Research in African Literatures 33.2 (2002) 119-136
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Islamic-Hausa Feminism and Kano Market Literature:
Qur'anic Reinterpretation in the Novels of Balaraba Yakubu
In the urban areas of northern Nigeria, a burgeoning corpus of contemporary Hausa popular literature has captured the attention and concern of the entire Hausa community. The literature can be found in the cities of Kano, Zariya, Kaduna, Katsina, and Sokoto, but given that the majority of the books are written and sold in Kano, the literature's English moniker is Kano market literature. Avid readers have little difficulty in locating booksellers who have strategically positioned themselves in the midst of every potential direction of foot-traffic. Sidewalk displays, market stalls, and independent book kiosks dizzy onlookers with hundreds of appealing book covers of youthful couples acting out different love-interest scenes. Currently, this genre of popular romance fiction, known to Hausa speakers as Littattafan Soyayya (books of love), enjoys huge popularity as interested parties voraciously devour books and await the soon-to-be-published works of their favorite writers.
The popularity of Kano market literature rests firmly upon its subject matter, one that has proven quite controversial within the conservative Muslim environment of Hausa society. As expected from any work of romantic pulp fiction, Soyayya novels preoccupy themselves with sagas of love and marital relationships. Some writers depict the ordeals faced by courting lovers whose aspirations of marriage are continuously frustrated by meddlesome family members or uncooperative parents, and others explore the challenges of maintaining healthy relationships in the aftermath of matrimony. In either case, writers address the reality of Hausa youth confronting dramatic social change in an era when traditional mores must negotiate the onslaught of contemporary sensibilities. The swirl of cultural pluralism has generated consternation over the conventional practices of gender relations, and Kano market literature situates itself at the core of this discussion. The romantic novels have become an explorative forum for the socially and culturally loaded issues of polygamy, marriages of coercion, purdah (the Islamic tradition of seclusion), and accessibility of education for females. As a result, the literature indirectly and candidly questions the gender status quo and works to modify the social, familial, and educational position of Hausa women.
Public opinion harshly criticizes the literature for allegedly corrupting the minds of the youth, especially young women. Much of the response is based on hearsay, as most people have only familiarized themselves with the literature through word of mouth. Common belief holds that most books are read by female youth in secondary schools and that the vast majority of the works have prompted moral decay. Critics contend the romantic stories [End Page 119] promote sexual promiscuity and the encouragement of youthful disobedience of parental desires in conjugal affairs. Others maintain that the literature is so riddled with so-called Western notions of love that it no longer reflects any modicum of Hausa tradition. For such critics, the swift banning or brusque censoring presents the best solution to the problem.
Contrary to public perception, all Soyayya writers assert that the novels are created with the ultimate intention of instilling proper moral behavior among the reading constituency; and as they contend, the didactic intentions of their stories are unmistakable. In order to clarify their ethical agendas, numerous writers include prefaces that unequivocally explicate the thematic direction and instructive nature of various novels. Writers, without exception, feel a sense of social responsibility in advising a youth confused by the volatile social climate. Readers confirm that the literature has had the desired effect, claiming that the books are beneficial on several levels. In their estimation, Soyayya novels possess the dual attributes of entertainment and instruction. Readers can experience an array of pleasurable fantasies while remaining conscious of the fact that the romantic trope of stories is a vehicle for the social concerns of writers. Books become thematic commentaries on the place of auren dole (forced marriage), auren mata biyu (polygamy), purdah (female seclusion), and ilimin mata (women's education) in contemporary Hausa society.