Last week, I overheard a woman pray for a baby girl. She concluded her deluge of prayers with “You will be great. You will be the wife of a president”. The final point of her prayer struck me as retrogressive. Here was a woman inadvertently placing a limit on the potential that the baby girl could reach. The highest this baby girl could be in life was the wife of the President? The first thought that came into my head was “why can’t this baby girl be the President herself?”. I realized that I’ve rarely heard a female Nigerian child aspire to be the President of Nigeria, CEO, Inspector General of Police, etc: all roles of leadership which have been dominated by male figures. Unfortunately, such a mindset propagates from the highly sexist culture which ensures a dearth of true female role models who are successful without being married or more famous/successful than their male spouse.
In the woman’s statement was a form of discrimination that’s prevalent in Nigeria. Lacking an established word for it, I coined it as ‘wifeism’. Wifeism is the belief that a woman’s solely exists in life to please her husband at the detriment of her development. I’d also like to define it as discrimination on women based on marital status. Its psychological and economic significance has an interesting intertwining that makes its effects range from subtlety to outright suppressive.
On the psychological front, the effect on a woman is subtle, but decisively potent. Wifeism places a psychological ceiling on the mind. In a society where the greatness of a woman is solely measured by the greatness of the man she marries, such barriers exist. Subconscious barriers that attempt to limit women do so by emphasizing the false limits of their potentials based on gender. A study showed that when psychological barriers are clear, people perform worse than they would otherwise. Spencer, Steele, and Diane Quinn (1999) found that merely telling women that a math test does not show gender differences improved their test performance. The researchers gave a math test to men and women after telling half the women that the test had shown gender differences, and telling the rest that it found none. When test administrators told women that that tests showed no gender differences, the women performed equal to men. Those who were told the test showed gender differences did significantly worse than men, just like women who were told nothing about the test. And, by the way, the experiment was conducted with women who were top performers in math.
Apart from psychological limitations, wifeism has significant economic consequences. First, the potential for financial instability abounds in the most extreme of cases where a woman is coerced into having a full time job as a housewife. As any Economist worth his/her salt can tell you, resources diversification should be the goal of any country. It ensures that a nation does not ‘put all its eggs in one basket’. Likewise, dependence on one family member creates an inordinate amount of instability. And in the event of the death or lay off of the husband, the rest of the family suffers immensely.
Second, wifeism limits the amount of disposable income in the family. Disposable income provides for the children’s clothes, education and healthcare. So limiting disposable income essentially limits the financial security and potential of such a family. Now multiply that by the numbers of such families in Nigeria and it’s clearly a huge hit to Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Potential (GDP*).
Third, the extreme case of wifeism contributes to the unemployment rate. In certain places in Nigeria, despite a woman’s academic or professional achievements, her professional life is over once she’s married. For women that are nonchalant, c’est la vie. For those that desire to keep working, this not only constrains them, it arbitrarily adds them to the unemployment figure. It’s why stats like this exist in Nigeria: 8 female Senators out of 109 Senators, 23 female Honorable members out of 360 Members. Appalling statistics.
Fourth, it leads to the deliberate suppression of a woman’s professional potential. Single women who deserve promotions based on merit are passed due to an individual’s belief that they are not ‘responsible’ enough to handle a higher position. A woman can be immensely successful, but a ‘Miss’ at the front of her name disqualifies her from the respect she deserves. Yeah…because marriage is the sole indicator of success or criteria for respect in the life of a woman.
I’m not advocating that women in marriage neglect their roles as wives and deem it as unimportant or that single women should sacrifice marriage for their profession. On the contrary, there should be an desire to see oneself as a wife and a professional (well, except one prefers to be a professional wife or a single professional). Why be great in one aspect when you can be great in both? Is this possible? Yes. I would know- my mom manages to be an amazing wife and a renown public figure. In my opinion, a woman’s potential to effectively manage a family and job surpasses that of a man.
Lastly, no one else can push harder for the progress of women than women themselves. It’s a simple case of personal incentives. And yes, there are paternalistic structures that hold women back, and it’s hard to break down centuries of male dominance. However, when Nigerian women give up and submit to their ‘natural’ roles, the fight will certainly be over. So women, let’s destroy this culture of wifeism by not supporting repressive notions of marriage. And men, let’s support our women. Every time women are held back, we are collectively held back. I know for a certain that I’ll constantly be rooting for my future wife just like my Dad did for my Mom.