African Muslim Women in Post-Colonial States of the Empire

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Modernized African states have created some opportunities along with a disparity of challenges for African Muslim women economically, socially, and politically. The transition from colonialism has been an immense burden for women because centuries of oppression has instituted a lifestyle of silence that prevents these women from recognizing and understanding their potential power. The emergence of Islam adhered to patriarchy, so women were then relegated back to domestic practices and out of public space. In a turn of events, the recent introduction to the idea of African feminism and the opportunity to receive an education for Muslim women in society has been pushing forth a discourse in hopes of a less patriarchal state. By definition, a feminist is someone who believes in the social, political, and economical equality of the sexes. However, when advocating for women’s rights in Africa, there has to be a clear distinction between African feminism and Euro-American feminism because the issues faced by each population is rather different. Islam and colonial regimes have acted as factors that bring about changes to the positioning of women in post-colonial African states.

Islamization and colonialism affected women in Hausa land because changes to political and religious structures impacted women in and outside of the Caliphate, which is defined as an Islamic State under the leadership of a political-religious successor. The Hausa people compose one of the largest ethno-linguistic groups in Africa as a whole and these people now reside primarily in the regions of Niger and Nigeria. Before Western intervention, women in countries of Africa such as Nigeria and Niger, ruled in high public positions in Hausa land and during the period before the 16th and 17th century, Islam was not widespread in Hausa land. Women, such as Queen Aminu of Zazzau ruled in the 16th century and Tawa of Gobir ruled in the 18th century. Extensive research has proven that women functioned as tax collectors, market administrators, and religious leaders through use of the bori spirit possession cult. In today’s society, cults are typically viewed as dangerous social groups with sinister intentions, but these women used spirits as a means of religion in order to ensure success of their positions. Unfortunately, influence by Islam and colonialism changed the meaning of the religion to mimic what we know it as today. The rise of Islam in Hausa states was carried out by King Muhammadu Rumfa of Kano when he was convinced by Muslim missionaries to incorporate Islamic practices into his government. During this time, women were no longer allowed to engage in public positions as supported by the Shari ’a (Islamic) law. This marked a crucial change in the status of women in the Hausa land. Women who previously held high positions, were secluded and recognized with Muslim identity, as a manipulative strategy to prevent them from actively taking part in politics. Women who resided in lower positions gained certain inheritance rights, but still remained inferior to men because they were not allowed to have equal privilege and would later become “properties” of men throughout their lives.

The formation of Jihad (fight against the enemies of Islam), targeted the physical appearance of women and their interactions with the opposite sex. The Sokoto Caliphate under scholar Shehu Usman ‘dan Fodio, promoted the veiling of women and seclusion to domestic work, which meant that women were prohibited from holding public offices. Yet, he endorsed education for women, as exemplified by the education of his daughter, Nana Asma’u. Through Shari’ a law, common women were granted supposed rights and protection, but they were still perceived as property and obligated to marriage. The issue of slavery became prominent because it enabled men to have power over women through religious justification. The Islamic State purposely consolidated slavery outside of the empire to prevent women involvement in power. Women were objectified as concubines (a mistress), or as laborers in large-scale for agriculture and commerce. Although the Sokoto Caliphate was successful in conquering majority of the Hausa land, not all of the kingdoms were overruled. Five kingdoms stood outside of the caliphate, which prided themselves on resisting caliphate rule and cultural practice. These kingdoms allowed women to continue working in their positions and high institutions because requiring women to abandon their status, was a violation of their freedom.

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In the 19th century, Hausa land encountered imperialism from Europe and Britain, who were both anxious to colonize the land as part of their expansive world empires. France focused on conquering the northern edges of Hausa land while Britain took over the southern portions, which included the Sokoto Caliphate. The differing colonial experiences for each region added complexity to the already dense history of the Hausa people, producing various social positions of Hausa women. Under British indirect rule, the caliphate was still able to carry out customs and practice Islam. The British actually helped to solidify and expand the powers of the Sokoto Caliphate while adding colonial control and law to it. The British was unconcerned with the rights of women, so the legal system did not protect their interests. In Nigeria, women received smaller amounts of inheritance compared to men and had no child custody rights after a divorce once the child reached a certain age. In relation to education, Christian missionaries were discouraged from establishing schools in Muslim areas, so Islamic education was widespread in the Hausa land of Nigeria. Ironically, women were urged to be well-educated under the Sokoto Caliphate, so they were able to become educators and spiritual leaders. Women were finding their way into important positions of Islamic religious institutions which left a legacy for Nigerian Hausa women that did not only focus on the domestic sphere.

