Women in Northern Nigeria don't traditionally discuss sexual or physical abuse publicly, but one moment on Twitter might be opening the doors for more women to step forward and share.
The beginning of February ushered in a unique movement on Nigerian Twitter for Arewa - a collective name for the North of Nigeria. Twitter user, Khadijah, on February 3, 2019, took to the site to discuss how she nearly died at the hands of her abusive boyfriend. He had repeatedly hit her, choked her and even threatened to “bury her body”.
Khadijah’s thread prompted a rush of responses from Arewa twitter, and like with the global #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment and abuse of women around the globe, women from Northern Nigeria began sharing their personal stories of sexual violence or abuse with the hashtag #ArewaMeToo.
This hashtag is the first time women from the Muslim majority North are taking a public stance on their abuse with a unified voice on social media. Northern Nigeria is highly conservative, and women-related issues like abuse are not openly discussed.
Women, for example, struggle to be taken seriously in politics because it is believed that their rightful place is at home and not governing people. A belief reinforced by Nigeria's current president, Muhammadu Buhari, a Northerner, suggesting that his wife - Aisha Buhari - only has a place in the home, attending to domestic activities.
#ArewaMeToo uncovered the region’s religious and cultural spaces as being complicit in the abuse of women. So far, those who have shared their stories of abuse and named their abusers have been accompanied with retorts about how they’re not expected to publicly speak on their abuse because it is ‘shameful’ or how the rape is their fault for mingling freely with the opposite sex. These responses are at best an extension of what the larger Arewa community outside social media is like.
But what can be done to make the movement acceptable to the average Arewa person?
The #ArewaMeToo role of traditional institutions
Given the established way of life in many parts of the North, for #Arewametoo to be more impactful than it already is it has to extend to traditional institutions in the region. These institutions before the advent of colonialism were a terrific force of governance in Nigeria. Their values were upheld, and traditional rulers had an influence on their subjects - they still do. The Sultan of Sokoto, Emir of Kano, Lamido of Adamawa etc. are all powerful traditional leaders in Arewa till this day.
Getting the concept of feminism and gender equality, as put forward by the #ArewaMeToo conversation, to residents of the North requires going through well-respected religious and traditional leaders. Again, they have considerable influence on people and governors in many states, and often give advice or opinions on security, culture and conflict. The authority they wield over the Arewa community means that they can easily convince and pass on the message of cancelling the culture that protects perpetrators of abuse and shames the victims.
If traditional institutions get involved, they can better sensitise their community on the importance of speaking against the culture of violence against women. In the past, cases of abuse were reported to district heads or religious leaders who interrogated the perpetrators and determined whether or not they were guilty. Now, the process is smoother with law enforcement officers and courts, especially Shariah courts, getting in the picture.
Twelve of the Nineteen Northern states in Nigeria practice Shariah or Islamic law. Under Shariah, the punishment for sexual abuse is death by stoning, banishment from the city or 100 lashes - depending on what the judge decides or the gravity of the abuse. These stipulated punishments amplified by the Arewa community creates a safe space for women in the North and guarantees their rights to own their bodies without fear of violation.
In the absence of a cultural and mindset change through orientation from grassroots leaders, survivors and victims of abuse will constantly live in fear and relive the trauma associated with their abuse.
It is important to note that while Twitter has been pivotal helping survivors find justice and professional help as we have seen this past week through #ArewaMeToo, more conservative methods in ensuring justice for the perpetrators of sexual abuse must be considered to pass on the message to the North of Nigeria.
The movement is a necessary tool and a welcome development for the complacent North in the abuse of women. While it will be difficult and slow at first to break through the culture of silence that follows abuse survivors in the North, employing tact and getting local institutions to buy into the movement is key in amplifying the message.
We owe it to every Khadijah, Maryam or Fatima who have shared their harrowing experiences on social media to ensure on and offline that survivors of abuse get to have their day in the sun.
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