Facebook, story-telling and the struggle for gender equality in Nigeria

PhD research student, Sijuade Yusuf, is investigating how the use of storytelling on Facebook is one of the tools being used to empower women and build gender equality in Nigeria.

Sijuade is from Nigeria and having had first-hand experience of sex discrimination there, including sexual harassment, she began to use social media to describe her experiences. She soon found that this opened a door for other women to share their stories.

“Nigeria persists with a very specific set of rules around gender roles, which are binary and explicitly delineated. For example, domestic work is seen as solely the responsibility of women, while finance is entirely a male endeavour. Then there is the concept that it is the man who fulfils the role of breadwinner, despite the fact that many women are the primary breadwinners for their families.

“In spite of their role, these women are not accorded the status of breadwinner. So, whereas as man, in the role of breadwinner, knows that this means when he gets home from work he has completed his tasks for the day, a female breadwinner would still be expected to carry out all the domestic tasks of the home – cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundry and so on. ‘My wife belongs in the kitchen,’ is a phrase that you hear a lot in Nigeria and it’s seen as okay. This is just one form of inequality among many, within all aspects of Nigerian life – family, social, education, work and even access to technology.

“For some time, and through my earlier research for my master’s degree, I have been studying and interacting with the inequality stories of Nigerian women from all walks of life, through Facebook. These stories range from the domestic situations described above to extreme beliefs, situations and behaviour, such as Boko Haram and their kidnapping of schoolgirls in an attempt to stop the education of women and girls.

“Through storytelling, women are finding a voice, which is empowering and can lead to material change in gender equality. They can do this via Facebook because it is a safer space and more accessible than physical spaces for addressing cultural narratives about gender identities, as well as ethnic, religious and other identities.

The method – making research personal

“I’ve recently completed the pilot stage of my research. Firstly, I needed to find women to take part in the project. I did this through a combination of methods. I created a video, where people could see me talking about my work, as using this medium to explain the project makes it seem personal. Potential participants could see that I was a woman with a range of experiences, just like them, and not a faceless academic. The personal nature of sharing experiences through stories has been an essential component from the outset. I also created a flyer and encouraged shares between Facebook users to reach as many potential participants as possible.

“The next stage was observing the Facebook activity of participants – their posts, comments, shares, likes and so forth. This took place over a two month period. I then used this data to create interview questions, in order to explore four key areas of my research, namely:

1. With extant post-colonial feminism discourse, what do sub-Saharan Africa women describe as gender inequalities in everyday life?

2. To what extent does engaging on Facebook equip sub-Saharan African women with an identity that is different from dominant public expectation on gender roles?

3a. In what ways do women make use of social media platforms, such as Facebook to gain a voice?

3b.  How does Facebook engagement empower sub-Saharan African women to articulate themselves, challenge gender inequality and prevailing gender roles?

4. What part does Facebook play in the construction of persons and roles in the process of social change?

“I then interviewed participants. As the interviews and my research progressed, it became clear that storytelling was the dominant element of the feminist discourse within Facebook. What also became apparent was that through storytelling on Facebook, women were subconsciously shifting their identities and finding power.

Finding empowerment through shifting identities

“Through telling and sharing stories, the way in which the women saw themselves began to change, moving towards a position of greater empowerment. Quite often, those stories and conversations wouldn’t begin from an overtly feminist perspective.

“Feminism as a term is not something that’s talked about in Nigeria. It’s seen as a Western concept, and a type of rebellion that is not a good trait. Women don’t want to have the label of ‘feminist’, even when their beliefs, conversation and activism is feminist, because of the connotations of the word. During my research, I’ve had to avoid using words like ‘feminism’ and ‘patriarchy’ to describe actions that are fighting injustice and inequality, because these terms are seen negatively.

“Some of the conversations and shared stories are started simply to have a good laugh. The subject matter doesn’t always have to be serious or challenging. But within this open, relaxed setting, challenging conversations and stories come up. The message begins as one form of identity but during the course of the interview other parts of that identity are discovered and revealed.

“Now that the pilot stage of my research is complete, I am building on what I’ve learned to create a larger study, using the same format, but with a greater number of participants. Analysis of my pilot study informed a new focus and questions, based on storytelling, namely:

  1. How are feminists engaging in gender inequality issues in Nigeria?
  2. How is storytelling used in the narrative of feminist ideas to look at issues of gender on social media?
  3. What aspects of the Facebook platform are best used to narrate and explore feminist possibilities and identities?
  4. What is the relationship between feminist storytelling and identity production?

I’m currently in the process of designing recruitment materials to ensure a wide selection of Nigerian women take part.

From stories to action

“As women’s ideas and identities change and grow through sharing stories, so does the impact on their daily lives. The women taking part don’t necessarily see themselves as taking part in liberal feminism. They’re focussed on trying to help other women to achieve things such as start a business or get a bank loan. In this way, through these Facebook stories and conversations, women can empower each other. Through that sharing of knowledge, alongside the building of more empowered identities, real-world change can happen to build greater and lasting equality for women in Nigeria.”


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