Introduction to the Nigeria Site
of the Global Feminisms Project
Elisha Renne and Ronke Olawale
Two sets of interviews have been completed for the Nigeria Site. Ronke Olawale completed seven interviews in South West Nigeria in November of 2019. Elisha Renne conducted five interviews in Abuja, Kano, and Zaria, in Northern Nigeria, in January-February 2020. These interviewees focus on a range of issues which include girl child and women’s education, domestic violence, women’s legal (state and Islamic) rights; and eco-feminism.
The forthcoming timeline has been prepared by Sydney Smith for the Global Feminisms Project during the 2019-2020 academic year.
Overview of the Nigeria Site and Interviews
By Elisha Renne
The country of Nigeria, located in West Africa, consists of three major regions which are associated with particular ethnic groups—Yoruba, Igbo, or Hausa—and religions—Christian, Muslim, or various traditional religions. Southwestern Nigeria is populated mainly by Yoruba speakers, who are either Christians or Muslims, while Southeastern Nigeria is a predominantly Igbo and Christian. Northern Nigeria is populated mainly by Hausa people who are Muslim, although there are many small ethnic groups throughout the region who may be Christian or Muslim.Read More...
In northern Nigeria, these different social identities are associated with particular histories which affect how women perceive gender roles and feminist perspectives there. For example, during the reign of 19th century Sokoto Caliphate which began in 1804, much of the area north of the Niger and Benue rivers was controlled by Fulani, another ethnic group, and Hausa leadership. Islam became the predominant religion in the region and the first Sultan of Sokoto, Shehu dan Fodio, supported Muslim women’s knowledge of the Qur’ān and hadith. His daughter, Nana Asma’u, famously endeavored to promote Islamic learning among women in Degel (near the city of Sokoto) in northwestern Nigeria. The region was renamed the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria after its seizure and annexation by British colonial officers by 1903; it became part of the British Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria in 1914. In Northern Nigeria, colonial officials implemented the policy known as “indirect rule,” relying on the emirs (kings) of the different regions of the North to enforce British colonial policies and taxation. They also forbade most missionary activity except for mainly southern areas of Northern Nigeria so as not to disturb the emirs who were Islamic political leaders. Thus, while Islamic education for men and boys as well as some women and girls prevailed in most areas, missionaries established churches where western education was taught—mainly to young boys and young men—in order for converts to read the Bible. Girls, who were expected to marry when young, were not seen as needing such education.
Following Nigerian Independence in 1960, primary schools which focused on Western education were established in many towns in Northern Nigeria. As may be seen from the interviews, the importance of parents’ views regarding their daughters’ education determined whether they attended such schools. For many Muslim girls, their parents preferred that they learned domestic tasks and married rather than pursue secondary (or even primary) education. Some attended Islamic classes known as allo where they learned to recite portions of the Qur’ān. The issue of girl child and married women’s Islamic and later Western education grew as government secondary schools with classes in Islamic knowledge were included in the curriculum. After 1962, Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of the Northern Region of Nigeria, established the first university, now known as Ahmadu Bello University, in Zaria. While the majority of faculty and students were and continue to be men, the Gender Studies Center, which was founded in 2003, supports the growing participation of women in teaching and as students at Ahmadu Bello University. The opening of other large universities followed in major cities in the north, which included Bayero University (Kano), University of Jos (Jos), and Usmanu Danfodio University (Sokoto), among others. All five of the women interviewed attended one of these universities.
The experiences of these women and of other Muslim women in Northern Nigeria persuaded them to support women’s education in a more unified, national way. In 1985, women met, first in Kano and later that year in Ilorin, to establish the Federation of Muslim Women Associations of Nigeria (FOMWAN). Over the years, FOMWAN members have supported women’s education (both Western and Islamic) in order to enable them to assess their role in Nigerian society in a way that reflects the tenets of Islam, moral development, and unity (overlooking ethnic and area affiliations). Muslim women’s increased knowledge of their legal rights—under Nigerian and Shari’a (Islamic) law—have been a consequence of women’s education encouraged by FOMWAN and other women’s legal organizations in Nigeria. This knowledge has affected women’s situation vis à vis marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Interviewees mentioned other organizations to which some Northern Nigerian women belong, which are not strictly speaking Islam-based. They include the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU); the National Association of Women in Academics (NAWACS), the international Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA). In Northern Nigeria, domestic violence is a common problem for several reasons. In households where women were very young when married through arrangement by their parents, disagreements may lead to violence, as do disagreements over lack of financial support for wives and children. While women may legally seek and obtain divorce, uneducated women may be unaware of their rights as one interviewee explained. The situation of gendered domestic violence is paralleled by the case of the 2014 kidnapping of 276 Chibok secondary schoolgirls in Borno State (in northeastern Nigeria). The #Bring Back Our Girls movement has received international attention. Of the 116 girls who remain missing, some have converted to Islam and have married Boko Haram militants. Yet the widely publicized extraordinary violence of the Chibok kidnapping relates to the unremarked ordinary violence experienced by northern Nigerian girls seeking education, education that women lawyers, educators, and health professionals in the North are seeking to support
The interviews of five women were conducted Abuja, Kano, and Zaria, in Northern Nigeria, in January-February 2020. Interviewees focus on a range of issues which include girl child and women’s education, domestic violence, women’s legal (state and Islamic) rights; and eco-feminism.
