In 1971, Balaraba Ramat Yakubu was married off at the age of 13. She lay on the bed of her new husband’s room, henna designs adorning her hands and feet. She giggled in excitement. The room glimmered with brass bowls, plates, silver cups, and utensils, all trinkets meant for her. She owned everything in this room now, and she could play with them as long as she liked—no need to worry about her mother’s cautionary voice.
In the same year, her older brother, Murtala Ramat Muhammed, went to England to attend the Joint Service Staff College and quickly rose to the rank of a Brigadier-General in the Nigerian Army. He would later go on to become the Head of State of Nigeria after a military coup, while Balaraba—just one year and eight months into the marriage—was kicked out of her marital home, rejected by a husband who claimed he was no longer interested because she was too much of a child. ‘He did not know I was a child until he had defiled me, after he had gotten what he wanted’, lamented Balaraba while on a panel discussion at the 2017 Kaduna Book and Arts Festival.
The Old Days
Balaraba’s writing began after her early marriage, while living through the wilderness of that shameful status—a young divorcee in Hausa-land. The experiences shaped her writing style and her perception of life. Alhaki Kwikwiyo Ne (Sin is a Puppy that Follows You Home), Balaraba’s most critically acclaimed novel, tracks the story of the protagonist, Rabi, as she builds a life apart from marriage. In the novel, Wa Zai Auri Jahila? (Who Would Marry an Ignoramus?), the thirteen-year-old Abu is married off to a big-bellied man more than three times her age, but eventually finds a better life through education. Balaraba wrote as a woman who had experienced the exploitation of Hausa women in matrimonial homes and the exploitation of children through child marriage; she used her pen to expose the patriarchal society.
As a devout Muslim woman, Balaraba’s writing also asserted that Islam actually decreed the rights and freedom of women. Her works positioned her within a contingent of modernist Hausa writers such as Hafsat Abdulwaheed (the first Hausa woman novelist), Talatu Wada Ahmed, and Bilkisu Ahmad Funtua, who are undeniably feminist.
Balaraba revolted against the patriarchal tradition in her writings and opinions, using her novels as pleas for providing education to girls. Balaraba’s activism continues today with her work as a Program Officer at Murtala Muhammed Foundation, coordinating trauma counselling and supporting victims of the Boko Haram insurgency. Her voice and her writing advocate for women’s rights and inspire young women to continue the struggle.
In 2017, during the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival panel, Balaraba championed the emergence of a new generation of women writers in Hausa, saying:
It is only in Hausa-land that a man divorces you and sends you packing with all of your children. The Hausa woman is not a slave, why is she then always the one persecuted? And told to be patient? If your husband slaps you, I also advocate that you should retaliate.
As the only female member of one of the first Hausa writers’ club, Balaraba published her first novel Budurwar Zuciya (Young at Heart) in 1987. She would follow this with nine more books, including her second and third novels, Alhaki Kwikwiyo Ne and Wa Zai Auri Jahila, published in 1990. Alhaki Kwikwiyo Ne would come to international limelight in 2012, when it was translated into and published in English by an Indian publishing house as Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home. This was a vindication of years of hard work in helping bring to the world stage a certain class of Hausa popular writing—despite ridicule and attacks from the society she wrote for as well as abuses she received from the religious establishment, censorship from the state government, and state-sponsored burnings of her books.
What endeared readers to Balaraba’s works were the stories that reflected and identified with the lifestyles in Northern Nigeria, which she dared to question. In her novel, Wa Zai Auri Jahila, she depicts the oppression of women in Northern Nigeria, a society where senators defend their right to marry thirteen-year-olds, and she wrote to challenge the stereotypes. Balaraba discarded any cultural tradition once it denigrated women and upheld patriarchal privileges. She advocated for the education of women, which is still an issue for young women in contemporary Northern Nigeria.
Hausa Women Writing
The arrival of British colonialists to Northern Nigeria did nothing to improve women’s education. It wasn’t until as late as 1933, that classes first opened to women in previously male-only primary schools. As such, in 1930, when Dr R.M. East established the first Literature Bureau in Northern Nigeria in Zaria (which would lay the foundation for the first set of Hausa novels written in 1933), men dominated the field. It would take another 50 years for women to catch up with their male counterparts in terms of written literature in Hausa. But women eventually dominated the field.
