Islam and Gender: The Nigerian Case

By Gloria Thomas-Emeagwali. 1994


This chapter is divided into two main sections. The first focuses on some theological and other variables associated with Islam in Nigeria and briefly examines the historical context of Islamisation within Nigerian society. The second section discusses specific social and economic dimensions of Islam with respect to gender relations, and the manner in which traditional norms and Islamic injunctions have accommodated one another. This accommodation between religious belief and social reality has become particularly evident with the introduction of wide-ranging economic reforms as part of the implementation of structural adjustment programmes (SAP) inspired by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank).(1)

The impact of SAP, particularly in terms of changes in the life-style and day-to-day activities of Muslim women in Nigeria, has recently been the focus of two surveys carried out in Zaria and llorin in the north of the country.(2) Some of the survey findings will be incorporated in-to the analysis in order to underline the type of choices that Muslim women in Nigeria are facing.

Theological and other Variables

It is estimated that the proportion of the Muslim population in Nigeria is 42 per cent. Given the fact that current demographic estimates for the population as a whole range from 100 to 120 million, and pending more accurate demographic data from the recent census, this would indicate that there are some 50 million Muslims in the country.(3) There is of course, a spatial dimension to be taken into account, with a great density of Muslims in the northern parts of the country, a medium spread in the central and western parts and a relatively sparse population in the production and reproduction (see WIN, 1985). Islam reduced the numerical option to four wives and introduced a few new rules to the marital game (cf. Ogunbiyi, 1969; Pittin, 1979). Since Qu'ranic injunctions call for equitable treatment of all wives, it became a social offence for husbands to be accused of discrimination. By contrast, in the pre-lslamic worldview and philosophy in Nigeria, discrimination between wives was sanctioned and even encouraged. A clear hierarchy of wives based on seniority and age was the norm, a pattern which was not unrelated to the division of labour in the household, whereby junior wives performed more menial duties (cf. Ajayi and Ikara, 1985; Falola, 1986). This is not to deny the fact that the pre-lslamic custom of a hierarchy based on the seniority of wives in polygynous marriages has persisted in some areas. However, this pattern is not generally socially sanctioned and is held to be counter to Islamic prescriptions favouring equality among wives. Moreover, women who are informed of their rights are, at least theoretically, in a position to negotiate a more favourable status for themselves.

In the Zaria survey referred to earlier, 90 per cent of the women had married under the age of 15, a trend which appears to be the norm in a number of Islamic communities in Nigeria (cf. Pittin, 1990). Variables such as social status and class origin are relevant in the overall appraisal of marital trends, and most of the respondents were lower middle class. Their class origin is to some extent reflected in their economic activities, which ranged from petty trade to farming, i.e. sectors where the impact of SAP has tended to be particularly unfavourable to women and their sources of livelihood. Attempts have been made to legislate against the practice of early marriage within the last decade, largely as a result of activist organisations such as Women in Nigeria and in some cases protest on the part of young girls against such marriages (WIN, 1985). It is doubtful, however, whether the on-going SAP and related state policies undermine the practice of early marriage given the real or imagined economic benefits this may hold for parents in terms of absolving them from the need to support their daughters. There is also increased 'feminization of poverty' whereby girls and women may find themselves increasingly dependent and impoverished in the context of subsidy removal on health, education and food items - a trend which also appears to encourage early marriage (see Thomas-Emeagwali, 1991).

However, the llorin survey suggests a possible countervailing force reflected in the growing caution on the part of males of marriageable age vis-à-vis the issue of starting a family given the economic crisis. Respondents in this survey pointed to a decline in the level of festivities accompanying marriage ceremonies. From the earlier practice whereby festivities spanned a seven-day period, there was now a noticeable reduction to five days and less. Moveover, there seems to be an overall decline in the number of marriages and even an upswing in the incidence of monogamy. There were more cases of simultaneous marriages of daughters and sons in order to reduce cost. one may also assume that economic conditions have been having a perceptible impact on the mahr (bride-price) which women are legally entitled to under Islam. However, the data with respect to reproductive behaviour and the size of family units were inconclusive, with evidence for the retention of large families in some cases, and reduced family size in others.


