Thursday, 21 October 2010

Breaking-Out Time For Women In Northern Nigeria

Book: Northern Women Development: A Focus on Women in Northern Nigeria
Author: Hajara Muhammad Kabir
Pages: 455
Publishers: Print Serve, Lagos
Date: 2010

By Ibrahim Sheme

Women are over half of the world's population, yet they do two-thirds of the world's work, earn one-tenth of the world's income, and own less than one hundredth of the world's poverty.
– United Nations

It is no longer news that the lot of women across the world has been a dour one even in spite of their potential as the progenitor of the earth. The facts are startling. It is women who give birth and nurse the children; they take charge of the home front regardless of culture or creed, maintaining cohesion and sanity at the family level, are the mainstay in child upbringing, and generally contribute to the growth of society. Nonetheless, in spite of their numerical superiority worldwide, they have remained backward economically and politically. Worse, they are regarded as inferior species in almost every society.

The relegation of women in the human society was rooted in prejudices dating from time immemorial. Most communities across the globe took the fair sex to be of second class value. In pre-Islamic Arabia, the birth of a female child was considered a disaster; in fact, female children were buried alive because their fathers believed that when they grew up they would not bring anything but sorrow and damnation to the family.

The recently published book, Northern Women Development: A Focus on Women in Northern Nigeria, is a painstaking study of how women fared worldwide across the ages. It arrives at a thought-provoking conclusion about their present-day status, especially in this part of the country. Written by a Kano-based author, Hajara Muhammad Kabir, the book goes down memory lane to the dawn of time, giving a graphic account of the challenges the womenfolk faced in their brave attempt at survival and striking a meaningful co-existence with their opposites. In 10 chapters and 455 pages, it presents a long tale of women’s woes in the various facets of life, and then rounds up with indisputable facts of the necessity for women’s wellbeing in and their contributions to the human society. In doing this, the author is at once a historian, a sociologist, an ethnographer, a geographer, a tale-bearer and an activist who challenges our preconceived notions, portraying them as unsubstantiated, fatuous, and outdated. She reminds us, for example, that women make up 70% of the world's 1.3 billion absolute poor; they are the sole income earners of 35% of the world's households and they are 80% of the world's 23 million refugees.

Hajara Muhammad Kabir’s focus is her native northern Nigeria, but the ethos of her narrative is universal. She draws from a swathe of highly-considered researches that portray the true situation of women as victims of economic miscalculations and cultural misapplications in our patriarchal world. Quoting copiously from findings of United Nations agencies and academic papers, her submissions amplify the message of women's relegation not only in far-flung climes but also in various African countries. "Decades after the world has officially recognised the right to gender equality," she writes, "women have remained largely marginalised from the upper ranks of government and business, earned less than their male counterparts and faced an array of customs, traditions and attitudes that limit their opportunities."

In chapter one, she introduces the problem the book deals with, giving a holistic account of women's unimpressive station, from a bird's view of the world to a tightly focused centring on the African continent. In chapter two, the book examines the status of women in Islam because of the author's area of coverage. This chapter is an interesting one because it dispels the notion many people have - ironically, including Muslim men - about the Muslim woman. It proves, using the primary sources of Islamic law, that women in Islam are not the proverbial "second best" but equal parts of the whole. They are not, as many erroneously believe, the spare tyres of the human wheel but partners in progress who must not be relegated. The fact that women and men shall be judged individually by God on the day of Judgement as shown in the holy Qur'an is proof that men are not more significant in the progression of humanity. Of course, they are biologically different, but that does not remove from their sense of honour, morality or responsibility. They should be loved and accorded respectability as daughters, wives and mothers just as decreed by the Almighty and as exemplified by Prophet Muhammad (SAW). The author mourns the fact that in Muslim parts of northern Nigeria, women are not accorded the rights provided for them in the Qur'an and the Sunnah, but are exposed to "various abuses, ranging from rape, abandonment, sexual harassment, hawking, and unguarded early marriage."

The next chapter examines the rights of women across the world. In doing this, it makes a contradistinction with the status of women in the North. The practices of women abuse, such as the "bride of the Nile" custom in ancient Egypt where the most beautiful young woman was drowned in the river as a form of appeasement to the gods, are somewhat subsumed in our local cultures with variations that only amplify the barbarity in contemporary time. The book shows how some religions help debase the fair sex through institutionalised practices falsely said to have been God-ordained. It shows that as opposed to such imposition, Islam - the religion of the majority population in the North - has returned the rights of women, including the right to go out of their homes in the promotion of the common good, such as going out to the warfront.

Chapter 4 is simply an account of what Nigeria is all about - its geographic location on the world map, peoples and politics, as well as the historical and economic antecedents of its present underdevelopment. It is in the next chapter that we read about the real challenges militating against the Nigerian woman's ability to fully realise her full potential. These include the discrimination she faces in the fields of politics and business; inadequate education, prejudices such as when she cannot bear a male child, and what the author calls the Nigerian men's deliberately "plotting the downfall of the women."

