|Purdah: Separation of the sexes in northern Nigeria|
|Written by Nicola Hugo (1) Monday, 04 June 2012 08:00|
Purdah is the strict enforcement of seclusion rules upon (typically) married Muslim women. They are expected to remain indoors, except in extreme cases such as to receive medical treatment or to attend marriages and funerals with their husbands’ permission. If women do venture out, they need to be completely covered by a hijab, and in some instances also escorted. Violating these regulations may result in accusation of promiscuity or even divorce.(2)
Human rights bodies have criticised the practice, saying that it limits women’s social, economic and political participation. But supporters of purdah say that it is an act of honour, respect and dignity. They point out that women find creative ways to participate, especially economically. This paper will attempt to better contextualise these opposing views by focusing on purdah in northern Nigeria. It also aims to challenge the Eurocentric image of these women as passive and counterproductive victims.
Purdah in Nigeria
Purdah in northern Nigeria was introduced by the Islamic jihad (religious struggle) led by Usmandan Fodio during the 18th century. This jihad took control of several major Hausa states, eventually establishing the Sokoto Caliphate, a Muslim empire.(3) At the beginning of the 19th century Islam was well established in all the major centres of the Hausa and Borno states. However, a group of Muslim intellectuals were dissatisfied because rulers in these states allowed the practice of Islam to be mixed with traditional religion. This meant that nowhere was the Islamic law observed in full.(4) This resulted in the Sokoto jihad that was fought, in a series of emirates, between 1804 and 1808. It was led by young men under the leadership of a Shaikh and young men from Fulani pastoralist families.(5) (The Fulani are a people of obscure origins who expanded eastward from lower Senegal in the 14th century. By the 16th century they were proceeding into Hausaland.)(6)
One of the aims of these (and later) jihads was to eradicate syncretic practices, including the free mixing of the sexes. Free mixing of adult females with non-family members of the opposite sex needed to be avoided due to the evil or negative potential consequences of such mixing; infidelity for example. It is an Islamic imperative that women’s modesty be strictly guarded.(7) Enforcement of purdah thus aims to create a pure or chaste society and serves as a measure to prevent the disintegration of the family, further giving men legitimate control over their wives’ behaviour.(8) This has caused profound changes in the social, political and cultural conditions of Muslim Hausa women in the area.(9)
Initially, the enforcement of purdah was met with resistance from the indigenous people who viewed it as a Fulani imposition and an exhibition of cultural dominance. Furthermore, the practice came into conflict with the traditional gender roles amongst pastoralists where women were directly involved with food production. This resistance gradually faded as Hausa women started seeing it as an opportunity to avoid labouring in the fields and to specialise and develop craft skills at home.(10) A study conducted by Catherine Vereecke in 1993 mentions that the benefits of staying at home (seclusion), rather than engaging in strenuous farm labour, has resulted in some pagan women becoming Muslim.(11) While production activities increased for men, women were for the first time freed to pursue individual wealth and men became aware of the prestige and piety associated with the practice.(12)
Today, the seclusion of adult females is still strictly practiced in northern Nigeria.(13) Muslim Hausa women are said to consider purdah and wearing the veil as important symbols of Islamic identity. The hijab is believed to illustrate that the wearer is a respectable woman. Furthermore, they consider these practices forms of protection against the ‘adulterous eye’, and respect, rather than as forms of oppression. The veil is symbolic of the virtues of conduct and, according to Sherif (1987), it reduces “sexual tensions in public places, frees her from the competition of being sexually appealing, negates her image as a sex object and attenuates differences in wealth and/or physical attractiveness.”(14)
Despite the fact that purdah has been adopted into northern Nigerian communities, many women in rural areas are unable to practice purdah due to economic hardships. With poor women being involved in subsistence agriculture, or seeking jobs as farm labourers, purdah has become a practice for only the wives of religious teachers, wealthy farmers and merchants. In this way, female seclusion has become an assessment for male economic success.(15)
Critics of purdah
Today, women who practice purdah face many challenges. There is no doubt that purdah restricts women’s personal, social and economic activities outside their immediate homes. Some women have spoken out about their struggle in purdah where they cannot socialise, or go out to make friends, except with fellow women in purdah. Acquiring travel documents and identity cards/documents prove to be near impossible with women refusing to show their faces fully. Women in purdah may have trouble voting due to veiling and their husbands forbidding them to go to the polls.(16)
Women practicing purdah also face health challenges. They are often unable to get proper medical care, especially during pregnancy, and regular physical health check-ups. Activists have pleaded with women in purdah not to shun medical and educational opportunities while respecting their faith. They suggest that maternal and infant mortality is high where purdah is widely practiced.(17) Purdah has also meant that many women are not exposed to sex education or AIDS awareness programmes. Often they only become aware of their own HIV status when their husbands fall sick or die. Furthermore, access to HIV/AIDS healthcare services is limited for women in purdah.(18) While purdah places restrictions on women, it does not restrict men engagement in promiscuous behaviour and as a result, husbands often pass on sexually transmitted diseases to their wives.(19)
Marriage at an early age is common and for this reason purdah tends to interfere with the continuation of school up to tertiary level. Even though some men allow their wives to continue their education, sometimes even up to university level, in many cases women in purdah are not allowed to attend school. Furthermore, men remain strict in limiting their wives’ choice of work to those with minimal direct male-female interaction.(20)
Female agency in hidden trade
Yakubu Zakaria (2001) and other scholars have challenged widespread depictions of Muslim women as subjugated objects of pity, who have retarded (due to Islamic practices), or even counter-productive economic roles in society. They challenge this view by illustrating the ways in which women engage in hidden economic activities, bypassing the open market, but still contributing to the economic progress of their society.(21)
While some Muslim scholars and many Hausa males are opposed to female employment in the formal economic sector, they are not against female productive economic activities within the home. This participation does not violate the Muslim principle of female separation and does not lead to problems of corruption and sexual promiscuity.(22) Several studies, such as the one undertaken by Zakaria, document the flourishing of economic activities by women in purdah, the enhancement of their income and status and also their investments, usually towards marital affairs.(23)
Income-generating activities performed by women practicing purdah include the sale of home-made food such as fried groundnut cakes, packed products such as sugar, home-processed and non-perishable products like groundnut oil, and also luxury items such as cloth, clothing, perfume and hand-made soaps. Some women provide services such as weaving, sewing and hair plaiting and many engage in multiple activities.
