Queer culture around the world is inflected and influenced by local conditions and cultural nuances. In this essay, Sada Malumfashi takes us on a journey to investigate representations of queerness in Hausa literature.
Literature strives to depict a true picture—it is the mirror of society. While novel writing in Northern Nigeria is a fairly new innovation that began in the 20th century; queer relationships, however, have been a part and parcel of society for a much longer period. Same-sex practices have been an inherent part of African history, developing in a whole different way than in the Western context.
A queer section of the Hausa society that actually has had dominance in the literary field, without any cause for rancour, are the Yan Daudu—Feminine Men. These men comprise a bulk of the Hausa queer community and a direct translation of them as homosexuals in the western context tends not to give a complete picture. Yan Daudus have always been visible in the social strata, in close proximity to prostitutes, permitting them access to seek men for sex. The existence of Yan Daudu is well acknowledged and this translated to their reflection in almost every work of Hausa literature which cover aspects of prostitution and Bori – the Hausa cult of spirit possession. However, in a conservative culture where who you share your bed with is a private matter, it is no great surprise, then, that queer literature, or queer characters in Hausa literature apart from Yan Daudu, are relatively new.
That being said, in addition to the prevalence of Yan Daudus; sexism, lesbianism, rape, and fornication have been themes that invite readership in the annals of Hausa writing as they depict the diverse reality of life in Northern Nigeria. Art as such gives visibility to queer and homosexual identity, and in the case of Hausa land, writing is one of the principal art forms that do this. However, conservatism, self and government censorship have continued to push these writings under the radar.
Recently, Hausa writers have produced rich works engaging queer themes, published in the late 1990s and early 2000s, such as Balaraba Ramat with Wane Kare Ne Ba Bare Ba? (Which of the Dogs is not an Outcast?), Bilkisu Funtua with Kyan Dan Maciji (Deceptive Beauty), Rahma Majid with Za Ta Iya (Yes, She Can), Maryam Kabir with Gajen Hakuri (Lack of Patience) and Rabi Ado Bayero with Auren Zahra (Zahra’s Wedding). When these novels were released, they all courted the wrath of the Kano State Censorship Board, a government agency in Kano, which is the city at the centre of the market for Hausa literature. This board embarked on an approach to uproot what seemed to them “indecency in the society,” from some films, books or novels. These novels that were insinuated to have descriptions of explicit sexuality, exploring queer themes—especially lesbianism—, having fornication tendencies, nudity, and naked romance, all eventually fizzled out of the market, while copies still available were confiscated by the board. Two books, Matsayin Lover (A Lover’s Status) by Al-Khamees Bature and Sirrin Loba (A Lover’s Secret) by Kamalu Namowa Bichi were totally banned by the Association of Nigerian Authors Kano Chapter for describing lesbian sex explicitly in them.
For example, in Bilkisu Ahmad Funtua’s Kyan Dan Maciji published in 1997, the character Amina Umar aka Nina is the daughter of a renowned Islamic scholar, but she eventually discovered and enjoyed her queer sexuality despite the religious and cultural repercussions while in a boarding school:
“Those cry of pleasure that emanate from her mouth whenever I insert my finger deep inside her, and she holds it in place, playing and twisting my fingers, her moans making the hair in the back of my neck tingle.”
The novel, with its subtle Hausa narration as is typical with the writings of Bilkisu Ahmad Funtua, explored safe spaces for queer relationships especially in boarding schools in the late 90s without the hindrance of culture and religious conservatism in the homes and societies they left:
“On a certain school visiting day, at around 12 noon, Nina was in bed with her partner Christy, when Hauwa unveiled the curtain covers of the bed. ‘Nina hurry up, I think you have visitors from Zaria. I think it’s your mother’ Hauwa instructed. Nina hissed and proceeded to clothe herself.”
