Nana Asma’u was the daughter of Usman dan Fodio, the founder of Sokoto Caliphate – one of the most powerful North African kingdoms of the era. She continues to be honoured in northern Nigeria as an early feminist icon and a pioneer in the field of women’s education.
Nana Asma’u was known throughout the sub-Saharan Muslim world as a leading scholar. Fluent in Arabic, Fulfulde, Hausa and Tamacheq, and well-versed in Arabic, Greek and Latin classics, her great learning was a product of a vibrant tradition of female scholarship. For the Qadiriyya community to which she belonged, education and the pursuit of Truth were religious duties common to both women and men – to deny women the opportunity to develop their God-given talents was to challenge God’s will. Asma’u’s father wrote often on the subject of women’s education:
“How can educated men allow their wives, daughters and female dependents to remain prisoners of ignorance, while they themselves share their knowledge with students every day? Muslim women, do not listen to the speeches of those who are misguided... They deceive you when they preach obedience to your husbands, without telling you of the obedience which is primarily due to Allah and His Prophet.”
In common with many nineteenth-century European women, female scholars often justified their learning as a service to the community, emphasising that only educated women could be good wives and mothers, and fulfil their familial duties.
During the 1830s, Asma’u formed a group of female teachers, called jajis, who travelled throughout the Caliphate educating women from a great range of backgrounds: rich and poor, Muslim and non-Muslim. In turn, each jaji taught their own groups of learned women, called the ‘yan-taru, or “those who congregate together; the sisterhood”. To each jaji she gave a malfa – distinctive balloon-shaped hats usually worn by men.
In the predominantly oral culture of the Caliphate, learning was overwhelmingly passed on through the spoken word. The key teaching method employed by the jaji was the repetition and memorisation of poetry composed by Asma’u and other female scholars.
Asma’u’s poetry was designed to be as accessible as possible to the widest range of women. She wrote a large collection of poetry in Fulfulde, primarily for the Fulbe aristocracy, and in Hausa, intended for the population at large. She made extensive use of mnemonic devices, enabling her works to be easily memorised by teachers and students, and explained in fuller detail during instruction.
Through historical narrative, elegy and admonition, Asma’u’s poems of guidance became tools for instilling the founding principles of the Caliphate in the minds of its subjects. In her writings, she documented many achievements of the early state, including the Fulani Jihad (1804-1810), in which her father conquered Nigeria and Cameroon.
As well as educating women for the sake of their own intellectual and spiritual fulfilment, Asma’u’s educational work served a powerful political purpose.
Through the spread of Islamic learning, the inhabitants of the Caliphate’s newly conquered territories could be integrated more thoroughly into the ruling Muslim order. In time, the jajis became symbols of the new state, and their malfa hats emblems of Islam.
Asma’u outlived most of the founding generation of the Caliphate, making her an invaluable source of guidance to its later rulers. When her twin brother Bello succeeded her father as Caliph, Asma’u became his advisor. According to contemporary sources, she wrote instructions to governors, and debated freely with the scholars of foreign princes across North Africa.
Beverly Mack and Jean Boyd, One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe, (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000)
Muhammad Jameel Yusha’u, ‘Nana Asma’u’s Tradition: An Intellectual Movement and a Symbol of Women’s Rights in Islam during the 19th Century’, www.gamji.com/article3000/NEWS3642.htm
Katja Werthmann, ‘The Example of Nana Asma’u’, Magazine for Development and Cooperation