From 1990 onwards, a whole range of Hausa novels hit the market in Northern Nigeria. Women made up the majority of the writers and readers of these novels. These books subverted the norms of the conservative society. Most of these novels—such as Rahma Abdulmajid’s Mace Mutum (The Woman is Human); Balaraba Ramat’s Ina Son Sa Haka (I Love Him All the Same); and Amina Abdulmalik’s Ruwan Raina (Soul of My Heart) are frank, bawdy romances featuring powerful women. In her novel Sa’adatu Sa’ar Mata (Sa’adatu the Lucky Woman), Bilkisu Ahmad Funtua reconciles and replaces the age-old traditions of love, marriage, and relationships with newer trends such as the education of young girls, female empowerment, and power. In the novel, the female protagonist is an educated seasoned journalist. These voices made the societal elites even more apprehensive of the new genre.
Kano State is home to more than nine million inhabitants. Popular and largely self-published, these Hausa women’s novels can be found in every bookstore in Kano. Literary critics found these feminist ideals within the romance novels. For instance, Novian Whitsitt, a professor of Africana studies and English, wrote that the literature indirectly and candidly questions the gender status quo of Hausa women. These newcomers in Hausa popular writing were a stark departure from previous generations. They wrote stories that evinced urbanism and sexuality without the editorial constraints of the earlier Hausa writings.
The appearance of Talatu Wada Ahmed’s Rabin Raina (My Soulmate)—a series of three similarly titled, but unrelated novels, privately printed in Zaria from 1984 to 1988—kickstarted the revolution. By the year 2000, more than 600 Hausa novels had been published in a genre termed Adabin Kasuwar Kano (Kano Market Literature). The appearance of about ten novels between 1998 and 2003 including Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Wane Kare Ne Ba Bare Ba (Is the Man a Dog or Just an Outcast?); Bilkisu Ahmed Funtuwa’s Kyan Dan Miciji (Fatal Beauty); Zuwaira Isa’s Zata Iya (She Can); LubabahYa’u’s Malika, Maryam Kabir Abdullah’s Gajen Hakuri (Impatience); and Rabi Ado Bayero’s Auren Zahra (Zahra’s Marriage), all with descriptions of sexual scenes, further fuelled apprehension of the new genre.
These women writers, who were raised in a patriarchal society that encouraged self-censorship, and declared that their writings should ‘preach’ goodness to avoid badness—an idea derived from the Qur’an, where the Muslim is urged to observe and promote what is proper and to prevent what is improper—found themselves navigating Islam and Hausa customs. This placed them in a struggle to balance their faith and social relations with their feminist ideals. And yet, the creative impulses of these writers overcame suppression, book burnings, bans, and the criminalization of sexual narratives and queer stories—as indicated in the success of novels like Kamalu Namowa Bichi’s Sirrin Loba (Secret Love) which featured sexual scenes and lesbian love.
The North is often portrayed through the lenses of instability and Boko Haram (the terrorist group that kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls). However, in Hausa novels, it was the government and the political class that were the nemeses. And there are solid grounds for this: between 2007 and 2008, Adaidaita Sahu, a social reorientation programme set up by Ibrahim Shekarau during his tenure as Governor of Kano State, organized several book burnings. During these burnings, thousands of Hausa novels were gathered and publicly burnt. The male-dominated political class perceived these books as a threat because they questioned gender biases and the oppression of Hausa women. The novels provided commentary on forced marriage, seclusion, and the lack of female education. In their place, Shekarau’s programme sponsored ‘moralistic’ novels, which relegated women to the background in the society as second-class citizens.
A Woman Is Human
Growing up as a girl in Lagos in the 1990s, with an Arab father and a Fulani mother, Rahma Abdulmajid was more comfortable speaking Yoruba than Hausa. The only avenue Rahma had to perfect her Hausa was the radio. As she sat on the floor, legs folded and palms against her cheeks, Rahma tuned in to the Hausa radio and listened as the airwaves transmitted Hausa romance novels in a sweet melody. These readings were broadcasted weekly and it would take several weeks before a novel could be finished, each episode leaving young Rahma in suspense before the turn of another week.
Rahma and her family travelled to Kano to visit family, and the young reader hoarded handfuls of Hausa novels back to Lagos. While reading one such novel, In Da So Da Kauna (When There Is Love, There Is Adoration) by a male writer, Ado Ahmad, she felt the urge to respond to the patriarchal description of love and jealousy in the novel. Her first novel Wa Ya Fi Kishi? (Who Is More Jealous?) was her response. And it was the beginning of Rahma’s feminism, one that would evolve over her next eleven novels.
