Shamsiyya (not her real name) is a 27-year-old computer programmer who dreams of doing big things with her skills and is putting in the effort to achieve that.
Originally from Nigeria’s Northwestern region, she is from a very religious Islamic family, with conservative views they insist she follows, and even her decision to take a job in Abuja was an affront to that authority over her.
“I grew up as a very ambitious lady, and when the time came for decision-making, it became a tug of war since all that I wanted to be was not close to what they all expected.” Later, she was able to reconcile with her family.
Soon, she was shocked to discover that the battle with her family was not the worst she would face. As she progressed in life and shared her milestones on social media, an army of sometimes anonymous men and women attributed what she had achieved to sex work.
“This started on social media when I shared pictures of myself travelling and having fun with my friends,” Shamsiyya said,
Every post she made had a deluge of comments of ‘ashawo’ under it. “I cannot count the number of times I have read and heard these words,” she said.
Shamsiyya’s story is not peculiar in Nigeria but mirrors the experiences of many successful women who have chosen to put themselves in public.
Why the tag?
“Ashawo” is a Nigerian pidgin slang that means “prostitute” or “sex worker”. It is a derogatory term often used to slut shame and demean women who engage in commercial sex work. The term is used widely in Nigeria and other West African countries.
The tagging of women as “ashawo” has one purpose, to undermine their achievements and discredit their character. This reinforces not only gender stereotypes but also perpetuates harmful attitudes towards women.
And there are no women immune to this. Recently, a Twitter user posted pictures of Dr Betta Edu, the national women’s leader of the ruling All Progressive Congress or APC, visiting the State House to see the president. One user described Betta, a pioneer Director General of the Cross River Primary Health Care Development Agency and a one-time commissioner of health in the state, as the “head of oloshos” to the president.
In a medium article, Dr Ola Brown, founder of the investment firm, Health Cap Africa, wrote, “Men often use the ‘ashawo card’ when they are talking about women that intimidate them professionally and financially.” He added that men who slut shame women do so because “it makes him feel more secure about the many Nigerian women that he sees across the country outperforming, out-hustling and out-learning him every single day.”
The above is close to the truth. Successful women are often seen as defying societal expectations, as many cultures expect them to prioritise their roles as wives and mothers above all else. Any deviation from this norm is considered inappropriate or immoral and an insult to the matrix. These have been applied to Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, Stella Oduah, and any other woman who has dared to step out into the limelight.
There is a need for all to do better. We must all reject the derogatory language and promote respectful communication that recognises all individuals’ inherent worth and dignity, irrespective of their gender or any other characteristic. This will create safer spaces for everyone and foster an environment of mutual respect and understanding.