In her interview on January 19, 2020, in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, Dr. Mairo Mandara discussed her career working as a medical doctor, teacher, public health professional, and country representative for both the Packard and the Gates Foundations. Throughout her career, she has been particularly concerned with the education of girls and women and has played an active role in the establishment and international expansion of the Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations in Nigeria (FOMWAN). More recently, she has helped to establish and had led the NGO, Girl Child Concerns, which has sought to encourage parents to support their daughters’ school attendance and has raised funds for young women to complete their secondary education. Dr. Mandara also discusses her views as an African woman feminist. Feminism for her has opened up opportunities for her and for other Nigerian women. For her, the fostering of equal education has been a critically important part of the feminist movement, while observing the tenets of Islam and Islamic dress practices. She also advocates working closely with women from the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) on issues of wife inheritance, child-marriage, and sex-trafficking. Furthermore, she stresses the need to understand and respect the mind-set of people whom one is trying to serve and to step back from one’s arrogance.
The lawyer, Aisha Yusuf, was interviewed on 26 January 2020 in Kano, the capital of Kano State, in northern Nigeria. Through her law education, she has followed her feminist concern with her work on women’s rights in the Kano State Public Defender’s Office. Her most recent legal work which focuses on women’s legal rights in marriage and sexual violence reflects her belief in the importance of educating women in Northern Nigeria about their rights under federal and Islamic law. In her interview, she discusses the outcome of cases in Kano State in which young women, forced into early, arranged marriages, have killed their husbands and have been imprisoned. In other cases, women have remained in abusive marriages due to a lack of knowledge of their legal rights, which include child custody in the case of divorce as well as cases of rape. Aisha Yusuf also discusses the presence of NGOs in Kano, such as Partners in West Africa Nigeria. The lawyers in this group are mainly women, led by the Executive Director, Mrs. Kemi Okenyodo, working out of Abuja. Their lawyers in Kano focus on legal aid for impoverished women in the city and state. Through their activities, they can defend women victims but unfortunately, they do not have the legal authority to prosecute crimes. However, through their work with Hisbah (the civilian police in Kano) and with the Nigerian Bar Association, the Ministry of Justice, and the Legal Aid Council, they have been able to help women clients and to review the administration of criminal justice law.
Hajiya Binta Abdulhamid was interviewed in Kano, the capital of Kano State, in northern Nigeria, on 31 January 2020. As was the case with several other interviewees, Binta Abdulhamid she sees herself as a woman-activist in her advocacy of women’s education. Her role as a teacher and principal in several girls’ secondary schools in Kano State attest to her dedication to promoting girl child education. In her interview, she provides examples of the challenges she faced in trying to overcome cultural barriers to girls’ education such as early marriage. Her description of one case, when she tried to convince a father to allow his daughter to finish her secondary school education and the various steps Hajiya Abdulhamid took to ensure that the girl received her secondary school certificate, is an extraordinary example of her dedication to supporting women’s education. Her discussion of feminism in relation to Islam also provides important insights into how feminism may be interpreted in a non-western cultural setting. For her, the Qur’ān provides protection and explicitly defines the rights of women and men. Her thoughtful explanation of her position may be especially helpful for those coming from a different cultural and social background. Indeed, the example she provides of a young girl brought to a boarding school where Hajiya was teaching demonstrates her refusal to accept the behavior of fathers who do not follow the teachings of Islam.
