I’m guessing you’ve never heard of Nana Asma’u, and she’s okay with that. In fact, I think she was probably one of the most zen humans ever and rarely got upset about anything. But she should be pissed off about at least one thing.
Nana Asma’u lived from 1793-1864 in the Sokoto Caliphate, an empire that was eventually absorbed into what we know today as northern Nigeria.
Asma’u was well educated. She spoke four languages and wrote poetry as well as scholarly works. She was an educator and a social reformer.
Nana Asma’u wanted people in her caliphate to be as educated as possible, and trained other women to help her do this. She wrote instructive poems that the teachers would memorize and then pass on to their students in the villages they traveled to (genius move for teaching a mostly oral culture). These women wore distinctive red scarves on their heads so that everyone who saw them would know that they were Nana Asma’u’s trained teachers, and they were to receive the highest respect. They were never restricted in their teaching, and traveled the caliphate instructing both men and women on general as well as religious topics.
But Nana Asma’u was an African Muslim woman, which, according to today’s stereotypes, makes her ignorant and oppressed.
To some extent those stereotypes make sense, especially if we look at women of Asma’u’s time elsewhere in the world. This is the time of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars in Europe, and, at the end of Asma’u’s life, the Civil War in America. So, when we picture most women of this time period, we picture enormous hoop skirts and a lot of fainting away at the mere suggestion of violence (thank you, Gone With the Wind, for providing those images).
Some of those stereotypes are true, of course, and women were ignorant and oppressed in many parts of the world. But here’s the thing about Nana Asma’u: She was not unique for her time and place. Women in her region, and in her religion, were regarded as equal to men in many ways, and they considered it anti-Islamic to keep anyone, man or woman, from getting as much education as they could achieve.
To be fair (or unfair, such as the case may be), there was a bit of a “separate but equal” divide between men and women in the Sokoto Caliphate. Women were to obey their husbands, but they were only held to obey their husbands’ lawful wishes — an important distinction that Asma’u wrote about and was adamant about teaching to everyone.
And anyway, let’s put this in some perspective. I’ve seen women’s magazines from the 1950s preaching things like, “Be sure to put lipstick on before your husband comes home. He’s worked hard all day and doesn’t want to see your unadorned face when he gets home to eat the hot supper you should have ready for him.” So, let’s not pretend that we all haven’t had gender issues that are not only recent, but some of them ongoing.
So why have relatively few of us heard of Nana Asma’u today? Well, she lived 200 years ago and people fade through history, I suppose. Women in particular have a way of disappearing between the pages of Things We Must Remember.
But what if Nana Asma’u disappeared for some of us partly because of our own ignorance? Some people today assume that Muslim women are all oppressed, are all submissive, are all uneducated and unaware. They think that all Muslim women wear the burqa and are forbidden to drive, so why would they look for progressive female Muslim heroes in history?
Yes, those stereotypes of Muslim women come from some measure of reality; yes, there are societies where women are oppressed, wearing the burqa and forbidden to drive. But those are specific countries and cultures, not an entire swath of over 1.7 billion people (almost 25% of the world’s population is Muslim).
So here’s what Nana Asma’u should be pissed off about. The things that she did were not unusual for her time and place. She was noteworthy in her society because of her famous father (who founded the caliphate in which they lived), but not because of her level of education or the freedom with which she lived her life.
Chances are, Nana Asma’u would be dismayed to learn that some of today’s Muslim societies are oppressing women, just as she would be disheartened to learn that some of today’s Christian societies are oppressing women. But she would be downright pissed off to learn that so many people in the world have such misperceptions of Islam — misperceptions that become words, accepted without question by those who hear or speak them and refuse to learn the truth; misperceptions that become ugly, dangerous, destructive actions when those who believe them decide that they are somehow better than people whose religion they haven’t bothered to try to understand.
And on a slightly less important but still disturbing note, I think Nana Asma’u would also be pissed off because so many people think and speak of Africa as simply “Africa,” as if it’s a homogenous place where everyone looks and speaks and thinks the same, as opposed to 54 distinct countries (on the second largest continent) and even more cultures that are unique and vibrant, with much to teach the rest of the world.
I hope that you choose to learn more about Nana Asma’u. If you do, please consider the following resources:
One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe.Beverly B. Mack and Jean Boyd.
The Caliph’s Sister: Nana Asma’u, 1793-1865, Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader. Jean Boyd.
The Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman ‘dan Fodiyo. Beverly Mack and Jean Boyd.