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Women in Hausa Proverbs By Anthonia Yakubu

Like the Yoruba and Igbo, the Hausa are hardworking and adventurous traders. Apart from trading within various Hausa villages, towns, and provinces, the Hausa also trade with merchants from other parts of Nigeria, Ghana, Niger, and North Africa. Some of them have had to settle with their families outside Northern Nigeria in the course of their business pursuits. Their main items of trade are cattle, kolanuts, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, guinea corn, groundnuts, traditional medicines, and leatherworks. Kano is the commercial nerve centre of the Hausa people. Metropolitan in nature, it still clings tenaciously to various elements of traditional life as can be seen in the prominence of Hausa language, architecture, and dressing in the city.

There is no way one can analyse gender relations among the Hausa without considering the role of Islam. This is because over half the Hausa population is Muslim. Islam introduced and sustained new ways and avenues for the discrimination of women. It popularised polygamy; it allows a man to marry as many as four wives and to keep as many concubines as he can afford. The clause attached to marrying four wives at the maximum is hardly considered: a man can only marry four wives if he can treat them equitably, without having or showing a preferential disposition to any of the wives.

This is not to say that the pre-Islamic Hausa society did not discriminate against women. It did. There are some negative socio-cultural beliefs, attitudes, and practices, which started in pre-Islamic times among the Hausa. Examples are female circumcision and child marriages.

In spite of the political and cultural penetration of northern Nigeria by the British colonialists, the Muslim Hausa have been able to retain a major proportion of their culture and tradition even in contemporary times. Islam as a unifying religion and Hausa as a common language have contributed significantly to this. This perhaps explains why the empowerment of women by gender-sensitive people and organisations remains slow and difficult. Muslim women activists (like Zainab Kabir) have used the Quran and other notable published Islamic authorities to counter the negative image of women in Hausaland. They encourage women to actively participate in work, even in those areas that are regarded as being for men only.

Countering the common injunction (readily used by men and women to justify their attitudes towards women) of Surah Al-Baquarah 2:228 that a woman's authority is subservient to that of a man, they insist on women and men as being protectors of each other, as found in Surah At-Tawbah 9:71. Isa Wali (1956) has also used verses from the Quran to support the thesis that women and men are created as equals (see the Quran, 11:228; 53: 44-46; 92: 1-3).

Hausa Women in Proverbial Lore

Pre-Islamic Hausa women were largely dedicated to storytelling activities. It was their domain. Every night, within the confines of their homes, or under the dark sky, they re-told age-old stories. Proverbs held a very important place. They encapsulated the people's history and philosophy of life. This was more so because the people could not read and write. Their history and beliefs were stored and coded in some special people's mental capacities. They are then transmitted orally within various literary genres, proverbs inclusive.

The cultural heritage, ethics, mores, beliefs, traditions and wisdom of the Hausa are all embedded in their proverbs. The attainment of Islam as a state religion did not in any significant way diminish the status of proverbs in Hausaland. Islam only changed the general animistic belief system found in proverbs by shifting the focus to Allah. The laws governing inter-personal relationships as found in proverbs remained the same. Islam confirmed, to a large extent, the virtues of equity and fairness needed in one's dealings with others, as taught in Hausa proverbs. Islam broadened the horizons of Hausa proverbs by making use of them as titles of books, newspaper headings and articles, and in works of fiction. The highly moralistic works of fiction by Muslim authors, writers, and poets relied heavily on the adoption of proverbs for easier transmission.

Hausa gender proverbs, though relatively few in number compared to those of the Yoruba and Igbo, reflect the hierarchical position of women, and the attitudes and beliefs that shape their existence. Some of these proverbs, loosely translated, are:

i. A man should not eat from the same plate, tray, or pan with a woman, as she uses this as an avenue to drain the man of all his strength.

ii. Having sex with a mad woman, undetected, will make the man very rich.

iii. A woman who is grinding corn must sing while she is at it, or else she will become mad.

iv. A woman who climbs a ladder will become mad.

v. A married woman who utters her mother-in-law's name is inviting the visit of an earthquake.

The first saying confirms what has been extensively stated in literature: men believe that women are spiritually powerful; they fear this power, detest themselves for giving in to their fear, and take measures to curtail this fear by spinning negative superstitions, proverbs, folktales, etc. about women.

The second proverb depicts an act that unscrupulous men have been carrying out for generations on mentally ill women. By this very act, men re-inscribe the master (male) - servant (female) relationship which sometimes involves the rape of the possession by the possessor.

The third belief reaffirms the "suffering and smiling" syndrome women are expected to put on whenever they are carrying out household chores. Since nature has endowed women with the timeless ability to give birth to and nurture children, men expect them to carry out all work revolving around these cheerfully. Any woman who falls short of this expectation is regarded as rebellious.

