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NIGERIA: Kano’s Women Still Seeking a Champion

KANO, Nigeria, Aug 20 2009 (IPS) - Hajiya Altine Abdullahi cut a chastened figure in February. She was planning a million-strong march of widows and orphans through the streets of the northern Nigerian city of Kano.

Until she was called in to a meeting with the powerful body tasked with monitoring compliance with Islamic law in Kano state, the Hisbah command.

“I have promised to desist from talking about the cancelled rally after the arguments of the Hisbah command helped me see the damage it would do to the community,” Abdullahi told IPS.

Abdullahi is the executive director of Voice of Widows, Divorcée and Orphans of Nigeria (VOWAN), a non-governmental organisation set up five years ago to address the problems faced by widows and divorced women in Kano State. It has since become a national group claiming about 17,000 members.

According to Abdullahi, VOWAN assists women with skills training and helps them to secure scholarships for their children.

Divorce in Kano State

According to Islamic law as practised in Kano, a man may obtain a divorce simply by making a proclamation to his wife, but the law is that a marriage is only dissolved after three such proclamations are made, each a month apart.

While this is happening, a woman is supposed to stay in her matrimonial home. If after the waiting period, her husband still wants to go through with the divorce, then she must move back to her parental home. Men seeking divorce frequently break this rule, sending a woman away immediately.

Now, if at any point in a marriage a wife feels unfairly treated or unhappy, she also has the right to go to court: a fact that many Muslim women in Kano are unaware of. The unhappy woman can also return her husband's dowry and seek for a divorce either before a shari'a court or simply between herself and her husband. But the low level of awareness of women's right under shari'a leads many women in Kano state to wait out a bad situation.

Husbands are required by law to cater for their ex-wives during the waiting periods in terms of their basic needs, food, clothing, health. Should they split up when it is over, she is entitled to a gift - this is not regarded as compensation but as something with which the woman can build up a little business or take care of herself after she has returned home. This token is rarely given to divorcees these days.

The fate of their children is a great concern for women who lose their husbands or get divorced. Many a mother who does not agree to leave their children in the hands of a stepmother takes them back to her parents’ home; in such cases, the children’s fathers invariably refuse to cater for them or pay their school fees, leaving them under the care of their maternal family.

Hamima Sani, a divorcée in Kano said, “our own families see us as additional burden when we are divorced and return to them with our children, so during the first few months of my return home, everything was provided for us, but later I struggled even to buy soap with which to bathe.”

It is common that during the first few months of a woman’s return to her parents, her family does its best to accommodate her, but the added burden of supporting a widow or divorcée and her children quickly wears out that welcome.

Shortly after VOWAN was formed in 2004, the members of the association paid a visit to the state House of Assembly where they lobbied for the adoption of a law that would focus on reducing the high rate of divorce in the state.

VOWAN demanded that measures to ensure that legal requirements around divorce be fulfilled.

In 2004, VOWAN strongly urged the state government to implement an empowerment scheme for divorcées and widows, or to assist them with funds from the public treasury to distribute to the widows and divorcées that registered with VOWAN.

They also said it should be made a social responsibility to care for orphans in the society, so they could access good education. VOWAN urged that government pay scholarships for registered orphans.

Five years later, VOWAN felt that their request had been ignored and announced th plan to march a one-million divorcées and widows through Kano’s streets on Jan. 29.

VOWAN is not the only group worried about the situation of divorced women. Kano State’s justice ministry conducted a study in 2006 that revealed that as many as 80 percent of marriages in Kano were not stable. The study, conducted under the authority of state attorney general Aliyu Umar put forward several reasons for this.

Reasons ranging from a communication problems to lack of education on the part of women side were responsible for the high divorce rates, in Umar’s view.

Early marriage often denies women the chance to complete their education. These young women are married to much older men who they relate to as a father or an elder brother and to whom they must show extreme respect.

Very few men in Kano will allow their wives go to either an Islamic or secular school to complete her education. Yet when they come across an educated woman, they are keen to marry them as a second wife.

The study indicated that in almost every home in the Kano, there is at least one divorcée returned to her parents or guardians, stressing that “this phenomenon contradicts the aspirations of the present administration which desires a better society.”

In December 2008, the Directorate for Social Re-orientation made a call to all couples in the state to eschew bitterness and rancor after realizing reasons like “misapplication of power by men to divorce women, to be responsible for the high divorce rates in the state.”

The directorate called for tolerance and patience over minor problems within marriages in order to save them from failing, because it was realized that extension and retention of minor problems such as sharing of responsibilities between the couple break homes easily.

The Director General, Malam Bala Muhammad, noted that the findings suggested that courts should give special consideration to marital cases, for example sending the couples for counseling and intervening on the issue of lack of fulfilling responsibilities especially from the men, in order to reduce rate of marital problems throughout the state.

The directorate has set up offices in each of the 44 local government areas of Kano, to settle marital disputes to reduce divorce rates, in addition to other family issues.

But when VOWAN announced the rally, some people – especially religiously-conscious people – were offended by the plan and began to advocate against it in mosques and elsewhere.

Even some women – both married and unmarried – were against the rally. It has never been witnessed in the Hausa community for women to be on the streets in the name of protest.

The state Hisbah command swiftly called the organisers to order. The commander of the women’s wing of the Hisbah, Malama Halima Shitu told IPS Hajiya Abdullahi is herself a member of the Hisbah, and she never contacted the command for advice before embarking on her rally.

“Most people did not know that she belonged to the Hisbah because she hides (her) identity with VOWAN. And being a Muslim from Kano made it necessary for the intervention of the Hisbah,” Shitu said.

“No one forced VOWAN to cancel the rally. Rather we wanted to know what she wanted to achieve by it. She mentioned that she was doing it to call people’s attention the number of widows on the street.

“We sat her down and underlined to her the religious implications of the damage she was about to do to women not only in Kano, but in the Muslim community as a whole. And before you know it, she was down on her knees voluntarily cursing her own actions.

“The Hausa community is known to be guided by Islamic norms, and the religion of Islam prohibits women from such acts as protests over issues that have already been ironed out by the religion, as I’m sure all religions have their norms too,” Shitu said.

“The organiser herself will never get a suitor – (nor would the) other women that would have been involved, as men will be by the road side to watch them.” Abdullahi is single since her divorce several years ago.

In an address to the press on the issue of the rally, the overall commandant of the Hisbah, Malam Ibrahim Mu’azzam stressed the need for widows  and divorcées to be empowered and it wasn’t right for them to demand for a law guiding divorce, since the Islamic religion has already provided that.

A widow named Hauwa Ado also felt that while widows and divorcées need to be empowered, the rally would have brought shame to women and exposes them to stigmatisation in the community.

A 42-year-old divorcée who spoke on condition of anonymity told IPS she feels the rally was a conspiracy between the executive director and some international organisations to bring the Muslim women into the streets against the Islamic norms and culture.

She notes that “the Islamic religion has already provided guidelines for divorce for all Muslims and as a believer one must accept the provisions as well as believing in destiny. I think the organisers are very weak in their belief towards Islam.”

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