Women's voices in northern Nigeria: hearing the broader narratives

As the world's attention focuses on northern Nigeria with the abduction of schoolgirls from Chibok, Fatimah Kelleher explores the importance of understanding the voices and agency of northern Nigerian women's own activism for change.

Fatimah Kelleher
2 June 2014
 let us empower our women

Photo: Flickr / Africa RenewalThe kidnap of over 200 girls from a secondary school in Chibok, North Eastern Nigeria by Boko Haram in April 2014 has shone an international spotlight on the northern part of the country for the first time in decades. However, the states north of the Niger and Benue rivers had already been on development radars in recent years, with the predominantly Muslim and Hausa speaking region garnering interest around women’s issues well ahead of the recent crisis. Despite the recent announcement of the country’s ascendancy as Africa’s largest economy with a GDP of $503bn for 2013, poverty and inequality in Nigeria remain high.  In the north of the country, the irony is deeply felt due to some of the lowest levels of employment and per capita income, making economic development, educational access and health key priorities.  Within this, women’s rights are a constant thread: The UK Department for International Development (DFID) Nigeria’s gender strategy within its operational plan 2011 – 2015 has clear targets for women and girls in the North in particular, while Mercy Corps and Girl Hub have engaged with the economic empowerment of adolescent girls in the sub-region.  Other actors such as UNICEF and Save the Children are working directly with maternal and child health. But although Nigerian women’s movements have been at the heart of the mobilisation around the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, not to mention that the region has produced well-known African feminists such Amina Mama and Ayesha Imam, broader northern women’s narratives remain largely unheard and unrecognised within an overall development and women’s rights discourse that will continue long after the hashtags of this crisis have diminished.

Addressing the prevailing narrative  

Challenges facing women in the north are undeniably significant. In the North West, the most recent National Demographic and Health Survey puts the literacy rate for women at 21%, compared to the national rate for women at 51%. These figures are even more acute at the State level, where northern states like Katsina and Sokoto stand at 5% and 9% respectively.  On maternal health, the North East zone has the highest maternal mortality and morbidity rates in the country, an almost ten fold difference compared the South West zone. As a result, the debilitating consequences of obstetric fistula remain a too often outcome.  Early and child marriage also remains a hotly controversial issue. Practices such as purdah, or seclusion (kulle in Hausa), that determines the extent of women’s visibility and mobility in public spaces are also a key part of the prevailing narrative.  Dr Lydia Umar, Executive Director of the northern-based Gender Awareness Trust  (GAT) in a recent interview described the “herculean task in the northern part of Nigeria where the position and roles of women in society tend to be confined to the private sphere”.  Women’s representation in political life is therefore low. 

However, there is a need to go beyond statistical perspectives and their associated socio-cultural explanations. For example, even within the predominantly home-based nature of their productivity, women are active and major contributors to the informal economy that the sub-region depends on. But a lack of visibility, damning indicators, coupled with developmental difficulties in quantifying their role within society, has led to a series of perceptions regarding agency:

“There are a lot of stereotypes on northern Nigerian women, even from within the country,” says Aisha Shehu, currently working with women’s health issues as part of a large bilateral project in the north.  “There is a general belief that we are crippled by poverty, culture, religion and under-civilisation. But it is a complex region with people from different groups, different levels of development and different levels of respect for women’s rights.”

The prevailing narrative of northern women is bound within a language too reliant on the measurability of statistics that highlight the challenges, but are unable to explore the potential and possibilities.  Dr Fatima Adamu, a scholar and activist writing and campaigning on women and gender issues in the north with a focus on Hausa women as agents of change, offers this advice for anyone looking-in:

“Outsiders need to know more about who we are.  They need to understand what works, what doesn’t work...that we live and operate within specific contexts, and that we are agents, not victims, who will take our decisions on the basis of those contexts.”

A legacy of women’s own narratives

How then have women in northern Nigeria articulated agency and resisted marginalisation over time? Within the history of the pre-Caliphate Hausa City States there is still no figure more revered than Queen Amina of Zazzau, a legendary rule of war-driven territorial expansion and ingenuity in architectural defence. A masculinised legacy perhaps, but this sits alongside a history of feminine, women for women activism inherent in the region. The most famous of these is the poet, scholar and activist Nana Asma’u, sister of Sultan Usman Dan Fodio and at the heart of a movement promoting women’s literacy and agency across the north in the 19th Century Sokoto Caliphate. More recently, the post-independence activism of Hajia Gambo Sawaba in the mid to late 20th Century remains a beacon for strident, uncompromising women’s voices everywhere. 

Today, activism by northern women in organisations such as the Federation of Muslim Women ‘s Association in Nigeria (FOMWAN), and ABANTU remain undeterred. FOMWAN has for many years promoted education and better health for all, but particularly women. Bilkisu Yusuf, a founding member of FOMWAN clearly argues: ‘Education is the most strategic form of empowerment you can give women. Islam makes education compulsory, so we are unhappy at the low level of education among Muslim women”.

