Unveiling Oppression in Northern Nigeria

When corruption meets patriarchy, it usually means disaster for women in developing countries. That’s the story of the spread of the veil over the villages of northern Nigeria.

Since the return to civilian rule in Nigeria in 1999, Muslim sharia law has rapidly gained a foothold in parts of the country. Nigeria is roughly half Muslim and half Christian, with the Muslims being concentrated in the north and the Christians in the south. Since 1999, the 12 northernmost Muslim states have jumped to adopt sharia–to the ire of the secularist state governments of the south, who fear the harsh northern laws will spread to southern Nigeria.

In the bloody fallout of this increasing Talibanization of Nigerian politics, women are the most adversely affected. Many of the laws enshrined in Nigerian sharia lower the status of women and are a means of social control within the private sphere. Women, who have always been at a sociopolitical disadvantage, have been thrust even further into powerlessness–and shrouding this denial of rights is the proliferation of the veil, known also as the hijab.

The hijab is traditionally a cultural expression of Middle Eastern women, so despite the northern half of Nigeria being predominantly Muslim it was foreign to the African nation. But starting in the early 1990s, a silent revolution took place in northern Nigeria. If one were to go there today, they would not miss the growing number of women wearing hijabs or even burqas. Veiling, a practice rarely seen in northern Nigeria, is now nearly universal. Some of the Muslim states have even made the hijab a compulsory part of girls’ school uniforms.

Under the guise of religion, the veil has become a tool of  invisibility and spatial control. The veil is one spillover result of sharia that affects Christian women as well,  since their clothing is expected to be more restrictive to match that of their northern Nigerian counterparts. Bystanders in northern Nigerian villages will not stop to inquire about a woman’s religion before performing acts of vigilante violence against women who do not wear the hijab. Men are given the opportunity to judge morality in women, both Christian and Muslim, within a federal government that is supposed to be secular.

In addition to restricting the clothes women don, Islamic conservatism has also been aided by the growing popularity of kulle, the practice of secluding wives within the home. Before independence, the least strict form of kulle–which allowed women to leave their houses when escorted by males–was predominant. However, with the tightening of sharia, the strictest version of kulle–which doesn’t allow women to leave the house at all–became increasingly observed in northern cities.

Absolute wife seclusion on such a large scale is rarely seen in Muslim societies; it is a characteristic unique to northern Nigeria. The practice of kulle physically traps women in the home and precludes any chance of education or financial independence. 30 million Nigerian women are illiterate, making them the hapless victims of superstition.

Despite the severe curtailment of women’s rights in northern Nigeria, the emergence of grassroots activism lends hope to the idea of a women-organized backlash. Though these movements are still in their infancy, they appear to be gaining momentum in Nigeria and  in the international community. When the full-scale liberation does occur, it will be led by Dr. Ayesha Imam, a Hausa feminist and Islamist scholar. Imam has been outspoken against sharia since its implementation and founded BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights, a women’s rights organization in Nigeria.

Though the hijab has been worn for centuries in other parts of the Muslim world, it is important to remember that it has a very short history in Nigeria. Its sudden spread has little to do with religion and purity, but rather shrouds the masculinist societal aims of a patriarchal society.  Aided by their own relative invisibility, women have started empowering themselves, but still have their rights violated and their enormous potential as agents of development ignored. The hijab is the new way of making women invisible under the thin guise of religious identity, and the stakes will only become higher as the veil spreads towards the Christian south, where a resounding clash of gender, religion and ethnicity is waiting to occur.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Zanini H. under Creative Commons 3.0.


  1. I find it intriguing that no one really looks at this from a relativistic stance. Under Sharia law, women are severely restricted, in comparison to many Western cultures. Veiling allows women to move about more freely in such strict and patriarchal societies. And we can't forget the millions of women that choose to wear the veil as a symbol of compliance with their own religious beliefs. Whether we agree with it or not, we have to be careful about passing judgment like this. Muslim women don't need "saving" from their own culture.

    • Thank you. As a proud Muslim woman who chose to wear hijab at the age of 23 after years of extensive study, I find efforts to save me from my well informed decision to be the main form of oppression I face.

  2. a proud muslimah says:

    I feel that people who do not hv proper knowledge about islam and its fundamentals of islam dont hv a right to speak rubbish about it.Islam encourages all muslims,men and women to get educated.and as far as hijab is concerned,it is a symbol of decency and dignity of women.

    for more details on islam and other topics,log on to http://www.peacetv.org

    • what does that me? I think one cam be pretty decent without hijab. I don't see anywhere in this article a condemnation of hijab. However, I agree with the article that hijab and the so called "decency" has been used to curtail the freedoms of Muslim women all over the world. It always starts by telling women that the only way a women can be a modest through the hijab and before you know it's compulsory. We can be decent and modest without adopting Middle Eastern cultural attire. It OK if you choose to be dressed that way, but it becomes a danger when you force others to live to your concept of "decency". I think decency starts with respecting everyone not just people who dress like you.

