Ladies' love literature

May 2, 2008 5:18:22 PM PDT
Each evening, headscarf-shrouded women seeking romantic advice gather at book stalls lining a rush-hour intersection in Nigeria's Islamic heartland.

With the sun setting red behind a nearby mosque, the women thumb through northern Nigeria's unique, female-authored literary offerings: cheaply bound but popular volumes that address issues confronting women in a Shariah society: courtship, polygamy and the meaning of love.

While hardly bodice-rippers by Western standards, the controversy surrounding what academics call "Kano market literature" is increasing with the books' readership. Conservative scholars and clerics in Nigeria's north deride the tomes as pulp fiction that degrades Islamic and indigenous cultural mores. A top Islamic leaders recently set fire to a pile of the books.

But female readers say the volumes - with such titles as "Edge of Fate," "False Love" and "Undeceiveful Heart" - help them navigate contemporary life and their titles are proliferating rapidly, pitting younger women against a predominantly male, conservative elite.

"Women are not only writing for pleasure, no, we are writing because we are seeing what is happening in the society and we want a lot of corrections," says Binta Rabiu Spikin, a 32-year-old single woman who was raised in her grandfather's home, which included four wives.

"We want amendments made. That's why we write."

The books are mostly written in the local language of Hausa. They extoll the values of true love based on feelings, rather than family or other social pressures. Some also carry anti-drug messages.

Several volumes instruct women on how to send loving text messages to their intended mate's mobile phones: "Knowing I can love U with the distance between our hearts makes my love 4U stronger."

Still, readers hoping for Kama Sutra-like instruction in male-female relations will be disappointed. The story lines in most of the novels highlight issues facing women and girls, particularly their relations with men.

Many men in northern Nigeria have up to four wives, in keeping with Islamic injunctions, frequently forcing women who may not be natural allies to live together in close quarters. Multiple wives is far less common in Nigeria's predominantly Christian south.

The books don't normally offer instructions on how to deal with this family set up, but instead offer a picture of the household dynamics, so that women will know what to expect.

Other volumes take on a dreamier approach, with women openly flirting and dancing closely with men in public. In reality, that's a rarity in northern Nigeria, where public modesty and chastity are encouraged in women. Readers say the books help them understand female adult life.

"Now we're living in a modern society, but there are still things they don't tell you," says Maryam Muhammed Haladu, a 20-year old devotee of the books. "Some ladies, when they're married, they don't know what to do. They don't know how to take care of a man, how to seduce him."

But even the depiction of men and women together rankle some conservatives. Throughout the ages, cultural mores were transmitted by village leaders and through families in an oral tradition.

Arab slave and spice traders brought Islam to the Hausa people in 1300s. Later, English colonialists who ruled Nigeria until its 1960 independence applied the English alphabet to the Hausa language, allowing for a written history. The British encouraged Hausa writing with competitions in the 1930s.

Over the decades, Hausa speakers developed a thriving literary tradition in their own language, which is rare in Africa, where many languages had no written tradition until colonialists brought script.

But until computers and cheaper means of publishing arrived in the late 1990s, when Shariah or Islamic law was installed in the area, male cultural elites controlled the presses.

With the recent explosion of communication technology, women have found ways to publish their books, too. About 100 of the Kano chapter of the Nigerian Writers Association are now female, a massive increase since the turn of the century when military rule ended and mobile phone and other technology blossomed in Nigeria.

The women writers' books, along with similarly themed novels by men, now crowd jerry-rigged roadside bookshops across Kano. At about 30 cents a copy, writers say sales are way up in the past few years.

The colorfully titled books, which are little more than stapled pamphlets, normally boast covers with women smiling at passers-by. Between the covers, women discuss how to approach men while remaining chaste, and how to live peacefully in a household with the four wives allowed by Islam.

But many academics and Islamic clerics wish the books would just disappear. They say foreign influences are creeping into the writings, particularly from the popular Indian Bollywood movies, undermining traditional Hausa and Islamic practices.

They also complain that the writing is of a low level, which tarnishes their long literary traditions. The region's traditional leader, the Emir of Kano, recently presided over a ceremony where several of the books that were found inside school houses were torched.

"Women, particularly the youth, like love and they want to talk about it. But among us Hausas, we do love inside the home, not outside," says Sheikh Ibrahim Khalil, the head of Kano's Islamic clerics' association, the Council of Ulama.

"Religiously, it's not haram (banned) to write about love in Islam. But they way they write, it's not very mature," he said. "It's a problem for our education, our culture, our morality."

For many others, the books herald broader shifts, while also encouraging literacy among women in a region with low levels of female education.

"I do think (the books) have some prophetic qualities, in terms of where Islamic and Hausa culture is headed," says Novian Whitsitt, an associate professor at Africana studies at Luther College in Iowa, who has studied the phenomenon.

"It speaks to younger generations' desire to make for a more liberating environment with regard to women's expression and contributions to society."

While some books have had publishing runs of over 100,000, the writers say authorship doesn't pay a living wage, but they find importance in communicating with a mass audience.

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