this to my child.


August 29, 2009

Israel bombed Gaza. Again.  One morning we woke up to the blinding sight of children’s deaths, of father’s mourning, of mother’s humiliation.  Simply, at a people devastated, being exterminated. And we awoke. Once more.

We responded: the emails flew in, the analysis, the history, the shame, the tears – petitions signed, protestors gathered – youths’ pained scream ‘Palestine’.

But, in the interim, we were silent.  Between the deafening bombs, silence.  Until the bombs, silence.  The Left returns to the next tragedy.  And Obama – the hope – is silent.

And that’s Gaza, the crimes so graphic we can’t ignore. Until it seems that someone has got it.  Someone is addressing it.  The UN, the US administration, peace talks, someone is addressing it. So, now, we can be silent.  The bombs are quieter, the stream of images slow to a blip.  Until, next time.

And what of the Congo [DRC], that we perpetually fail to see? Black children, Black men, Black women. Africans dying is a sight so familiar? What of Zimbabwe? So ashamed are we that ‘anti-imperialism’ is so disgraced?

Well, here we are. And our anger is turned to Obama for ‘failing the people of Gaza’, for not making it all disappear.  But, are we not ashamed by our own amnesia? That we, the people so outraged, can turn a blind eye to occupation so long as it’s not genocidal, not ‘too bad’, that some genocides are more scary than others, that we have run out of alternatives or  are we simply embarrassed at our inadequacy, embarrassed that we don’t seem to be able to make real our vision of change.

Is our comfort so solicitous? Is it so much easier to go on, day to day, than to keep remembering? Are we afraid that the madness, kept in the forefront of our minds, will in fact make each one of us mad?

So we run to Obama – who promised change – like children, hoping.  But, without El Hajj Malik El Shabaaz there would have been no Martin Lurther King (these days we don’t seem to name him –I mean, the ‘preacher from Georgia’) and no dreaming.  So, it is our voice, the voice of perpetual uncompromising resonance, the voice that drowns out sonic booms, that must reverberate at all times, by any and all means necessary.  We can’t afford to ‘sit on our hands’ contemplating ‘our next bold move’. Because, even if we forget, the children’s children in Gaza, the children’s children in DRC, the children’s children in Zimbabwe, in Kenya, in Sudan, on the streets of Oakland, on the reservations of Aztlan, will come to wake us from our nightmare.

Written: 4th February 2009

Another Amadou Diallo

November 30, 2007

The name of Amadou Diallo became known globally when 23 year old Guinean Amadou Diallo was murdered by New York police in a hail of 41 bullets on February 4th, 1999.

His namesake, sixteen year old Amadou Oury Diallo was also killed by agents of the State. This time in the streets of Guinea on the 22nd of January, 2007 as a general strike led by the United Trade Union of Guinean Workers grind the country to a halt. While the death of Amadou Diallo in the streets of Bronx justifiably made headline news around the world and highlighted the police terrorism of Africans in the united states, attention to the uprisings in Guinea that led to the deaths of Amadou Oury Diallo and one hundred and thirty seven other unarmed protesters was but a blimp in the international media.

Yet the general strike in Guinea was historically significant in post-colonial Africa for two reasons:

1.  the strike was the first successful popular uprising and mass mobilisation in both rural and urban areas since independence. Crippling the political elite into acquiescence, the strike, which began in the capital of Conakry, struck a cord throughout the country.  Indeed, as President Conte desperately sought to cling to absolute power by repressing the strike through the extension of martial law, the Guinean parliament defied his request in a show of solidarity with the people and prime minister Kouyate was eventually seated.

2. one of the three union leaders of the strike, Rabiatou Serah Diallo, is an African woman.  Secretary General of the National Confederation of Guinean Workers, the largest trade union in Guinea, Rabiatou Diallo was a prominent figure in the negotiation process marking a new prominence of feminist leadership on the Continent.

As Guinea approaches the first anniversary of the strike, lessons, experiences and the gains of the uprising must be studied and remembered in homage to the victims of the repressive State response to peaceful protesters in Guinea as well as to the victims of State violence globally – in another words, for all the Amadou Diallo’s.