Nigerian Romance Novellas Challenge Tradition

The often cherished and equally despised romance novel, a source for eye rolling and gagging gestures for some and a favored genre for others, doesn’t immediately strike one as a platform for change. But, more prone to sexism and misogyny, it is a genre that pleads for mending and offers an opening to creatively restructure romantic relationships and modes of power. This ability to mend is a task many women in Kano, Nigeria are taking upon themselves. In the ancient city, women are gathering, talking, writing, and rebelling against oppressive cultural norms through the untraditional medium.

The dominant Muslim extremist group in Northern Nigeria, Boko Haram, presses an extremely restrictive slate of rules on women, including child marriage and little freedom regarding pleading for or against divorce. This past weekend, members of the extremist group posted a video of Boko Haram abducting dozens of young girls from a local school. The call to act is ever increasing, and expression through literature seems to offer not only an outlet for anguish, but the roots of empathy, hope, and change.

“It’s a quiet revolution,” Ado Ahmed Gidan Dabino, author and head of Kano’s Writers’ Association shares. Yet the small effort is amassing huge audiences and providing a catalyst for discussion.

Ado Ahmed Gidan Dabino

One author in particular is on the rise on the romance genre, or ‘littattafan soyayya’ (love lit), as it’s scornfully dubbed by opposition. Hadiza Nuhu Gudaji, a widely known author to the area, is frequently asked to speak or read on talk shows, and often takes callers to offer relationship and marital advice to young women. With daily readings on over 20 radio stations, Gudaji’s works is equally accessible to her literate and illiterate audience.

Her popularity has proven key in initiating more girls to read, a flourishing unprecedented in an area that has less children in school than almost anywhere else around the globe. To give you a sense of the area’s opinions on traditional academia, the term Boko Haram, in rough translation, means Western education is a sin.

“What they are preaching and doing is not in the Quaran,” Gudaji shares, “it’s un-Islamic.”

Hadiza Nuhu Gudaji

The book topics range from lesbian relationships to a woman’s rights in politics and nearly everything in-between. However, because these reads are seen as radical and impermissible by the extremist regime, the backlash has been severe and often violent, resulting in numerous instances of physical beatings and sexual abuse. With heavy involvement from the Censorship Board, navigating the strict content parameters of either the critic or the militant poses an extremely tricky task.

Although many writers continue to conform to the traditional domestic roles (with titles like The Beauty of a Woman is in Cooking), many others, notably Gudaji, offer books that capitalize on the harsh realities. Gudaji’s first novel challenged the rural custom of sending girls off to family members in cities to get them an education, exposing the frequency with which these girls often become house slaves subject to ill-treatment, abuse, and rape. Her second novel, tackling the issue of divorce, pointed to the problem of it being solely a man’s deciiosn, a inequality that often leaves women stranded and unable to seek out their children.

Gudaji’s work, and many of her fellow contemporaries, delicately tread the line between tradition and changing aspirations for the female writer. Despite the shift in content, tradition does remain a corner stone of even the most transparent or confrontational work. The teetering between two literary worlds is best reflected in the way Gudaji speaks to her own daughter about love. “A girl may love a boy but if they don’t suit, you have to stop her, and a girl has to obey her parents — 100 percent,” she instructs, “she must obey your rules and regulations.” 

For readers accustomed to a vocal feminist movement in the West, not to mention a steady critique of discriminaroty literature, this may apparear to be an area of dissoance. But, situatied in a culture that prioritozes custom, family and duty above all else, this literary step is a brave one, and hopefully a move towards literature that values female empowerment and tradition more equally.

Images courtesy of Daily Mail.