Alkali and Abouleila… Beaming searchlight on Muslim women’s writings
Kaduna Book and Arts Festival (KABAFEST 2017), held early in the month, thrown up many interesting topics, particularly its focus on issues that are peculiar to Muslim women living and working in Northern Nigeria, where religion and culture are intricately interwoven. Sudanese writer, based in the U.K., Leila Abouleila and Nigeria’s own Prof. Zaynab Alkali took time to spar on a thorny panel discussion, ‘More than a Hijabi… Moslem Women Writing for the World’ and moderated by Ghanaian writer, Kinna Likimani
Why we write?
Abouleila: I love the energy that comes with writing; it’s really vibrant. I grew up an avid reader. I read statistics at university of Khartoum. I failed to get my Ph.D; it was a big trauma for me because my mother is a lecturer and I was raised to believe I would also teach at university. In Sudan, you can’t teach without a Ph.D. And then my husband in Scotland found me a job, when I joined him. So, I would go to a public library and started to read women’s writing.
So, I started to write as a way of making sense of my life. I wrote a short piece and showed it to my husband and he liked it. Then I started attending writing classes.
Alkali: I write because I want to empower women economically, socially and politically. I started writing because I was a very bad speaker and I had a phobia for public speaking. I still have the phobia. I couldn’t answer questions in class, especially literature, where I usually got an ‘A’. So, I usually write my answers on a paper. My white teachers at Queens College, Ilorin, understood me the way I was.
My first novel, Still Born, came out as an accident. I gave it to my teacher and confided in him not to let anyone else know about it. But he travelled to the U.K. and had it broadcast over the BBC!
My writing follows my own psychological growth. Writing has been the only thing that helped me pull through even depression. There are not enough doctors and psychologists to help a lot of people. So, people get depressed and have no one to help. When I feel depressed, I put pen to paper. I didn’t believe that I would impact on anybody because I write for myself. It then occurred to me that I maybe helping, reaching out to other people who need help.
Religion and reception of their novels
Abouleila: When I started writing, Sudan was unknown to the British audience, unlike Nigeria that already had known literary names. Sudan was shrouded, and then I was homesick and my writing connected me home in a special way. Being an African Moslem country has its own special feel. But when you get transplanted to another place, you need to rebooth.
So, it comes down to the individual’s faith. My father was very liberal. My mum and grandmother brought me up in the Muslim religion. So, it’s very personal. My novel Minaret is a spiritual journey for a young girl, who goes to London and begins to wear a hijab as a way of reconnecting with home. It remains my most selling novel till date.
Alkali: Because I’m a Muslim, most people reading my books like to see me threading that line. But they (novels) are se cular and this is because of my background. My family lived in Borno and when my father had cancer, he was hospitalised in a Christian Missionary Hospital in Adamawa. My dad became converted to Christianity as a result.
So, I’m versed in both Christianity and Islam faiths. So, it will be unfair to focus on my religion. I try to write for humanity because, basically, our challenges are the same. As a result of my background, I’m surprised when religious crisis occurs. We are six siblings – three are Muslims and the other three are Christians!
One of my cousins had Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF) and I imagined what it would have been if she had western education. Her experience set my imagination wild. In my novels, I focus on female education and you see the trend of girls getting education. Thankfully, VVF cases have come down in recent years.
The problem we have here in Northern Nigeria is that we tend to have only Islamic education. In the villages, we don’t have enlightened Islamic teachers. My advice is that you can combine the two – Islamic and western education – and take the best out of the two to have a good life!
Abouleila: The series of terrorist attacks in Europe – Belgium, France and Britain in recent years have made life difficult for Muslims generally. So, terrorist attacks mean Islamophobia and Muslims feel guilty, but there are others who don’t feel so; some feel defensive. It’s not a healthy atmosphere to live in and write. This atmosphere does create interest in the life of Muslim immigrants.
Hijabi and Muslim women
Alkali: Muslim women have used the hijabi for centuries and there was no problem. Other people had used hijabi, like Catholic nuns and Victorian women – fully dressed. Hijab is for decency, respect, honour and modesty in a woman. Over the years, something happened and people now fear it. I had an experience with the hijab. I was going to London and Stockholm for a book reading. Immigration at Heathrow didn’t believe that I could write a book. They subjected me to a series of irritating questions. In Dallas, Texas, U.S., I was asked to remove my hijab. So, you come across hostility, embarrassment because of what is going on. I come from an area that is affected by Boko Haram and women have carried explosives in a hijab.
Hijab in Islam is not only the cloth, but also our eyes – not to look at a man in the eyes. Your lip is a hijab to your tongue – not to talk about people (gossip). Your ears and legs are hijabs – not to hear and walk away from evil. So, hijab is a veil that prevents you from doing something you shouldn’t be doing. It’s a distance, a space you put between you and the world. I don’t see what is wrong in wearing a hijab, but it has been abused.
Abouleila: A woman should wear hijab only when she wants to wear it; it should not be forced on girls!
Writing, Feminism and Islam
Abouleila: There’s power involved in clothing – hijab or other kinds of clothing. There are so many unspoken rules and there’s power in it. You have to find a balance line because you are sincere and you don’t have to be proud about what you are doing in your worship. If you say you are a person of faith, then this is the path you have to follow. When I’m in Sudan, I feel I’m a feminist because of the campaigns that I feel strongly about. In Europe, I feel alienated to it because of the society I came from. I’m not oppressed to participate, but I feel strongly about injustice.
Alkali: For over 30 years, I have been running away from labels because I never knew what feminism was all about. That prompted me to write about feminism in my Ph.D. When I learnt about radical feminism, I distanced myself from it. I don’t want to be a feminist because I don’t want to be a man. Man is brain and woman is heart and the two work together and complement each other.
Yes, conflicts in feminism are real. It was first about empowering women educationally, economically, politically and psychologically and it was why Arab men supported it for their women. But now, feminists now want a right to their own bodies after the main goals of feminism had been achieved. Other things cropped in like lesbianism, having a child without a father, etc. I can’t imagine myself doing or supporting these. When the women started demanding these ridiculous rights, that was when men started withdrawing support for them.
Many a time I’m accused of running away from certain issues because I’m afraid. There are many subversive issues you avoid as a Muslim or you run into trouble. There are issues that cut across religions. Many Muslim women would like to touch on polygamy, but they can’t. So, there are certain challenges that cut across Christian and Muslim religions and society and they spring from patriarchy and not religion.