    • Bettina says:

      To Proud Muslimah —
      How does Islam encourage all Muslims to get educated? Would you point to the passages in the Koran, Hadith, and Sira that are in favor of education? I’ve read that education is lost on women due to the small size of their brains and their inability to think as well as men do.
      And even where these scriptures address the male population, where is it maktoub that Islamic theological studies and memorization are not the only way to acquire knowledge?
      Quite unfortunately, the Left in the West still thinks that Muslim women WANT to be 2nd or 3rd class citizens, barely above the status of animals.

  3. This article is not saying anything about saving Muslim women from their own culture. There is nothing wrong with choosing to veil or veiling because you feel you have a religious obligation, HOWEVER when it is enforced upon you, it's a problem, these women are having strict modesty laws enforced upon them. No, there is nothing wrong with wearing the veil, but every woman should have the choice, This article is also about the way that Nigeria is abusing Muslim law. The author clearly states that these practices aren't even seen in Muslim societies, but they are disturbingly common in Nigeria.

    • Bettina says:

      In paraphrasing the passage that states “Absolute wife seclusion on such a large scale is rarely seen in Muslim societies,” you’ve omitted two things: “on such a large scale” and “rarely.”
      I’ve read several accounts of Muslim women kept hostage for years by their husbands and in-laws in their homes, incurring severe persecution if they dared challenge it in any way. These accounts came from Palestinian territories, Egypt, and other Arab countries. So, the words “such a large scale” are accurate: Nigerian Muslims made wife seclusion endemic throughout the north. But in the Middle-East, total wife seclusion still exists, albeit on a smaller scale.
      And “rarely” means what it says: that it happens in Muslim countries, although not as often as in northern Nigeria.

    • Bettina says:

      Hello, Heidi 🙂
      I’m with you when you say that women should have the choice of wearing a hijab or not. But, in view of all the indoctrination they’re subjected to by family, school, religion, and social pressures, how can they even contemplate the bare-headed alternative? The prospect of courting further punishment forces them to close the door on choice. Fear of retribution causes Muslim women to accept their dehumanizing position as property of their fathers, their husbands, etc.
      There can be no choice in the midst of threats, beatings, and daily admonishments to confirm, or else.

  4. When we assume that we love Muslim women more than Muslims themselves it is foolish. Muslim women are not complaining, why help them to complain.

    One unique thing about the human race is that we have different culture. We cannot all behave westernly. Islam has its cultures and to veil is part of it.

    In the past two years I’ve stayed in northern Nigeria. The people live happy family lives. The women are obviously happy and socializing with themselves. They are not locked at home. Restricting women to the homes is a very unpopular practice and in my two years in the north I’ve never come across of a man who locks his wife at home.

  5. Why is it that you are crying on our bahalf when you shouldnt be.I am a proud hijab’d muslim woman who recently graduated from a tertiary institution hoping to start my MSc.soon,the kulle the hijab being forced,not being educated happen mostly where the islamic teaching is not well understood because in my religion the first word released was READ and everybody ecouraged to do that,male or female.thank u

    • Perhaps we are crying out on the behalf of women who have been stoned to death for a crime of passion, perhaps escaping from an unhappy marriage? perhaps we are crying out for the Christian women and more liberal muslim women who must live in fear for leaving their homes without their head covered? perhaps we are crying out for the imbalance of enforcement of these sexually based laws which only seem to be enforced on women, who are punished before their rapist, that is to say if their rapist is punished at all.
      Maybe you are living peacefully, happily and do not feel disadvantaged by these oppressors, but I would say that you are lucky if you are untouched by the evil they do, and the way THEY USE your precious religion to justify their hateful actions in an effort to control the ‘unbridled lust of women’. I do believe that one of the sharia laws dictates that he who uses the holy scripture to justify their own evil doing, commits the greatest sin of all.

      and perhaps you should use the education that you are so lucky to have to help your marginalized muslim sisters, (And we both know that these women exist in great numbers) rather than to defend your oppressors.

      • the issue is not whether or not the veil itself should be worn, but rather, that no one should be made to be veiled by means of intimidation, especially not through means of violence

      • Bettina says:

        Hey-hey, Julia! What a response! What a Lovely Rant of Truth! You Go, Girl !!!
        Your righteous anger must be copied and used by all feminists worldwide, in enlightened rebuttal to these brainwashed victims of islam! Your remarks really get us unstuck from the black-and-white thinking that occurs when feminists are told, by the victims themselves, that nothing is wrong in their “cultures,” that we have no business speaking up against their “supposed” OPPRESSION AS WOMEN, and that Westerners are just obsessed with fixing something that ain’t broke.
        I’ll print your intelligent rebuttal for myself now and keep for future reference.
        I salute you, Julia!

        • Bettina says:

          You posted 2 years ago, so you will not likely return to this page… too bad you won’t read my support and admiration! In any case, others may, and that may be enough for me.
          Best of luck to you in your advocacy efforts to fight back against the blindness that has taken hold of our Left and has been ingrained since forever in the brainwashed slaves of Islam.

Leave a Reply to Effie Cancel reply


Error, no Ad ID set! Check your syntax!