While studying for a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Cairo, Rahma encountered the writings of Egyptian feminist, Nawal El Saadawi. Following this encounter, Rahma’s feminism strengthened and her magnum opus, a 520-page novel, Mace Mutum (The Woman Is Human) was born. Published in 2006, Mace Mutum was unlike previous Hausa novels, with its size and its thematic preoccupation. In the novel, the Hausa woman is central and Rahma writes in language delicate enough to communicate what it means for a woman to be treated as if she not a human being but property, and yet decisive enough to reject this notion. This passage was published as a translated excerpt in the October 2013 issue of Words Without Borders:
Yes, the rainy season is a blessing, the harvest is bountiful, and there is food to eat. But most of the times, it turns out a nightmare for the women. The rainy season is the season of divorce. The men are buoyant, with bumper harvest and heavy pockets, and are ready to bring more wives into the household; and the logs of wood are wet and difficult to set fire for cooking. These two choices for the men combine to throw women out of their matrimonial homes. This instance happened to Juma, my aunt. She desperately wanted to finish dinner on time, but the logs refused to cooperate, the fire will not set, and she could not serve her husband dinner that night. He divorced her and sent her out of his house. She arrived home, tears pooled in her eyes, but no one sympathized with her. It was indeed a grave sin for dinner to be delayed for the husband, let alone not to be served at all. Unforgivable.
The Writer, the Critic, and the Disciple
Laptop screens glowed, papers swished, and plastic bottles crinkled in the conference room of the Hausa section of the BBC office in Abuja, Nigeria. Two women and a man reclined and turned their chairs as they judged the 2017 BBC Hausa Short Story Writing Competition for women ‘Hikayata’ to select the winner of the $2000 prize, which is a huge amount in a country with a minimum wage of just about $50 per month.
Ibrahim Malumfashi, the head judge, had been a harsh critic of the early generation of Hausa writing. Balaraba Ramat, one of the three judges, had borne the burden of Malumfashi’s criticism for years. But it was also Malumfashi’s criticism of the tone, structure, and copyediting of the early works, which he termed, Adabin Kasuwar Kano (Kano Market Literature) in 1994 (to the chagrin of the novelists) that led to the fresher ways of writing as seen in Rahma Abdulmajid’s 2006 Mace Mutum. Rahma was the final judge in the BBC Hausa Conference Room.
The selection of these three judges seemed a culmination of the long decades of struggle for women writing in Hausa. It was the competition that brought all three judges together, one certainly inspired by the success of Balaraba Ramat and Rahma Abdulmajid’s novels and Ibrahim Malumfashi’s consistent criticism. Indeed, the three judges had an entwined literary history. Ibrahim Malumfashi’s criticism of Balaraba’s early writings made her always present her manuscripts to at least three professors for thorough proofreading and editing before publishing. Rahma had grown up reading the works of Balaraba Ramat, then rising herself to become an acclaimed novelist, building on the platforms of her predecessors. Her novel, Mace Mutum, was also introduced to world literature through an excerpt of the novel Ibrahim Malumfashi translated into English.
At the competition, the three judges flipped through stories, discussed their journeys, the journey of women writing in Hausa, and read entries from a diverse selection of women, inspired by the long years of the judges’ labour. The crop of writers they assessed wrote about dreams, fantasies, realities, magical realism, sci-fi, and queer narratives in Hausa-land. The judges shuffled through the magical pens of the newest generation of Hausa women writers, trying to uncover something fresh in Hausa literature.
A Successful Subversion
Writing about feminism in the early 90s came with its own struggle especially for women writers. The negligence of the female education (compared to male education in Northern Nigeria) meant women writers were always at a disadvantage. Their bodies of work were suppressed, in a continuous attempt to censor the voices of women and what information they had amassed through years of being ‘submissive’.
Subverting a conservative culture provided a path to the emancipation of female voices through literature. Women writers started a revolution through the messages in their works. Voices that were previously viewed as nonentities and unworthy of any serious indulgence now command the attention of millions of readers all over Northern Nigeria calling for the transformation of gender relations, the re-orientation of attitudes to women, and the upending of the patriarchy at all levels of society. These champions of Hausa literature have their pens ready, full of fire, energy and imaginations, emitting hidden truths through words, and steadily reinventing the narratives of women in Northern Nigeria⎈