Interviewed at the Center of Gender Studies, at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, on 2 February 2020, Malama Binta Abdulkarim, explains her early education in Kaduna State. She attended primary school in Kaduna, the state capital, and secondary school in Soba, not far from Zaria. She then went on to take classes and teach at Ahmadu Bello University. She explains her career as an educator first in the Department of Geology and then as the Coordinator of Gender Studies, which began in 2003, and as Director of Girl Child Education there. Her discussion of the establishment of Gender Studies through a Carnegie Foundation grant, of the continuing dominance of men’s leadership, and of problems associated with sexual harassment at the university provides a useful comparison with other institutions of higher learning. She also considers her training as a geographer in relation to gender-related issues, arguing that “geography deals with location, with people, interconnectivity, and outcomes,” and that gender relations are an important part of this interconnectivity. She also argues that women need to continue to push for equal opportunities and that positive change is morally good, regardless of a woman’s religious background. As part of her action for supporting women’s roles at the university leadership and women’s university education, she has continued to play an active role in the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) as well as in the National Association of Women in Academics (NAWACS).
The interview of Dr. Joyce Agofure, on 5 February 2020, was conducted at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Although Dr. Agofure is born in Benin City, Edo State, in southern Nigeria, she received her post-secondary education at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and continued there, where she is currently a senior lecturer and the Coordinator of Postgraduate Studies in the Department of English. In her courses, she assigns readings in Nigerian women’s literature, such as the work of Zaynab Alkali, considered to be the first Northern Nigerian woman novelist by many. In her classic novel, The Stillborn, Alkali considers the challenges faced by three Northern Nigerian women characters, challenges which Dr. Agofure discusses with students in her courses. Along with Nigerian women’s literature, she is also particularly interested in eco-feminism and the consequences of climate change on the lives of women. She has expanded her knowledge of eco-feminism, focusing on several aspects of connections between women and the environment. For her, that women are seen as natural beings and that the environment is characterized as feminine are related to the exploitation of both the environment and of women. In assigning the reading of Zaynab Alkali’s short stories such as “Cobwebs,” Dr. Agofure seeks to engage students in thinking about women’s interconnected problems, much as aspects of the environment are interrelated. Subsequently, she has become involved in developing a course on eco-feminism to be taught in the Department of English at Ahmadu Bello University in coming years.
Overview of the Nigeria Site and Interviews
By Ronke Olawale
African historians started out trying to correct misconceptions of western writers(IncludingG. W. H. Hegel (1770 –1831), Reginald Coupland (1884 –1952), C. G. Seligman (1873 –1940), Hugh Trevor Roper (1914 –2003), who wrote that Africa had no past history before colonial era. On another note, the discipline of history was dominated by men, focused on men, and about their exploits (see “Carlyle, Thomas. (1841): On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History”. Unsurprising, the eight-volume General History of Africa (UNESCO in 1981) masculine-centered views, excludes women’s contributions in its summary of its significant knowledge of African history. Next wrote African historians who followed in the steps of Western bias, as depicted in the Groundwork of Nigerian History¹, a text written by many scholars on Nigerian history, but which unfortunately had no specific account on the role of Nigerian women in the development of the country.Read More...
Getting out women’s stories was a difficult task, and when it began to be told, the narratives tended to be negative to the extent that women’s perspectives and participation in the events of history were often perceived as mere myths and fables. For instance, rather than emphasizing the critical role that she played within the Yoruba socio-political, economic and religious history, the late literary scholar and playwright, Prof. Akinwunmi Isola buried the second Iyalode² of Ibadan, Efunsetan Aniwura in history as an authoritarian leader and oppressor hence a tragic figure in his after-death historical account (Idowu 2016).
Perhaps, the story only changed in more recent times when African women began to write their own stories. An important point in history was the International Women’s Year (1975), when the UN formally responded to the momentum of women’s liberation movements, as they began to focus on matters that affect them. Also, Nigerian women’s presence at the 1995 International Conference on Women in Beijing, China further cemented their prominence and commitment to national development. At a Nigerian Historical Society Congress in 1986, Nigerian-basedAustralian historian and author, Nina Emma Mba (1944–2002) made a presentation on“The Introduction of Courses on African Women’s History into History Departments of Nigerian Universities: A Proposal”. In her presentation, she called for both the teaching and research on women’s history in Nigeria. By 1988, congress proposed a panel on women’s history, selected a woman into its executive body, and there began a network of historians in the field of women’s studies.
However, whereas the field of women’s studies is new, there have been attempts to write on women since the colonial era (1914-1960), and in the nationalist era (1960-1976) and in more recent times (1976-1988) when attention shifted on so-called “local women”. When considered alongside other countries, therefore, documenting Nigerian women’s history is fairly recent. Very few scholars have ventured to write history from a female perspective, and this usually follows biographies, studies of female institutions in the context of political participation, political actions, and resistance during the colonial era. But that has since changed.