Whilst Muslim males in Nigeria are not obliged to state the reasons for divorce, women are expected to do so, but only within the context of the following parameters: a women may sue for divorce should the husband fail to provide for the economic needs of the family, or decides to change his religion, or wrongly accuses her of adultery. If the husband proves to be impotent or, in the case of early marriage, she has become disillusioned with the marriage after attaining puberty, she is also entitled to file for divorce (cf. Schacht, 1957). In spite of this trend, it was noted that most of the respondents in the Zaria survey were in stable marriages of ten years or more, and there seemed to be an overall low divorce rate. By contrast, in the case of llorin, most of the women indicated an increase in the rate of divorce. This supports an earlier finding of Barkow (1971), which found that around 50 per cent of the Muslim women in the study were divorced. The Zaria trend notwithstanding and funher research is needed to explain these apparently contradictory findings - there generally seems to be a noticeable ease by which Muslim women in Nigeria move in and out of marriage. Equally important, divorce is generally not associated with social stigma as in pre-lslamic times, and divorced women can and are expected to remarry. Casual observation suggests that the llorin case cited is not unique in terms of the region as a whole.


The issue of female sexuaiity is generally associated with the question of male-female interaction and female seclusion. Purdah, identified as one of the major pillars of male patriarchy, exhibits three variations in the Nigerian case: complete seclusion, partial seclusion and voluntary 'seclusion of the heart' (cf. Abdullah-Olukoshi, 1990). In the latter case, seclusion is symbolic and not based on physical segregation. This situation appears to have evolved as a compromise sanctioning the employment of educated elite women in the civil service and other forms of public activities. Associated with the two other forms of seclusion is a degree of withdrawal from public view, which may be either partial or total - as in the case of the wives of traditional rulers and members of the 'ulama who tend to serve as role models. As elsewhere in sex-segregated societies, in reality the process of seclusion is largely class-based. Thus, peasant or working-class males in particular can generally ill afford the luxury of non-working wives. A recent study focusing on Kaduna, Bauchi and Kano (with a large proportion of Muslims among their populations), showed that 65 per cent of women in these areas were active in farming and livestock rearing, marketing of grain, spinning, weaving, cooking of fast food as well as in general trade (WIN, 1985).

The growing force of the Tijaniyya brotherhood is important in this context for, unlike the Qadriyya, it does not consider seclusion to be imperative. The Tijaniyya, founded by Abu al-Abbas Ahmad al-Tijani in North Africa during the second half of the eighteenth century, found adherents in Nigeria following the activities of the Senegalese cleric Al Hajj Tall in the nineteenth century (cf. Isichei, 1977). It remains one of the most dominant of the Sufi orders in Nigeria, and may be contrasted with the Qadriyya brotherhood, which has its roots in twelfth century Baghdad where it was founded by Abdel Qadir al-Jilani. They differ from one another in tenms of a number of basic issues. For example, unlike the Tijaniyya brotherhood, the Qadriyya is opposed to the appointment of women in positions of leadership and adheres overall to a stricter separation in its ascription of gender roles. The brotherhoods also diverge in terms of praying positions and in their attitudes towards mysticism. However, association with one or the other brotherhood and the concomitant attitudes towards seclusion are also influenced by other variables, such as proximity to urban centres, class origin and educational level.

The recent surveys in Zaria and llorin suggest some of the effects which economic conditions can be presumed to be having on the observation of moral imperatives dictated by the brotherhoods. Thus, there is a trend whereby women traditionally associated with purdah have been abandoning the custom. Some respondents pointed to the increasing participation of women in farming, with the effect that the differentiation between those adhering to purdah and those outside of it are becoming more blurred. In the words of one informant: 'Women come out of purdah and mix freely with men in the market because they are looking for money.' Another informant emphasised that in her area she could hardly tell the difference between women who were traditionally in purdah and those who were not. One woman specified that economic difficulties have caused a lot of women to come out of purdah and engage in different occupations, whilst another pointed out that many women who used to be secluded were now engaged in farmwork. For yet another respondent, it was clear that a lot of women who were formerly in total seclusion were coming out 'to find something to do'. An older respondent stressed that times were such that 'she who waited for her husband to provide sustenance would suffer.' In the words of another, 'women in purdah have to fend for themselves and not depend on their husbands.'

It would seem therefore that a large percentage of these women outside of the elite who had until recently remained in either partial or total seclusion are now modifying their behavioural patterns to accommodate the changing economic realities affecting their lives. Those who engaged in the so-called 'silent trade' (i.e. employing another person to carry out public trading activities for them) could no longer do so successfully. They now found themselves unable to compete in the market from a position of seclusion given the increased competition from petty traders 'on the beat' hawking their goods. This trend must also be viewed within the context of rising religious fundamentalism in parts of northern Nigeria, where edicts have been issued prohibiting younger women on moral grounds from engaging in house-to-house trade and the marketing of household products. Pittin has pointed out that there are at present various indications of the fundamentalist offensive, including specific edicts on dress for women, the trend towards the boarding of female students and other forms of physical segregation, as well as the increased emphasis on the part of the state on women's family roles. She argues that these trends must be seen in the context of emerging contradictions between rhetoric and practice and within and between levels of government (1990: 23). One may add to this the proposition that economic imperatives and the fundamentally harsh economic variables associated with SAP, in themselves constitute significant vehicles for undermining the fundamentalist call for total seclusion and sex-segregated labour.

