Mobilizing for Love in Kano

A jilted Nigerian princess leads a movement of angry divorcees, until the local governor finds a solution: a mass wedding with state-assigned husbands for her and her followers.

When Atine Abdullahi, a princess from a royal family in Kano State, married her husband in 1989, she had hoped to enjoy a blissful and lasting marriage like other married couples. The union was blessed with four children. But her hopes of raising the children with her husband were shattered in 1999 when he divorced her after 10 years of marriage; since then, she has remained a divorcee.

Now there appears to be a glimmer of hope for her and about 1,000 other divorced women in Kano State. The government here is making arrangements to reduce the scourge of divorce through a mass wedding next month. Culturally, Kano, like every other Muslim-dominated community, is patriarchal. Men always have the upper hand, particularly on issues concerning marriage. A Muslim in Kano can easily send his wife packing by merely writing her a note or by simply pronouncing: “I divorce you” four consecutive times. Women rarely sue for divorce. In fact, religion and tradition forbid them from doing so.

Worried that over one million women divorcees and widows were suffering due to failed marriages or the death of their spouses, Abdullahi has been struggling for the rights of these women and drawing the attention of the government and the general public to their plight. On January 19, 2009, Abdullahi led over 45,000 divorced women on a protest to express their grievances to the government. The protest march was eventually halted by security agents at the demand of religious leaders and elders in the state, who said that a protest like this would lead to a crisis if it was allowed to go forward.

Fighting for her cause, she founded the Voice of Widows, Orphans and Divorcees Association of Nigeria, VOWODAN. Abdullahi said her aim in setting up the non-governmental organization was to champion the cause of her fellow divorcees, unjustly kicked out of their matrimonial homes. According to her, many women thrown out of their matrimonial homes by their spouses are never given any form of compensation. She said divorce is easy for husbands, because they are not obliged to do anything for the women they throw out. “These women are exposed to danger and hardship,” she said. “Their suffering is terrible; they have no money to eat and cannot just resume their normal lives without help of the society.”

The mass marriage, Abudullahi said, will reduce the number of unmarried women. She said the women have been properly educated on how to handle marriage. “We have given our own conditions to the government before we agreed to participate in the mass marriage,” she said, including prepaid alimony in case of eventual divorce. “We want government to make it a law, we want the certificate of marriage issued to the woman before marriage, we want that money paid before the marriage,” she said.

Aisha Ahmed, one of the divorcees, told Newswatch that in most cases men in Kano divorce their wives for selfish reasons, and without recourse to Islamic principles.

Worried by the high rate of divorce, and the pitiable situation of many of the divorced women, the Kano State government has concluded arrangements to sponsor a mass wedding for the first 100 couples out of the 1000 applicants. The group marriage will take place in Kano in April 2012. It was the relentless campaign by Abdullahi and other members of VOWODAN that compelled the Kano State government to try to address the divorce issue.

Interestingly, both the VOWODAN president and 47-year -old Ruquayatu Abdullahi, a native of Imo State, whose Igbo name was Amaka before she converted from Christianity to Islam, are among the first set of 100 divorcees that would participate in the wedding. Ruquayattu would be joined in marriage with 45-year -old Suleiman Mohammed, while the VOWODAN president would be joined to a new husband whose identity she is keeping to herself.

Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, governor of Kano State, will stand in for the 100 grooms to seek the hands of their selected brides in marriage. Abba Saidu Sufi, director-general of Kano State Hisbah Board, said the governor will be assisted by Kano’s Emir, Ado Bayero, in performing the marriage rituals during the planned mass wedding which will take place at the Emir’s palace. “This would be the first time that such mass weeding takes place in the state,” he said. Ado Bayero is also expected to give a talk to the couples on their new life and status.

Asked how the couples made their choices, Sufi explained that each of the applicants stated the kind of man or woman she wanted to marry in their application forms, including height, complexion and standing in the society. Other conditions attached to the marriage contract are that both parties must accept to resolve misunderstandings between them after the marriage contract through the Hisbah board; the groom must also not divorce his wife without permission from the board, and the wife too cannot do so without the board’s permission. The couples are expected to show love for one another.

Newswatch gathered that the 100 divorcees already pencilled in for the mass wedding are aged between 18 and 47 years, while the grooms are between 25 and 42; some of the grooms are younger than their brides-to-be. Almost all the selected brides have had children by their former husbands; some of them are living with the children. Though many of them refused to speak to Newswatch, an official of the board said the selected brides were delighted that they were going to re-marry while the grooms were glad to have their hands in marriage.

“We announced that we were going to issue forms at the Hisbah board,” Sufi said. “So, we issued forms, we said we were going to issue out 1000 forms, and so far we have 1,300 applications now. The applicants had to go for a medical checks to ascertain that they are alright. The medical officer signed their forms that they are okay, that they are HIV- free. They also had to go for mental and fertility tests. I think we have now about 10 batches that are qualified for the marriage.”

Sufi said the state government will pay the brides’ dowry and also provide household items including bedding to make the couples comfortable after their marriage. In addition, they would also be given some amount of money to enable them to establish a business that would sustain them in the future.

Sufi explained that the board was working with lawyers, medical doctors and sociologists in the marriage arrangement committee. He gave more details on why the board was involved in the arrangement for the mass wedding. “We are going to start with 100. After that, we shall continue with the rest. It is the first of its kind in Nigeria, but [mass weddings]are practiced in many Arab countries–Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Algeria. It is in accordance with Islamic injunction. It is a modern way of doing things.”

Chimezie Enyiocha