According to the author, this situation runs counter to the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the 1995 UN Fourth World Conference on Women and even our own National Policy on Women. She says even though women constitute 49.6% of the nation's total population according to the 1991 census, majority of women are in the lower rungs of occupations.

Chapter 6 is on the need for educating the girl child. This chapter is of great interest to northern Nigeria. It shows further what "northern Nigeria" is, where and how it is, and the place of its women vis-a-vis the creation and sustenance of a holistic human community. The North, as the region is best known in Nigerian journalese, is the most backward section of the country. Its peoples are largely ignorant because of a crying illiteracy rate, disease and squalor, economic degradation and poor leadership. The women in this case are at the receiving end.

The chapter examines the factors militating against the girl child’s access to education in the region and why Northern women continue to remain backward. It looks at the prejudices that spark the notorious discrimination and objectification of the womenfolk in the region. However, it gives clear examples that show women's potential, such as the unique success of a female teacher in an Islamic school in Kano. The chapter argues that the potentials of the girl child are numerous and shows what the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) can do to further the cause of girl child education. It highlights the problems of enrolment of girls in schools as found out by recent seminars and workshops. It shows that unless the appropriate laws are enforced by state governments in the North, it is virtually impossible to achieve retention of female children in schools in the region.

In chapter 7, the book seeks to dwell on the role of women in peace and security, but it actually concentrates on their challenges in the health sphere. Chapter 8 is the lengthiest, running from page 105 to page 354. It displays the enviable attainments of some selected women leaders in the North, from pre-colonial times to the present day. It is a historical account of the personality of those women in their different fields of endeavour. The first person presented is, indeed, Nana Asma'u, the 19th century Islamic scholar who had to her credit many books of jurisprudence and poetry. A list of her 67 works is given. Next is Queen Amina of Zazzau, the fiery empress who ruled an ancient kingdom in the 16th century, making her the most prominent woman warrior from the North. This is followed by an account of Queen Daurama of Daura, with her fabled encounter with Abu Yazid, the prince of Baghdad and how they allegedly founded the seven Hausa states.

From there, the reader begins to encounter many familiar faces, contemporary women who made a mark in the society, especially after independence in 1960. Most of them are the first ladies who were opportune to have their husbands being in power either at the federal level or the state level to execute empowerment programmes for women and children. In this category, we encounter Maryam Babangida, Maryam Abacha, Fati Lami Abubakar, and Turai Yar'Adua, who were wives of heads of state, and then the wives of all the present northern state governors.

Of course, there are achievers who attained fame through their personal hard work in various areas, such as Ladi Kwali, Gambo Sawaba, Amina Az-Zubair of the MDGs fame, Maria Ajima, Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, Zainab Ujudud Shariff, Amina Isyaku Kiru, Laila Dogonyaro, Hafsatu Muhammad Ahmad Abdulwahid, Zaynab Alkali, Sarah Jibril, Naja'atu Mohammed, Halima Soda, Farida Waziri, Bilkisu Yusuf, and Maryam Uwais. A bio-data of each woman is given, sometimes with full-length CV, and a treatise on what she actually accomplished. Each is illustrated with the woman's photograph(s).

Going through this particular chapter is quite revealing. It shows that in spite of the sob story of the dull condition of women in general, quite many have shone brightly in the tunnel and shown the way to greater things. We see women climbing the ladder of success in politics, business, religious evangelism, the academia, health work, the arts, occupations and the civil service. These are the role models of our society and, in spite of the controversies surrounding a few of them, the younger females who are in school are tasked to emulate them.

The next chapter contains stories culled from newspapers about how certain women achieved particular feats. The stories are meant to inspire; they cast light into just what an individual can do even without support from formal institutions: the woman who unwittingly arrested an armed robber, a woman who drives a commercial bus in Sokoto, and another who owns and runs a herbal medicine "hospital" in Zaria. Other culled write-ups are enlightening pieces on how some women breasted the tape to become beacons of hope in a male-dominated society: Sarah Jibril with her repeated bids to become president of Nigeria; Hajo Sani's rise from relative obscurity as a school teacher in Dutse, Abuja, to her brave breakout to become a federal minister and member of reputable NGOs; Mairo Habib's gubernatorial race in Kaduna; Aisha Lemu's great work in the area of Islamic evangelism; Asma'u Joda's activism for women's rights, etc. In this section, we hear the women achievers speak from the horse's mouth on their experiences and their visions.

There is a speech by Kofi Annan, former U.S. secretary-general, titled "Women: Backbone of the Societies," in which he extenuates on the fact that no effective development can occur without women playing a central role. He laments that two "simultaneous catastrophes" - famine and AIDS - do stand in the way of women. Other write-ups are from some notable women journalists in the North - Rahima Gidado Bello, Zainab Okino Suleiman, Bilkisu Yusuf and Umma Iliyasu Mohammed - all making the point that this country cannot afford to relegate its womenfolk in any design for meaningful development.