All the women interviewed observed that there was a marked increase in the cost of providing meals for the family. Increases ranged from 300 per cent to 1,000 per cent. Ilorin interviewees specified that items such as eggs, bread and rice were being dropped from their daily diet. They also claimed that their main diet consisted of amala and garb (yam and cassava derived food products), and meat was not eaten as frequently as before. When asked about the household budget, they claimed that they were operating on comparatively smaller allowances, since in some cases they received the same sum as before or even less. It is in the context of these economic difficulties that modifications have been taking place in terms of what some believe is a prime pillar of Islam, namely the principle of seclusion. Of course, as pointed out by one respondent, economic difficulties have been affecting women of other religious affiliations as well. Given the nature of class relations in Nigeria both historically and at present (cf. Thomas-Emeagwali, 1989), it is not surprising that, in the words of some of the women interviewed, 'wealthy women are not suffering as much.' Most interviewees reflected a clear recognition of status and class differentiation within Nigerian society, and its implications for women's economic roles.

Many respondents were engaged in petty trade. Some sold dawa da wake (a processed cereal), palm oil, or fast food such as akara or kosai (fried pastry made from beans), moi moi (another bean-based condiment prepared by steaming), or consumer products such as detergent, kerosine, sugar or salt. Some admitted to having made as many as five product changes in recent times due to the fact that some goods became uneconomical for resale almost overnight with the intense price fluctuations in the market.(4) A few of the women were involved in tailoring, the making of hats or occasional farm labour. Muslim informants from both Ilorin and Zaria attested to an increase in petty trading in their respective communities with the implementation of SAP, underlining the reality that it is the informal sector in particular which provides largely unskilled women with employment opportunities. The devaluation of the local currency seems also to have brought about a shift in trading patterns. Kano in the north has become an important wholesale trading centre and Saudi Arabia has been attracting a sizeable percentage of local merchants, which implies a trend away from western Europe in particular.(5) The implication of these shifting patterns for women's role in petty trading remains to be seen.


Pre-lslamic Nigerian society generally accorded women usufruct rights to land, but actual control remained exclusively in male hands. The arrival of Islam posed a threat to the traditional patterns of male land ownership by way of introducing new inheritance rights since, according to Islamic law, wives and daughters are entitled to a share in the estate of the deceased male kin. Where Maliki law applies (6) (as is the case among Nigerian Muslims), 50 per cent reverts to the daughter and 25 per cent to the widow. This represents a perceptible difference compared with the pre-lslamic tradition whereby inheritance was exclusively patrilineal, and where the eldest brother of the deceased inherited everything in areas such as Zaria, Tivland and Abuja, for example. Historically, in the northeast, the eldest sons and younger brothers were the legal inheritors. However, there were areas of divergence such as in the Jos Plateau area in the Middle Belt region, where at the death of her father a daughter could, if she had no brothers, take the corpse to claim all his land which then became the property of her husband and sons.(7) There are also cases in the Central Nigerian region where the property of a deceased male reverted to males from adjacent villages in cases where there were no male inheritors on the father's line.

Thus Islamic law introduced new codes of conduct and legal obligations into aspects of the pre-existing patterns of inheritance though there have inevitably been cases of violation. For example, the Report of the Land Investigation Commission which held public hearings in Kaduna in 1979, includes cases of complaints by women about the misappropriation of their inherited farmland. It has also been documented that traditional rulers, the courts as well as close relatives often connived to deprive women of their inheritance rights (cf. Perchonock, 1985). None the less, at least in conceptual terms, women have generally benefited from new possibilities in terms of legal rights according to Islamic law.