Women Inspiration Development CenterUndeniably, representative voices from women most impacted by the region’s poverty and inequality still need to be drawn-out, especially as inequalities between women in the region are heavily defined by economic class, aristocratic heredity, and religious marginalisation.  A democratisation of voices among existing women’s narratives in the north is a key imperative going forward.  However, even for those who have the access to tools and resources to be heard, these narratives and positions need much greater recognition and respect.  Meanwhile, for individual, everyday women in Hausa society in particular, layers of culturally inherent negotiation and agency need further exploration and understanding.  Economic self-dertermination is one example of this:

“Economic rights are something integral to our society, something that the typical Hausa woman is immensely proud of,” stresses Fatima Adamu. “Whether Western educated or not, whether employed in the informal sector or not, every Hausa woman is concerned with her right to spend money without any interference from her husband.  I have seen so many cases in court where a woman is supported in reporting her husband for not returning money he borrowed from her. We recognise our right in this area– we are not waiting for anyone else to come along and help us exercise that right.” 

This example – whilst sometimes undermined by other constraints, not to mention depending on ‘who’ and ‘where’ in the north – nevertheless underlines the importance of reframing the dialogue. Much programming is based on the premise that economic empowerment is in itself a catalyst for other rights, and yet here are examples where a woman’s economic sovereignty remains even while other rights continue to be struggled for. Complex agencies already being utilised by women’s rights advocates in the north need to be understood. The following excerpt from Olufemi Vaughan and Suraiya Zubair Banu as they analyse the role of Northern Nigerian women’s organisations in the contentious implementation of Shari’a gives some insight:

“The unconventional strategies adopted by the leaders of these Muslim women’s rights groups have surprised Nigerian liberals, feminists, and Islamists alike.  While the women’s groups remain committed to using the Nigerian Constitution with its strong common law roots and ratification of universal human rights conventions, they have embraced Shari’a law as an essential part of Muslim culture.... these activists consciously draw from a tradition of Hausa and Fulani women that has been inspired by progressive Northern Muslim movements…that consistently advocated for universal free primary education and the provision of essential social services for the masses of poor people in emirate society, including girls and women.”

Agency and a literary tradition

Accompanying organisation-based activism is the vibrant existence of an unbridled literary tradition among women writers.  Sometimes known as Kano Market Literature, in Hausa they are also known as Littatafin Soyayya, or “books of love”, a title attributed to the genre due to the omnipresent theme of marriage within most, but which does little to capture the societal analysis of this Hausa language fiction that fearlessly addresses themes like child marriage and polygamy. From the arguably seminal novel by Balaraba Ramat YakubuWa Zai Auri Jahila (“Who Will Marry an Uneducated Girl?”), first published in the 1990s – to the 2006 Mace Mutum by Rahma Abdul Majid, the difficult topic of child marriage in particular has been loudly analysed.  Through the evocative power of their prose, northern women’s voices are subverting oppressive norms, as this translated excerpt from the fictional work Mace Mutum demonstrates:

“At age fourteen it is taboo for a girl still to be sharing a room with her mother; it is an abomination. That is the predicament Lami, and all of us in the family are in. Co-wives and other noisy neighbors draw from a deep well of sarcasm in their abuse of Lami and her mother, and by extension our father. The gossip is always how awful, to have goods as old as this (they mean my sister Lami) that no man cares about, let alone wants to buy. The tears I see running down Lami’s cheeks tell me her sadness, while I see the brawl between Lami’s mother and her co-wife as the ultimate feud between women.”

Despite the low levels of literacy, that these books are written in the region’s lingua franca has meant that the reach is still significant, while the ownership and women’s compact that a mother-tongue narrative gives - written by women and often using familiar colloquialisms - is undeniable.

Of course such forthright writing has sometimes lead to criticism, despite the fact that the books in themselves are diverse and nuanced in their approaches. A founding author like Bilkisu Funtua who lives in purdah with her family and whose work has upheld religious observance and filial piety whilst addressing women’s rights, is just as likely to garner criticism as Sa’adatu Baba, a younger novelist who was accused by a Kano State Government official of taking a bribe from European governments to spoil northern Nigerian culture after she wrote about the impact of HIV/AIDS (Mu Kame Kanmu – “Keep Ourselves Safe”).  But the independence of women writers in itself has been a key determinant in their ability to resist and respond to such pressures.  Predominantly self-published, either as individuals or as part of women’s writers cooperatives, the rapid sale of these books have withstood attempts at censorship from the Kano State Censorship Board.  Many women writers have also moved into the popular Kannywood film industry of northern Nigeria.

Future – on amplification and inclusivity   

Undoubtedly, the major focus of the world’s attention on northern Nigeria is the current Boko Haram insurgency. Within that the discussion of inequality has been largely concerned with understanding the prevailing issues of poverty and (male) disenfranchisement that may explain the root causes of the conflict.  However, the increasing use of gender based violence against women reported since 2013 highlights the need for women’s engagement on the issues to now be prioritised. External actors working on women’s rights in northern Nigeria must first and foremost capture and understand the rich tapestry of diverse narratives if gender and development engagement is to lead to any meaningful, sustainable change.  The challenges of women in the north are indeed great and in need of focus, resources, and commitment.  However, in the complex and sensitive landscape of Nigeria’s northern states, the necessary mantra that change must be led and owned by northern Nigerian women themselves has never been more critical.

This article was first published in March 2014. It is republished here in 50.50's series on 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence 2014


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