Nigerian women’s gender and activism movement has been a progressive one, following a sequential order, and provides a form of continuity. Many early players hailed from traditional ruling lineages, aristocratic families, and raised among males by loving fathers and siblings, or married to husbands who embraced and supported their cause. On this basis, it is arguable that traditional Nigerian society was not necessarily anti-feminist. Inspired and gifted women pursued noble causes with the support of their families and communities, and attained leadership positions at a time when men dominated the affairs of the nation. As a successor to her father’s throne Queen Kambassa of Bonny was a ruler and the first queen of Bonny in the Niger Delta (around 1450); Queen Idia the mother of Esigie was raised by her father the Oba of Beninwho ruled between 1504 to 1550; Queen Amina (b.1934-d.1984) was a Hausawarrior and administrator; Queen of Zazzau (present day Zaria, Kaduna State) ruled her kingdom for 30 years, ushering in prosperity to her people. With the full support of her husband, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti (1900 –1978) provided excellent leadership for women’s rights and suffrage in the 1950s.
From the north to the west, Nigerian feminist and activist ancestors worked tirelessly for the emancipate of women and communities from different kinds of inequities which they found limiting, including illiteracy, poverty, repression and abuse. In pre-colonial and colonial times, Nigeria women were wives, mothers, entrepreneurs, administrators and activists in their rights. lyalode Efunsetan Aniwura of Ibadan and Omu Okwei of Osomari (1872–1943), the great Igbo trader, and Madam Efunroye Tinubu (1810 –1887) were prosperous merchants. They refused to be limited by their roles as wife and mother of famous men, but challenged themselves to be self-reliant, and looked out for people in their communities.
Women were also kingmakers, a role traditionally reserved for high-ranking male chiefs. Both Madam Tinubu and Queen Emotan were kingmakers. Emotan was a prosperous market woman who dealt during the 15th century at the Oba Market, in ancient Benin kingdom at the time of the reign of Oba Uwaifiokun and Prince Ogun. Emotan was instrumental to the re-installment of Oba Ewuare to his throne as the Oba of Benin several years after the latter was dethroned and exiled. Ewuare appointed her as the Iyeki, that is “the leader of the authorized Ekpateguide”3. After the death of her husband, she devoted herself to the welfare of children in her community. She built a hut where she took care of children, hence she is considered the pioneer of day care center in Benin Kingdom.
As in any tradition, women do not shy away from being “scapegoats”, risking everything for the good of others. Examples are found in these three women, the Inkpi of the Igala in the north, Moremi Aja Soro of Ile-Ife (Yoruba), and Magajiya (Queen) of Daura. All three women belonged to the royal families and were members of the ruling royal houses. During the 17th century, “Inikpi oma “fedobaba”⁴ buried herself alive to spare her father, Attah Ayegba the trauma of sacrificing her after having done the same with five out of his seven children to save the Igala Kingdom in preparation for their independence. Inipki was deified as Earthmother, and today, she determines land rituals, peace, and prosperity. Oloori⁵ Mọ́remí Àjàsorò is prominent in the history of the Yoruba. In order to deal with the problem facing her people, Moremi offered her only son in sacrifice to the spirit of the river Esimirin so that she could discover the strength of her people’s enemies, which helped they to win the battle.⁶ The Queen of Daura married the Arab prince, Abuyazid, an action which deviated from traditions, as all former queens before her practiced celibacy. Abuyazid had helped to kill a snake that lived in a well in Kusugu, modern-day Daura, which prevented the people from fetching water, an act that ushered in a new dawn for the people. Clearly, these women’s life stories and the causes they pursued opened avenues for peace and progress after a period of chaos in their communities.
Education is an empowerment tool for Nigerian women. Several women in the past had the privilege of good education through their biological parents, or were naturally endowed and therefore received scholarships for quality education. Many of these women committed to providing similar opportunities for other women who might not have been educated. Nana Asma’U’s (1794-1864) left a legacy in northern Nigeria where she is seen as an ambassador for women’s education and empowerment, and perhaps a pioneer of modern feminism in Africa. She belonged to the Shehu Uthman Dan Fodio dynasty of Sokoto, in the 19th Century. From Western Nigeria was Funmilayo Ransome Kuti (1900 -1978), an educator, activist, and politician who remains one of the most prominent women leaders of her generation. She developed a social welfare program called Market Women’s Club (MWC), held literacy classes for market women in the early 1920s, and established a nursery school in the 1930s. She also founded the Abeokuta Ladies’ Club (ALC) for educated women 1942. In order to reduce inequality among women in her community, both the ALC and MWC merged to form the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) with a membership of over 20,000 literate and illiterate across the country. The organization was later renamed the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies (FNWS).
