Wednesday, March 15, 2017

USA Africa Dialogue Series - On The Proposed Family Law in Kano: The Hegemony of Patriarchy and the Obliteration of Women's Voice

Since his ascendancy to the throne as the 14th Emir of Kano on June 9, 2014, Emir Sanusi Lamido Sanusi has embarked on different reforms aimed at addressing some of the social malaises that are pervasive in Kano State and Northern Nigeria at large. In his Thomas Hodgin Memorial lecture delivered at the University of Oxford titled "Tradition, Modernization and Reform: The Institution of Emir as change Agent", Emir Sanusi spoke about his proposed reform agendas which includes the codification of family law, the reform of education and the mainstreaming of Arabic as well as the utilization of Zakat (alms-giving) to systematically deal with social problems that plague Northern Nigeria.

Emir Sanusi's reform agendas did not come as a surprise. I am not in complete awe of the fact that I am familiar with his antecedent avant-garde records. He has been a cognoscente and an influential pundit writing and delivering interviews on different topical issues ranging from religion, politics and social reforms since the last decade. However, his current reform agendas, specifically the codification of family law, has placed him on an impending feud with the clerical establishment in Kano. Emir Sanusi proposed a law that will address the issue of marriage, inheritance, orphans, widows and divorce. An important clause in the law is the stipulation that will prevent Muslims from marrying more than one wife unless they can prove that they have the means of taking care of more than one wife and also treating them justly.

Several notable Northern intellectuals have debated the proposed family law. In his insightful piece, Dr Aliyu Tilde, campaigned for the inclusion of the voices of the Talakawas (peasants) in the ongoing discourse. Other intellectuals such as Ibraheem A. Waziri and Adamu Tilde have also penned their contributions to the ongoing debate. Notwithstanding, the debate so far has affirmed the hegemony of patriarchy and the obliteration of the voices of women in Northern Nigeria. Aside from my criticism that the current family law was drafted based on the family laws of Middle Eastern countries with different cultures and traditions from Northern Nigeria such as Morocco, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and United Arab Emirate, Malaysia and Jordan, I am yet to read a single interview or piece of article written by a woman on this topical issue.

Why are we hearing only the voices of the clerical and patriarchal establishment? Why are the women silent? One would expect that given the vehemence of the ongoing debate, women will rally together and make use of the just concluded International Women's Day to address this topical issue. Here are some of the reasons the voices of women should never be obliterated from this 

ongoing discourse:

A. #ChildNotBride

The current debate on the family law is bringing back to light the #ChildNotBride campaign that previously spurred a national hullabaloo when Senator Ahmed Yerima attempted to justify his marriage to his 13 yr old bride by using Shari'ah law as an excuse to filibuster a constitutional amendment. According to the Child Right Act 2003 Part 3 Section 21 "No person under the age of 18 years is capable of contracting a valid marriage, and accordingly, a marriage so contracted is null and void and of no effect whatsoever." Section 22 Subsection 1 "No parent, guardian or any other person shall betroth a child to any person." Section 22 Subsection 2 "A betrothal in contravention of Subsection (1) of this section is null and void." Section 23 "A person—(a) who marries a child; or (b) to whom a child is betrothed; or (c) who promotes the marriage of a child; or (d) who betroths a child commits an offense and is liable on conviction to a fine of x500,000 (five hundred thousand Naira) or imprisonment for a term of five years or to both such fine and imprisonment."

Emir Sanusi proposed family law once passed by the Kano State House of Assembly will protect the rights of the Girl-Child. It is no longer a news that young girls under the age of 18 in Northern Nigeria are betrothed into forced marriages against their will. In his objection to the proposed family law, Shaykh Aminu Daurawa, a Salafi cleric in Kano, stated that the clause in the family law that says "Both bride and grooms most attain the age of 17 before getting married" is antithetical to Islamic injunctions specifically verse 4 of Surat Talaq. This objection begs the question of the need to revisit the law that should govern Northern Nigeria. The region is not a separate entity from Nigeria. Although the region is presently governed by the secular constitution of Nigeria, the Shari'ah as well customary laws, there is a blurred boundary on the jurisdiction of each category of laws.

Shaykh Daurawa stated in his criticism of the family law that many scholars in their Quranic exegesis of Surat Talaq verse 4 explained that a girl can be married off at a younger age, provided that would help her protect herself from committing adultery, uphold her religion, protect her health and dignity. He argued that Islam has not specified an age limit for a Muslim girl, as far as marriage is concerned and as expected he invoked the oft-repeated marriage of the prophet to Nana Aisha at the age of 9.

There is an urgent need to start problematizing this oft-repeated reference to the prophet's marriage to Aisha at the age of 9. No one is challenging the prophet's morality of marrying a girl at the age of 9, but one thing should be made clear that there is a variation in time and social context between the period of the prophet and our current epoch. For the fact that the prophet married Aisha at the age of 9 in 619 AD is not sufficient as a sacrosanct evidence to marry off young girls in 2017 at the same age without their consent. There are variances in time and social contexts.

