"I don't want any unmarried woman living in my house."
If Nigerian landlords had a motto, that would be it. In Africa’s most vibrant country, old-fashioned views about the place of a woman in society often still rise to the surface, a reality keenly felt by any single woman trying to rent property in Nigeria. Many landlords and property developers, driven by the belief that women cannot—or should not—live outside their father or husband’s house, reject their rent applications.
In 2011, excited by her new banking job in Lagos Island, Jumoke Adegbite set out to find a place close to work. “My parents live in Ibadan, Oyo State, so there was no way I could make the trip from their house every day,” she tells me.
But she never thought her marital status would count against her. “You have to be married to get a space,” she says ruefully, recounting her experience. “I found a mini flat around Lekki Phase I, Lagos, but the two house owners did not want me at first.”
According to Adegbite, the landlords complained that unmarried women were fond of bringing their male friends over. In their view, any woman with too many male visitors was considered promiscuous.
“When they found out that I was not married, they shut me out,” she says. Only 23 years old at the time, Adegbite was grilled about her personal life: Why did she want to live alone? Where were her parents? Why was she unmarried?
Even though she cooperated with the landlords through a process she considered demeaning and discriminating, they remained unconvinced. It took the intervention of her parents, making the trip from Ibadan, to convince the landlords that Adegbite was “decent” enough to rent their property. “The whole process was annoying. It was absurd that I was being scrutinised that much when I showed them I could afford two years rent,” she fumes.
Now 30 years old, and with more experience of the perils of being a woman in Nigeria, Adegbite reminisces on her previous life in the United States. “I moved to the US when I was 17, and getting a place to stay was nothing like this. No one cared whether you were single or not,” she voices. “It was about getting the right documents and the needed down payment.”
The variance between her U.S. and Nigerian experiences is no surprise given the diverging attitudes towards women in each country. Nigeria is a deeply patriarchal nation, where men remain in control of power structures and individual relationships, and discrimination against women is rife and too often culminates in violence.
“This rent issue is a reflection of how Nigerian society views single women, a remnant of the idea that a woman has to be married or under her parents to be seen as decent,” Adegbite says.
But what is wrong with single women?
According to landlords, a lot.
Nigerian society is steeped in cultural and religious beliefs that encourage men to police the activities of women.
Women are often held to higher moral standards than men and are expected to lead a specific lifestyle. Worse, the prevailing view it that they should go straight form their father’s house to their husband’s house, a nice equation that keeps them within the clutches of patriarchy. And if a Nigerian woman chooses to ignore these norms? Well, then she must be a prostitute, or worse, a feminist that no man will marry.
Fola Shittu*, a real estate associate in Lagos, affirms these beliefs about women. “In my office then we had a policy of not renting out properties to single women. To be considered they had to get a male reference or show up with a man,” he tells me over the phone.
Shittu explains that realtors have had many bad experiences with single women which have reinforced the view that they are “bad market”.
“On one occasion, a woman claimed she was married, but her husband was abroad, so she had to live alone. She rented a four bedroom duplex to her in Lekki Phase II,” he begins. “A few months later, during our general inspection, we found out that she had brought in multiple young women to live with her. The neighbours even complained that she had turned the place into a brothel,” he finishes.
According to Shittu, such instances are common and justify why property owners are reluctant to rent their property to single women.
"Women don't have a lot of money"
Some landlords believe that women cannot afford to rent property on their own. In an interview with BBC Africa, Coleman Nwafor, a property owner and landlord said that the bulk of his tenants are men because they have more money than women.
“Most single ladies are under the responsibility of their lover or their parents. You can never tell what will happen after the first year. Every landlord wants a tenant who will pay without stress,” he told the BBC. Again, such statements stem from misguided views about female autonomy, and the persistent notion that a woman operates in relation to a man (most likely her husband). Opinions like this persist despite evidence to the contrary, particularly in major cities where women are as entrepreneurial and active in the workplace as men.
In light of this, some landlords have taken the initiative and are fighting back. Abigail Oritsetimeyin*, a property owner in Gwarinpa, Abuja, specifically targets single women to rent her properties.
“The men I had as tenants actually used to delay in paying their rent. I frequently harassed them for it, so I turned to single working class women instead,” she says.
Oritsetimeyin is irritated by how women are treated by agents and landlords, and believes she is making a statement against patriarchy by making her property exclusive to the marginalised group. “I have absolute peace and ease with single ladies. I know what it feels like to be discriminated against as a woman in society. So with my little power, I am using my property as a tool to fight this.”
The irony of the discrimination against women on the grounds of promiscuity is that men have earned a reputation for philandering, one enshrined in the lore of the yoruba demon. So why do the same standards not apply to men looking to rent property—would neighbours not be equally upset by a series of strange women walking through their property?
Fola Shittu, the real estate associate, admits that men have it easier because society does not scrutinise them as much. “You know there is a belief that a promiscuous man is much better than a promiscuous woman in our society,” he says.
Again, such forthright views about the uneven places are unsurprising. They remain the dominant view, despite the best efforts of feminists. It’s why there was such an uproar over Falz’s views about transactional sex, and why gender equality remains one of Nigeria’s primary social challenges.
Wuraola Abulatan, a Public Relations Officer in Lagos, is annoyed by the double standards. She was rebuffed when she tried to rent a place in Ikeja near the end of 2018.
“The lawyer that owns the house told my agent he did not want me because I'm single,” she says plainly. “I noticed my agent was reluctant to respond to my messages. It wasn't until after I probed that he confessed to being in a tight spot with the landlord.”
Abulatan remembers being in an Uber when her agent called her. Her Uber driver, an older man, suggested that her boyfriend should pay for the house on her behalf so that she would be allowed to rent it. “The driver overheard me lamenting to my agent on the phone and suggested my boyfriend rents the house for me,” she says. “That really angered me. Why should someone else's name be on the documents for my flat when it is my own money paying for it?”
Although Abulatan is combative now, the experience brought her to tears. “I really liked the compound. I had put my mind to moving in as soon as possible. It was very upsetting that I couldn't get that space because of something so silly,” she remembers.
Her story ends on a positive note, at least. Two months later, she moved into a flat. Still, she wonders when things would be different. “When would a single woman be able to rent a flat in Lagos without any issues?”
*Name changed to protect identity