According to the study conducted by Coles (24) in 1991, 80% of Hausa women had occupations and nearly half of the women had multiple income-generating activities. Vereecke (1993) found that at least two-thirds of secluded Hausa women engage in household trade, irrespective of their family income or status.(25) A more recent study conducted by Zakaria in 2001 suggests that secluded women in northern Nigeria sometimes contribute between 20-50% to household subsistence.(26)
When goods are not sold from home to visiting women friends or relatives, traders usually employ their own children or other’s children to act on their behalf. Children act as intermediaries between the public male domain and the domestic female domain.(27) For example, children may purchase the cooking ingredients from the market or from other women, sell the goods on the street and buy products from women traders.(28) Wealthier “women with telephone facilities at home can transact business with other women without having to leave home.”(29) Some secluded Hausa women have international business connections in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Egypt. Trips to these locations are usually conducted on Islamic pilgrimages to Mecca.(30) In some cases, male workers are hired for assisting with the transport or to act as intermediaries.(31)
Studies, such as the ones discussed above, suggest that secluded housewives accumulate substantial capital from petty or large-scale trade. This capital is used to contribute to the family’s subsistence needs, to sponsor their spouse’s pilgrimage trips on the Hajj and to purchase luxury goods. Most women save for their daughter’s marriages, “which they believe will broaden their marriage choices and provide them with a comfortable lifestyle when married.”(32) Considering men are expected to provide for women and children, women are able to keep their profits for themselves and use them as they see fit.(33) Hidden trade has come to be known “as a Hausa, a Nigerian, or perhaps West African women’s institution that serves the dual function of enhancing both their prestige and modesty and of providing them with some remuneration for their household labour.”(34)
The occasional employment of men to maintain these household businesses and the agency, no matter how limited, of women in these situations are interesting. They challenge established gender hierarchies that are thought to be fixed and illustrate the role class plays in negotiating gender relations and agency.
Advocates of purdah point out African women have continued their economic activities (in modified ways) while in purdah. They also illustrate that while women do not have status or power in the public arena, they have control over systems of production and are able to generate resources to renegotiate their position in the restricted private domain.(35) Hidden trade has allowed women to maintain extra-domestic relationships through gift exchange. It has also meant that women can withstand the loss of male support after being widowed or divorced and their incomes sometimes enable them to instigate divorce. Furthermore, an independent income means that women can negotiate more advantageous marriages for themselves and their daughters, illustrating the control that women in purdah are sometimes able to exercise.(36)
Advocates also point out that in other parts of the world Muslims have sought more equitable treatment in family law and employment, but women and men in northern Nigeria seem reluctant to seek change. This may be due to the fact that the benefits, including the economic autonomy that purdah allows women, are sufficient for most not to seek change.(37) This may also be due to the fact that many women practice purdah due to religious conviction. Many see it as an act of honour, respect and dignity believing that when a woman is covered, she “allows men to see and respect her for her intellect, faith and personality.”(38)
Critics of purdah, on the other hand, may argue that though hidden trade improves the living conditions of women, it does not lead to greater participation in the male-dominated areas of economic and political life. The area in which women control resources is very limited. Enid Schildkrout (1982) points out that while women are able to participate in retail trade and petty commodity production, most remain dependent on “manipulating the limited resources that men give them for subsistence.”(39) Furthermore, the profit that women invest into marriage is actually an investment into “the very marriage system that defines their position in the first place,” and the pattern of female dependence lives on. Schildkrout explains, “Hausa women do little more than protect their autonomy in a sexually segregated society.”(40)
At a time when Muslim practices are being questioned globally, understanding purdah and other Islamic practices becomes increasingly important. Being aware of the debates opposing and supporting purdah not only leads to greater tolerance, but also to appropriate action. Scholars suggest that hidden trade in purdah goes unnoticed by studies that document only formal economic activity. As a result, women’s contributions to family and economic growth in their communities go unrecognised and stereotypes relegating Muslim women to passive victims are perpetuated. This calls for a re-evaluation of economic definitions of ‘work’ that are not culturally and religiously accommodating.
Understanding the practice of purdah may also lead to effective medical and health-care responses. For example, the Women’s Research and Development Council (WRDC) is reportedly “collaborating with some Muslim groups to facilitate the medical treatment of women in purdah by female doctors.”(41) In addition, Support Health and Education for Development (SHED) organises outreach and educational activities for women in purdah. Amongst other things, they help women in purdah start support groups, advocate for more access to education and health services and disseminate basic HIV/AIDS fact and prevention messages.(42)
Despite being widely criticised, it is important to recognise the cultural and religious ties to purdah. A Eurocentric view in which women are seen merely as passive victims may be counterproductive when attempting to understand how gender relations are (re)negotiated. Further research into the class, religious and cultural aspects of people’s lives in northern Nigeria may provide a nuanced view of women and men and how they practice purdah, as well as how they negotiate intersecting religious and gendered identities to exert agency. This may help to move away from the dichotomous and unproductive view of hapless woman and dominating man.
(1) Contact Nicola Hugo through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Gender Issues Unit (