In contrast, the Hausa in Niger underwent a different colonial experience with the French. The French desired direct rule over Niger, so the European power decided to reduce their military rule in Niger in exchange for political governance. France forcefully replaced traditional chief rulers with French educated leaders. In 1922, King of Zinder was overruled by King Mustapha, who was more willing to comply with the demands of the French. A French education became a requirement in the selection of African administration as a scheme to implement French policies. Women did not have much of a chance of competing with men for state positions that required French education, since women were not enrolled in these types of schools. In addition, there was not the mixing of religion with Western secular education in Niger that existed in Nigeria. Toward the end of the colonial period, Islam was still more widespread in Nigeria Hausa land than Niger Hausa land. Taking these differences into account, it follows that many of the issues that arose for Hausa women in Niger were quite different from Hausa women in Nigeria.

In 1960, when both Niger and Nigeria gained independence from their colonizers, Hausa women on each side of the border were in quite different positions of different societies. Women in both newly independent countries were left struggling to reenter these realms after decades of marginalization from political, religious, social and legal power. Women in Nigeria were left with the legacy of reformist Islam incorporated into the governing structures, which stemmed from the Sokoto Caliphate and were strengthened by British indirect rule. Within the religious realm, however, more women have found the opportunity for education, since education for women is, at least in principle, an important value in the Islamic tradition of ‘dan Fodio and Nana Asma’u. Hausa women in Niger also have struggled to regain freedom in their postcolonial state. They did not, however, have a lineage of Islamic rule to contend with, as in the Sokoto Caliphate. They had inherited a secular state in which the French, during their years of colonial rule, vested authority in men. Fortunately, the French did not have the resources to implement truly their vision of direct rule, nor to succeed in “civilizing” Niger. As a result, women retained some of their institutions and positions in Hausa land, though these pre-colonial institutions also challenged by the new French-educated elite, who competed for power in the independence era. Presently, some Hausa women in Niger are receiving Islamic and/or French educations, which potentially leads to positions of some status and power in the country. However, most women remain illiterate, economically dependent, and politically marginalized.

In an effort to shift perspective, a closer look at ‘dan Fodio’s daughter, Nana Asma’u and her influence on the culture of Muslim women highlights the importance of Muslim women in leadership and portrays an example of African feminism. The emergence of African feminism is crucial when addressing how can Muslim women make the post-colonial state less patriarchal. Her father gratified the importance of having an education to her and her siblings, so she prided herself on embodying his expectations. Her authority was not garnered by oppression, but rather intelligence, her sense of duty to write and contribute her voice to the public discourse, and her spiritual status. Nana Asma’u’s authority grew after the death of her father, she undertook the responsibility of serving as the intellectual leader of the Caliphate, one of the largest Muslim empires in West African history. Her writings situated women as social and political leaders in the Sokoto Caliphate during its founding and its height. The teachings of Nana Asma’u made Muslim women feel more confident about themselves to derive a solid sisterhood, which enforced a supportive and sustaining community. Nana Asma’u was a prominent early feminist who understood what it meant for women to be decision makers in their communities as well as the advantages of strengthening dual gender roles. Her innovative educational system pushed against misogyny and uplifted women in every village and town. Asma’u’s contributions distort stereotypes of Muslim women. Nana Asma’u’s legacy of women educating women persisted and still stands today.

African feminism is for the African woman because it enables them to engage in issues that they are confronted with that limit their full function or freedom of will and expression, and the practice here does not necessarily base itself on Westernized terms. African feminism liberation struggles have sprung up all over the continent and in some cases the efforts of resistance are aimed at removing the holds of colonialism. The structures and needs of continental African women should be addressed by innovative African women who battle burdening structures of patriarchy. Too often, news reports depict Muslim women as oppressed victims who are barred from seeking education. The stories of Malala Yousafzai and the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram are only two examples how the media overshadows the accomplishments of Muslim women and ignore that women’s education has always been a fundamental aspect of Islam. The West constantly portrays the narrative of Africa as in need of help/saving, which therefore minimizes the contributions of African women, like Nana Asma’u

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