Women in Nigeria understood the force of their unity and number. Due to British colonial government’s interference in price regulation and also uncontrolled taxation of market women, there was a growing network of women’s groups and market women organizations across the country beginning from the 1910s. For a month in Agbaja (Southwest region) women fled their homes when they suspected that their men were killing pregnant women. Summarily, village elders came together to redress the women’s concern after when they returned to their homes. Within the same period, the Igbo and Ibibio women began to organize, and were connected with the resources provided by these while organizing. Their actions culminated in the Aba Women’s Riot of 1929, an anti-colonial uprising, organized and executed by hundreds of rural women from six ethnic groups in Owerri and Calabar provinces to draw attention to the social, political and economic problems of the day. Up to 16 Native Courts were attacked in the process, leading to the resignation of some Warrant Chiefs.
Before the era of indirect rule, women in Abeokuta were represented by the Iyalode, a respected politician, and women’s leader in government. Also, women were not directly taxed. Funmilayo Ransome Kuti led Egba women to challenge arbitrary colonial taxation and unfavorable policies, using the slogan “No taxation without representation.” Through persistent protest and night vigils at the palace and village square in 1949, the Alake of Abeokuta, high king Oba Ademola II (1920 to 1962), was forced to abdicate the throne, and went on exile from Abeokuta.⁷
In the 19th century, women continued to organize themselves into groups that they thought would promote their cause.The National Council of Women Societies (NCWS) was formed in 1959. Around this time, a crop of educated women, majority of whom were daughters of wealthy, British and American–trained Nigerians who also benefited from status quo. These women, some of whom were also British trained formed the Lagos Elite Club (LEC) and Lagos Women’s League (LWL) in different ways helped to advance women’s education through organized actions between 1901 and 1944. They saw education as pathways towards women’s socio-economic and political emancipation. Their advocacy resulted in the founding of Queen’s College, the first state-owned girls’ high school in 1927. In addition, the LWL for instance advocated for the inclusion of Nigerian women into the British colonial public service, rather than give all positions to European women. They also demanded for equal pay for women and men.
Women who formed the LEC challenged restrictions on the education of women, civic and women’s participation in politics (Oyinkan Abayomi,Olori Kofoworola Ademola, Elizabeth Akerele, the first Nigerian female medical doctor and surgeon). In furtherance of their feminist agenda, women groups led the campaign to have women enlisted into the Police department to address the spate of women prostitution and the disrespectful treatment of female offenders by male policemen. The Lagos Ladies League (which later became the Lagos Women’s League, LWL), and the Lagos Women’s Party ( or the Nigerian Women’s Party, NWP) in 1944 had petitioned the governor of Nigeria. They were of the opinion that prostitution was a dishonorable act, but felt strongly that women police could best address the problem. So, women in Nigerian have obviously been involved in politics. Although a preacher, Olaniwun Adunni Oluwole was a human rights activist and politician in pre-independent Nigeria. She mobilized women supporters, and donated money towards the workers strike of 1945. Thereafter, she founded a predominantly male political party, the Nigerian Commoners Liberal Party.
Without doubt, the critical mass of feminists, scholars, and activists interviewed for the Expanding the Reach project are privileged to ride on the backs of their ancestors.
1 Ikime, O. (Ed.). (1980). Groundwork of Nigerian history. Heinemann Educational Books.
2 Iyalodemeans the “queen or the head of women” and is given to the most prominent and distinguished woman who possesses the right qualities to represent all the women in or from the town. Efusetan also received the title,Mogaji; that is the leader of the compound or the representative of women in Ibadan.
3 Iyekiis a title for a person that occupies the office of the individual who enforces law and order in trading. She was deified, and a life-size statue remains at the heart of the market square in present-day Benin City.
4 “Fedobaba” isIgala expression for Inikpi, “the father’s beloved” -she was her father’s pet, but not a spoiled child.
5 King’s wife. Moremi belongs to the royal familyof Oduduwaby marriage.
6 Moremi Ajasoro is commemorated through the annual Edifestival, at a temple built in Ibadan in her honor. In modern times, her heroism continues to be celebrated, and she has been memorialized in plays. Female dormitories are named after her in several colleges across Nigeria
7 Abdication compares to impeachment, and in addition to exile constitutes an abomination in traditional institutions and leadership. It was a big deal when it happened.
Procedures for Producing Final Interview Videos and Transcripts
Interviews for this site were transcribed verbatim and both the video and transcript are unedited.