Remembering Umm Salama: On the kitchen, the living room and the other room

 Aisha Buhari

Aisha Buhari

Brethren, despite the best effort I put into it, I found no precedent in our national history for the incident of last week. I found no prior instance in our annals for the said interview granted by the wife of the President on the so-called hawks who have held him hostage and, by extension, the fortune and future of the Nigerian nation.

The only instance, and a recent one for that matter, in which the wife of a sitting President enjoyed media patronage was that in which ‘Her Majesty’ played the role of Propaganda-in-Chief for her husband. She literally seized the media by the jugular with such uncanny theatrics and comedies the theme of which was the necessity for Nigeria to return her husband to power because not to do that would lead to Armageddon and hara-kiri.

In other words, the last occupier of the ‘kitchen’, the ‘living room’ and the ‘other room’ inside ‘The Rock’ not only understood what the kitchen and the rooms actually meant but properly made use of those spaces to her advantage even if it meant the despoliation of Nigeria’s wealth and health.

Not to be undone in my pursuit of precedents for the interview granted by the wife of the current President, I therefore widened my inquiry beyond our immediate environment. I wanted to know whether America, widely acclaimed as the best democracy in the world, ever witnessed an instance in its tortuous histories when the wife of Mr. President went to the international media to pour water on what she perceived to be gaps in her husband’s administration.

As at the time I concluded this piece, my inquiry yielded zero return. It appeared as if across histories and civilizations, consorts of occupiers of public offices have always offered their criticisms and suggestions to their spouses first in the living room and later, for added effects, in the ‘other’ room.

History appears to have failed to record just one singe instance in which the wife of the King, known in Yoruba culture as the Olori took on the garb of an Iyalode (the powerful leader of market women in ancient Yoruba kingdom) in order to become the opposition even for a moment. Brethren, this is perhaps the first time in recent experience that the wife of the village head would go to the market square to pillory the style of administration of her husband.

Reactions to the interview of Her Excellency have been autochthonous and picaresque of the contrarieties in our polity. The opposition eulogized her as the heroin of our democracy; the other opposition, namely the opposition inside the party in power, all of whom have been uncomfortable that this ‘business is unusual’ all chorused- ‘yes, we said it- those who worked to make the change happen have not seen the dividend of change’. But others have wondered how and why the wife of his Excellency has failed to make use of the ‘kitchen’, the living and the ‘other’ room to her advantage.

Thus the ‘kitchen, the living and the other room’ have become new subjects awaiting theorizations. Whereas everybody claims knowledge of the ‘kitchen’ so much myth still abound in regard to the living room and the other room.

Brethren, is the ‘other’ room not that space in which femininity usually trump and upend masculinity?  Is the ‘other’ room not that space where powerful men become powerless? Is the ‘other’ room not that space where the ‘balls’ become playthings in the hands of bearers of the womb and where turgidity becomes flaccidity on contact with the bottomless depth of sensuous ‘paradise’? Is it not true that it is when a woman loses the magic in the ‘other’ room that she seeks the tonic of the outer room?     

Brethren, I sought to fill the gaps in our collective history from the annals of Islam. What I found is an extremely eclectic corpora of historical data in which wives of kings played active parts in the administration of the Muslim caliphate particularly during the Ummayad and Abbasid eras. But the most instructive and relevant is the incident of the Hudaybiyyah in Islamic history and the heroic role played by Umm Salama, the wife of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w).

Her personal name was Hind. Before her marriage to the Prophet, Umm Salama was married to Abu Salama. Both of them were among the first group of Makkans who accepted the message of the Prophet during the early days of Islam. In fact historians of Islam would argue that only Abu Bakr and Ali b. Abi Talib and a few others accepted Islam before them. Both Abu Salama and his wife suffered great persecutions before and in the course of migration of Muslims from Makkah to Madina. Abu Salama eventually died from the wounds he sustained during the battle of Uhud.

Following the death of her husband, and in recognition of the wonderful contributions she had made to Islam, everybody in Madina stood beside her in her time of grief. Immediately she completed her Iddah (the waiting period of four months and ten days which is compulsory on Muslim women after the death of their husband before they can remarry), Umm Salama received offers of marriage from the companions of the Prophet all of whom considered it a privilege to marry someone who is recognized by the Almighty for her stellar devotion and qualities. Eventually she became one of the wives the Prophet.

Not long thereafter she achieved renown in the city for her intelligence, political savvy and defense of women’s rights. For example, she once asked the Prophet- “Why are men mentioned in the Qur’an more than women”? In a response from the heavens to the Prophet, the Almighty declares that the male and female gender are co-equality as members of the community of believers. Umm Salama’s intervention eventually became a precedent for other women. They began to approach the Prophet directly and engage him on matters of concern to them and on their welfare.

But of more pertinence is the event of the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah with the Makkans which took place in 628 AD (6 AH). After the Prophet had reached an agreement with them that he and his companions would not proceed to Makkah for the rites of Hajj that year and that they would go back to Madina from Hudaybiyyah, some of the companions expressed disapproval of the decision. They felt that the Prophet had yielded too many grounds to the Makkans during the course of the deliberations. It was Umm Salama’s advice to the Prophet that did the magic.

She told the Prophet to proceed and carry out the rites of hajj as he had instructed the companions and that as soon as they saw him doing it, they would follow him. And that exactly was what happened. Umm Salama was blessed to see the wisdom in her husband’s actions. She did not go to the open space to express her opinion. She probably engaged the Prophet in the other room.

Let us continue to pray for this nation; that each time we move from the ‘other’ room, to the kitchen and into the living room, our homes continue to be homely.

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Umm Salama
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