Chapter 10 sums up the arguments with an analysis of what transpired in the previous chapters. It is appropriately titled "Prospects of Nigerian Women in Politics," thereby hinting at the fact that women can only affect policy most effectively if they are part of its creation and implementation. They must, therefore, participate fully in the political process and not just remain in the choir. It explores the status of women from pre-colonial times to the present day, taking note of their challenges and relative accomplishments, with particular emphasis on Nigeria. It tells us how activists such as Margaret Ekpo and Gambo Sawaba earned a niche for themselves in the realm of empowerment in the '60s, and how others like Janet Akinrinade, Franca Afegbua and D.B.A. Kuforiji-Olubi, as well as Titilayo Ajanaku, Sinatu Ojikutu and Florence Ita-Giwa, etc., repeated similar feats in the '80s and '90s respectively. The author shows how women's lot improved under successive regimes, with women being appointed as ministers, winning elections and occupying top board positions in corporate bodies.

That, nonetheless, does not presuppose that women have conquered their boundaries. Their status is still limited by the invisible ceiling. They are still everywhere in shackles, as the author shows. Men are still "taking advantage of the women," she argues. Women are also their own enemies. "In a society where women are out competing with one another just because they want to be recognized and honoured only by using what they have to get what they want even when some are married, one should not be surprised to see the women going into prostitution en masse, especially the sisters who believe they owe nobody an apology," she writes.

According to the author, the destiny of women lies in their hands. She advises her fellow women: "Not until the women realize that the pride of womanhood is most important and not to be used for just material wealth and make the men to understand that they are not tools to be used and dumped at will, the women will remain enslaved forever and will continue to use what they have to get what they want. Women must wake up from their slumber, forget about material wealth and be respected."

The work is capped with seven pages of references and a whopping 76 pages of colour photographs. While the other lends an academic veneer to the book, the other provides a tantalising photofest of women in various fields of endeavour; there are mug shots of selected women achievers, from ancient times such as Queen Amina (whose photograph graces the cover of the book), to those making waves today.

The book is well written. Its diction is simple and its style free flowing. This makes it accessible to most readers. It is also well printed and bound on qualitative materials. But it contains some errors - grammatical and typographical - that can be corrected in a subsequent edition. Personally, I also do not consider wives of state governors as achievers as the author of this book wants us to believe; they only clutch the tails of their husbands' coats to be where they are; that's why as soon as another governor comes to power no one talks about the previous first lady. Ditto for first ladies who introduce all sorts of programmes when their husbands are heads of state. True women achievers are those that make a mark in the academia, business, the arts, empowerment activism, health work, the judiciary, defence and security, evangelism, those that run for elections and the like.

However, in spite of this slip, one has no any iota of doubt that Hajara Muhammad Kabir's book is an important compendium for the study of women - and by implication ourselves - in modern times. It reflects the unique configuration of our society, its successes and failures, especially the dangers it faces in holding its women down. It proves that one of the reasons our society is stagnant while others zoom past us is our failure to give our women their well deserved recognition, respect and opportunities to contribute their quota to the development of the society. The penchant to haughtily use customary rites and misapply religious precepts to emasculate women has proved to be ruinous to our society. Holding down women is anti-religion and runs counter to all the international protocols to which Nigeria is a signatory. We must ensure that our women are educated in the modern sense, from infancy to adulthood. It is education that will eventually help break the chains in which they are enslaved by norms and conventions.

The book is a clarion call for the women in northern Nigeria to break out of the shackles that hold them down. The women must fight for their rights themselves and not wait for the men to give them privileges on a platter of gold. History is replete with instances where women struggled to free themselves from conventions and jaded notions. It is instructive that the heroine whose photograph illustrates the cover of the book was someone who fought men to a standstill until she won respect and power for her gender. The author deserves commendation and support for teaching us these important lessons and waking us up from a costly slumber. May she follow this up with her own form of activism in this area and not peter out and disappear into oblivion after the forthcoming launch of her book.


The book, Northern Women Development: A Focus on Women in Northern Nigeria, will be launched on Oct. 30 at Arewa House, Kaduna

This review was published in LEADERSHIP last Friday.


Bradly Jones said...

Thanks for the post. It's like five years of not being in Nigeria has finally made me out-dated for this to be news to me. The change is amazing. Great blog!

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Robin said...

Seems like a great place to live :)


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Anonymous said...

Thanx alot,needed this to uplift my spirit,as a woman. I would suggest all the first ladies, contest for their offices too.

Unknown said...

Thanks Mallam Ibrahim. This is inspiring.
I have also just finished writing a short novel titled "Dear Father". The central character is a young muslim girl from Northern Nigeria writing a letter to her her father narrating to him the beauty, challenges and hindrances in her life as a girl in a society bent on stifling her dreams.
We could discuss further, if it pleases you sir.
U.K. Umar