Slavery was once revered in Islamic history and legitimized by prophetic traditions. The prophet participated in the institution of slavery. For instance, in Sahih Muslim there is a hadith that affirmed that the prophet purchased slaves حَدَّثَنَا يَحْيَى بْنُ يَحْيَى التَّمِيمِيُّ، وَابْنُ، رُمْحٍ قَالاَ أَخْبَرَنَا اللَّيْثُ، ح وَحَدَّثَنِيهِ قُتَيْبَةُ، بْنُ سَعِيدٍ حَدَّثَنَا لَيْثٌ، عَنْ أَبِي الزُّبَيْرِ، عَنْ جَابِرٍ، قَالَ جَاءَ عَبْدٌ فَبَايَعَ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم عَلَى الْهِجْرَةِ وَلَمْ يَشْعُرْ أَنَّهُ عَبْدٌ فَجَاءَ سَيِّدُهُ يُرِيدُهُ فَقَالَ لَهُ النَّبِيُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏"‏ بِعْنِيهِ ‏"‏ ‏.‏ فَاشْتَرَاهُ بِعَبْدَيْنِ أَسْوَدَيْنِ ثُمَّ لَمْ يُبَايِعْ أَحَدًا بَعْدُ حَتَّى يَسْأَلَهُ ‏"‏ أَعَبْدٌ هُوَ "There came a slave who pledged allegiance to Allah's Apostle on migration; he (the Prophet) did not know that he was a slave. Then there came his master and demanded him back, whereupon Allah's Apostle said: Sell him to me. And he bought him for two black slaves, and he did not afterward take allegiance from anyone until he had asked him whether he was a slave (or a free man)"

If the prophet participated in the institution of slavery, why was slavery abolished by Muslim-majority countries (slavery is still being practiced in Mauritania) even though Boko Haram and ISIS have resuscitated this abolished institution? So if slavery can be abolished then the prophet's marriage to Aisha should not always be invoked as a reference to force young girls into marriages against their will. I am with Emir Sanusi. Prescribing an age limit for marriage is an ijtihad (the process of making a legal decision by independent interpretation of the legal sources) that does not negate Islamic injunctions. If the institution of slavery can be abolished, I see no reason why marrying off young girls at the age of 9 cannot be condemned.

Shaykh Aminu Daurawa also stated that there is no scientific evidence that proves that early marriages of young girls lead to VVF "Vesico-Vaginal fistula". This claim also begs the question: if indeed Shaykh Daurawa is accurate in his claim, why are the cases of VVF more rampant in Northern Nigeria? Why are we not seeing the same vigor our clerics are showing in the ongoing debate on Family law in the campaign for Girl-Child education in Northern Nigeria?

B. Is Family Planning An Agenda of the West?

Another criticism of the proposed family law is the notion that the law is aimed at promoting family planning which has often been interpreted as an agenda of the West. This strain of thought is not new in Northern Nigeria specifically in the aftermath of the debate on polio vaccines where Muslim women were believed to have been sterilized. The proposed family law has also been framed into the net of "It is a Western Agenda". Although Boko Haram violently express their denunciation of western culture, the suspicion of the west is a pervasive frame of thought even among the intelligentsia of Northern Nigeria.

Despite the explanation of the societal benefits of the proposed family law, the clerical establishment has successfully framed Emir Sanusi's reform agenda as a Western-induced agenda aimed at curbing the geometric growth of population in Northern Nigeria like the erstwhile debate on family planning. His lecture at Oxford may also be interpreted along the same line of thought. It is excruciating that women who will eventually bear the brunt of whatever decisions the patriarchal society put forth to the state assembly are reticent. There is no discussion of addressing the mortality rate in the region? There is no discussion of domestic violence against women? There is no discussion of providing affordable antenatal and postnatal care for women? But right here, you have men in positions of power debating about the number of women to marry? Is this not the best time for women in Northern Nigeria to speak out against the antediluvian custom that treats them as sex objects? Is it not the best time for women in Northern Nigeria to speak out and demand for their fundamental human rights to education, freedom to make a decision about who they choose to marry? freedom of expression and inclusion into the policy-making process of issues that affect women?

C. Where I concur with the propositions of Shaykh Aminu Daurawa?

Although Shaykh Aminu Daurawa presented the positions of the clerical establishment on the proposed family law, I agree with some of his propositions. He proposed the inclusion of marriage education in the curriculum. For a state like Kano with a high rate of cases of divorce, marriage education is not just necessary, it is crucial and should be included in the educational curriculum. I also agree with his proposition of the importance of counseling for marriage-related issues. Finally, I agree with his proposition that there is a need for more enlightenment and awareness campaign on the proposed family law. Maybe a town hall meeting or Jumu'ah Khutbahs should be delivered to enlighten the public about the law. No matter what the patriarchal society decides on the proposed family law, the voices of women and even young unmarried girls should never be obliterated. They should be giving the platform to also discuss the issues and make suggestions before the law is passed as a bill in the House of Assembly.

Abdulbasit Kassim

Ph.D. Student

African Studies, Islam and IR

Department of Religion

Rice University

6100 Main Street

Houston, TX, 77005

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