Global Resources

Muslim women’s rights in Northern Nigeria

Author: O. Vaughan, S. Z. Banu
Publisher: Wilson Center
Publication Date: Apr 2014

The complexity of the Nigerian Shari’a crisis reveals many contending perspectives, thoughts, and debates on governance and politics in contemporary Nigerian society, even among Northern Nigerian Muslims themselves. This publication by the Wilson Centre provides a brief overview of how historical, social, political, and religious issues in Nigeria interlock, and how they influence the formulation and implementation of policies regarding gender and Islam in Northern Nigeria. The author begins all the way back in 1804, describing how Northern Nigeria was a region comprised of Hausa city-states before Islamic scholar Usman dan Fodio led a successful Fulani-jihad which incorporated the region into a wider Islamic empire. With the coming of British colonial rule, Islamic traditions were cemented within the region's culture, with missionaries banned from entering.

The paper then highlights how the feminism and organisation of women present in the region today can be dated back to pre-caliphate times, and how the struggle to combine their numerous identities - female, Muslim, Hausa-Fulani, and Nigerian - within the constraints of a deeply patriarchal society led to a splintering in the movement. Following the historical context, the brief then discusses the political and constitutional crisis which has resulted from Northern Nigeria states pushing for expanded Shari'a law in 1999, and its implications for women's rights. Most immediately, the implications included the regional passing of new Islamic laws undermining women’s rights, which is an essential engine for Nigeria’s development, governance and democracy. Additionally, the interpretation and implementation of Shari’a law is currently in the hands of a few male scholars and religious leaders, but the potential for multiple- and re-interpretations of scripture is a potential benefit, and one which women's groups have been utilising in their quest against gender-based injustices.

The brief concludes that the present mix of traditional Hausa culture, conservative Islamic values, and progressive western beliefs has led to an innovative women’s rights movement tackling the problem of a ‘clash of civilisations’ on a small, but vitally important, scale. If the movement progresses, it may be a model of interest for policy makers who struggle to bridge the gap between different cultures to create institutions that are respectful of differences in beliefs, while also protecting human rights. At the very least, progress by northern Muslim women’s rights movements is a crucial weapon in the fight against terrorism and conflict in Northern Nigeria. The women behind the struggle, historically as well as today, deserve to be recognised and commended for their efforts. Any sustained progressive promotion of the full citizenship rights of women and girls in Northern Nigeria must not only insist on universal and free primary education system, but must further support and empower these imaginative Northern Nigerian Muslim women’s organisations.