Diop (1978) and more recently Amadiume (1987) have argued the case for a matriarchal foundation for African indigenous societies, proposing that patriarchal elements were later impositions on the older matriarchal system. Amadiume further argues that there was a central female role in production, reproduction, property and status in parts of eastern Nigeria, a trend which she believes might be applicable to other parts of the continent. It would seem though that the collective testimony of oral tradition as reflected in anthropological accounts, court records, interviews and traditional legal systems, contradicts this view in the case of western, central and northern Nigeria in particular. However, it may be that the power of patriarchy in the formation of existing perceptions of societal organisation has been overestimated, and that researchers have generally failed to discern underlying matriarchal tendencies and other indications of female power.(8) Thus, the spread of Islam may well have served to reactivate ancient patterns of empowerment which, for reasons as yet obscure, became submerged with the spread of the patriarchal social system.

Conclusion: The Balance Sheet

Islam gave but it also took away. On the negative side it may be noted that, with the introduction of partial or total seclusion, there has been a relative loss of mobility and independence for some sectors of the female population, in particular those of high social status. This would also be the case with adherents of the Qadriyya brotherhood which, in contrast to the followers of the Ti janiyya inspired sect, restricts women's physical mobility and participation in public life. Islamic injunctions as laid down in the Qur'an and the Hadith are basically patriarchal in orientation. Muslim converts therefore became subjected to new forms of patriarchal reforms, which reinforced women's subordination and thus curtailed the relative freedom of movement they generally enjoyed during pre-lslamic times. Relative economic independence has in some cases been replaced by dependence and tutelage. Nevertheless, the gains in terms of inheritance rights have been quite significant, as has been the increased security with respect to land tenure rights. In fact, by all accounts, the assurance of an inherited share as stipulated in the Islamic legal code - however unequal in comparison to men - has apparently been encouraging conversion among some sections of the non-Muslim female population in Nigeria. It would also seem that women have generally gained respectability in the event of divorce and a breakdown of marital relations, in contrast wilh the pre-existing situation where divorce was socially stigmatised. Though women generally enjoy less flexibility than men in the initiation of divorce, they are nevertheless not hindered and even encouraged to remarry. The point to be made, therefore, is that Islamisation in Nigeria should be seen neither as the introduction of light in an area of darkness nor as a retrogressive force in absolute terms. The process has in fact been a chequered one and thus merits a balanced and sober evaluation.

The analysis of some impacts of the structural adjustment programme and its concomitant economic implications for Nigerian Muslim women, further illustrates the reality that the influence of Islam has and continues to be multi-faceted. Economic imperatives, in particular the subjection of non-elite women to the harsh realities of changing market forces have induced subtle and less subtle changes in attitudes towards female seclusion and economic activities outside the home. It remains to be seen what effect these changes may have for male-female gender relations, and whether the perceptibly increasing feminisation of poverty will lead to further erosion of the level of relative female autonomy which some female segments - such as petty traders - have tended to enjoy.


  1. It should be noted that Nigeria is among more than 30 African states implementing structural adjustment programmes which have been adopted in the context of large-scale indebtedness to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The programme itself involves the adoption of a largely monetarist policy which implies the removal of subsidies from health, education and other social services; continuous devaluation of the domestic currency, the naira; trade liberalisation and the general consolidation of a free market model as opposed to a state capitalist model of economic growth. The overall effects of this programme have, for example, included the increased decline in the purchasing power of the populace with the exception of those who actually benefit from the new dispensations given their class connections to the ruling elite or their participation in commodity imports in the context of the liberalised market. For general and specific reference to the on-going structural adjustment programmes see Onimode, 1989.
  2. Questionnaires were administered on my behalf by R.O. Lasisi, Department of History, University of llorin, and Nurudeen Abubakar, Centre for Nigerian Cultural Studies, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria between December 1990 and February 1991. Most of the women involved in the survey were working class and lower middle class.
  3. At the time of writing the census was in progress in the context of the transition to civilian rule undertaken by the Babangida regime.
  4. Between 1984 and 1990, the introduction of SAP and other economic changes caused large price increases. For example, in 1984 a plastic kettle cost 1- 1.5 naira and in 1990 it cost 10 naira. In the same period, the cost of a female head cover rose from between 3 and 5 naira to 40 naira; a rosary from I to 4 naira; cotton prayer mats from 13 to 80 naira.
  5. This trade network is not unrelated to the annual hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca.
  6. There are four Sunni Muslim schools of jurisprudence, Maliki, Shafi'i, Hanbali and Hanafi; Shi'a Muslims have their own school.
  7. For a related discussion and bibliographical references on this issue see Thomas-Emeagwali, 1988.
  8. Though hard-core evidence to support the existence of widespread matriarchal elements in various African societies including Nigeria remains elusive, one should not dismiss the research carried out on this issue. But as Amadiume (1987) herself admits, additional investigations need to be carried out to substantiate the hypothesis.