Hierarchical structures

It has been said before that the Hausa society is hierarchical in nature. Many of their proverbs serve as reminders to youth, who are believed to be generally restless and always in a hurry, to be contented with their place on the social ladder, as failure to do this would bring undesirable consequences:

Akwiya ta yi wayo da yankekken kunne.

(The goat acquires wisdom from burnt ears).

Abin da babba ya gani yana kasa, yaro ko ya hau rimi ba zai gan shi ba.

(What an adult sees from the ground, a boy cannot see even if he climbs a silk-cotton tree).

However, the fourth proverb boldly states that the female sex is not even on the ladder (hierarchy) yet; her place is still on the ground on which the ladder rests.

The fifth proverb confirms one of the major statements of this study: that patriarchy as a social system deliberately creates an environment which encourages women to nurture superstitions, dislike and acrimony against other women.

The following Hausa proverbs throw more light on the negativity ascribed to women in northern Nigeria:

-Babban abu shi ne, mace ta riga nijinta bawali.

(It is a serious thing for a wife to urinate before her husband does).

-Dole a zo, daki ya fada wa gurguwa da dan masu gida.

(Come quickly, the roof has collapsed on a crippled woman and the owner's son).

These two proverbs are often used to describe desperate and grave scenarios. Though highly sexist in nature, they can be applied to explain situations that are not sexist in the least. But this does not in any way rectify or decrease the impact of the negative impressions these proverbs leave on the subconscious.

-Tuo na iyali, nama na - gida.

(The ‘tuo' - a staple food made from grain - is for the household; the meat - a much appreciated delicacy - is for the master of the house).

The master of the household is traditionally entitled to the best part of any meal, while the the women and children have to be contented with whatever is left for them. Though some Hausa proverbs do not use the word "woman" in a direct sense, popular notions about the proverbs and contexts of usage always point at women.

The co-wives' ethos

The distrust, envy, dislike, fear, and hatred co-wives entertain toward one another are also reflected in Hausa proverbs. There is always a basis for these negative elements to generate the outbreak of physical violence. The presence of contrastive characters or experiences possessed by wives in a polygamous setting - the procreative wife versus the non-procreative wife; the wife that has all male issues versus the one that has only female children; the wife whose children are in school or are educated versus the wife whose children are delinquents, etc. - often precipitate trouble. The husband, the nucleus of the women's attention, most times worsens the already sensitive scenario by having a favourite among his many wives.

-In mugawa kaza ta fara shiga akurki ko wace ta zo sai ta tsare ta.

(If a wicked hen enters the fowl house first, everyone that comes in after her will be pecked by her).

What should be noted is that the major cause of the general discontent in most polygamous homes is envy. This envy steams from the fact that no two persons are created the same. A number of women under the same roof as wives to a particular man would use whatever attribute they possess to inflict pain on those who possess what they do not have, or to punish those who do not have what they possess. Thus,

-In na rena kaza ko ramonta ba na so.

(If I despise the fowl, I do not even want any soup from it).

This is another proverb often brandished by co-wives to one another. Any little event, experience or attribute can cause a feeling of animosity towards a co-wife. This rivalry which women generally manifest towards each other, especially in polygamous settings, is also reflected in the proverb,

-Mai koda ba ta son mai koda.

(A woman who is paid for grinding does not like another woman to be paid for grinding).

What this implies is that a woman does not like a rival in the form of another woman whose presence would diminish her person and importance in the eye of her husband and the public.

Wai kanama da ta harbi kasko ta ce ‘shegen duniya ko motsi ba ka yi'.

(The scorpion said to the small pot it stung, ‘you bastard thing, you don't even move').

Hausa men also believe that women talk too much. The proverb above is thus thrown at them to shut them up. Though there is a proverb used generally for people who talk a lot - Yawan magana ya kan kawo karya, meaning, ‘there is the tendency to tell a lie when one talks too much' - it is believed that more often than not, women will always chatter away. The man is therefore, conditioned to be reticent, especially when in the midst of women. He is brought up to be sober and not to get into much argument with women as this could put him in trouble.

In tururuwa ta tashi lalacewa sai ta gashi.

(If the black ant is getting ready for an attack, it sticks out hairs).

This proverb refers to the supposedly temperamental nature of the woman, this time a scolding wife whose red hot anger forewarns her husband of her preparedness to leave him. The condition of the Hausa woman is made more pathetic by the fact that even an outright abusive proverb as this gets largely drawn upon by women in their descriptions of or attacks on fellow women.

Being the concluding part of a paper, ‘Subliminal Texts: Women, Proverbs and Power' delivered by Anthonia Yakubu during an International Women's Day seminar at the University of Lagos on March 9.

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Comment by Angela Nkama on March 31, 2011 at 8:43am
wow<That's a good one!
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