The Original Pussy Riot

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In junior secondary, we learnt about the Aba Women’s Riots.  About how women drew on their strength and protested buck naked in the face of the colonials.  They were full of defiance and determination.  I admired them like crazy.

This wasn’t a mad overprivileged excuse to go topless.  It was a more sophisticated form of feminism than the 21st Century rage.  Why?  They went to war to defend their husbands, children, land and culture – not just the female agenda.  They accomplished something the men could not do and brought the colonials to heel.

Prior to colonial rule, women in what is now eastern Nigeria were forces to be reckoned with in market places and had influence in traditional government, especially the elite. The word ‘government’ is used in the loosest of terms. Compared to what we (officially) have today, there was no clear system of rulership. Decisions were made by agreement between different social groups and elders in a community.

The British didn’t like this. When they arrived, the colonials couldn’t understand the system and dismissed it as chaos. It was difficult to know who held the keys.  So, they rewrote the political structure, overlooking the role of women in the process.  The women brewed.

The British were desperately broke after World War I and needed to counter the losses somehow.  In 1929, there were whispers in the air of an expansion to the colonial taxation scheme to include market women.  Taxes had previously been imposed on the men and their wives were already burdened with helping them meet payments to a foreign power. For women, from Aba to Calabar, that was the last straw. They went to war.

Contrary to popular belief, wars don’t have to be fought with guns and machetes. The British had appointed warrant chiefs, local men, to be their puppets in the traditional government.  The women would ‘sit’ on these men: singing, dancing, following them everywhere they went, tearing the warrant chiefs’ to shreds with their words until the men couldn’t take anymore and resigned from their positions.  When threatened, the women would take their clothes off to show they meant business.

By the end of the year, dozens of women were killed by authorities; but their deaths were not in vain.  The colonials surrendered and the war ended with women being appointed as warrant chiefs. Thus, their voices were heard once more in government.

Somehow, between 1929 and 2019, our voices got lost under the thunderous laughter of a potbellied parliament.  Nigerian women need to remember where they come from.  Remember what we can achieve when we’re not, according to the president, “in the kitchen or the other room”.

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