In the sequel to the novel, Kyan Dan Maciji II another character, Oga, a society ‘big man’ is depicted to be a well-known homosexual:
“Oga does not really have interest in women, he prefers men. It has been 15 years now since Oga last slept with a woman …”
The author used her writing to show how homosexuals are a part and parcel of Hausa society especially amongst the elites, politicians and upper-class men of society. In the novel, the author portrays life and queer identity of politicians and elites in Northern Nigeria and how even their sex lives with women (preference for anal intercourse) served just as a cover to their queer identity. In the novel Sirrin Loba by Kamalu Namowa published in 1998, lesbian relationships among girls in boarding schools also form the backdrop of the romance story. The girls in these schools engaged in queer relationships by organising themselves in secret groups termed ‘Secret Lovers’ to avoid the wrath of the school authorities. Once a student was found out as a member of the Secret Lovers, she would be spanked in front of the whole school as a detriment and expelled. These punishments, however, did nothing to stop the swelling in ranks and memberships of the Secret Lovers.
The characters Nasira and Sakina find their budding love for each other in jeopardy in light of the discovery of the Secret Lovers group and the expulsion of some of their colleagues:
“I am so much in love with you Sakina, I cannot eat because of your thoughts. I could feel a dagger obstruct my heart when we were not together” lamented Nasira.
In 2003, with the introduction of the Sharia Penal Code in most parts of Northern Nigeria, the Kano State Censorship Board banned the printing and distribution of the novel Sirrin Loba citing that it corrupts the way of life as well as religious and traditional cultures of the Hausa people. The novel became an instant rarity, exchanging for about 10 times the cover price especially among women. The controversy showed the two-faced-ness that goes on when writers explore queer themes that are rather practiced in the society but are not to be written or spoken about.
The sequel to Sirrin Loba was Aljannu a Makarantun Kwana (Devils in Boarding Schools) — another young adult queer romance story in boarding schools. However, with a moralistic inclination, as in this novel the author tried to intrude into the story and added negative consequences that awaited young women in queer relationships in the form of Jinnis and devils:
“… Haba Sakeena! You have touched my soul. I hope we can go till daybreak exploring ourselves and our love. We need to make each other happy.’ While they were enjoying their lovemaking, without knowing what was happening outside their worlds, the light of Sahiburruhu entered their bodies. Princess Dahiratu sent the Jinnis to capture them as a lesson to their kinds.”
In the novel Dufana (The Flood) by Ashhabu Mu’azu Gamji queer relationships were explored based on the lives of young women hawkers who proceeded to become sex workers. The character Hadiza was sexually molested by her sister-in-law, before she became a sex worker:
“… We were never satisfied of each other, as we played every day just like married couples did, bathed together, and rubbed oil on each other. She was a woman like me, but my heart loved the way she touched and played with me. She was a woman with an alluring voice and her naked body was soft and pleasing to the eyes.”
This novel used queer themes to express how lesbianism was a thing even in so-called married households, even between sisters-in-law. It also explicitly captured lesbian sex scenes:
“There is this moan of pleasure she does once she pushed her fingers into my pussy and plays around with it. The moan she makes as I look at her eyes gives me goose pimples of pleasure and makes the hair at the back of my neck tingle’ said Talatu.”
The religious and cultural milieu of the Hausa people makes queer relationships a taboo act in the society. Despite the existence of same-sex relationships, they are not openly discussed or embraced and literature has been one of the means of fictionalising and representing queer relationships in Hausa. Most writers are wary of the backlash of promoting queer relationships, while at the same time trying to remain true to their writing as being a mirror of the society they live in. This proves to be a precarious dilemma of a balancing act, on one side being Muslims, they come with an instinctive, self-regulatory impulse that seeks to protect their Hausa culture and religion as it were, therefore, they find themselves as writers and artists in a constant battle of identity, creativity, morality, and self-censorship. To avoid demonization and out casting from the society, these writers describe their portrayal of queer relationships in writing as a means of educating their readers to the ills of homosexuality, as such distancing themselves from the acts in a form of self-censorship and subversion of the society’s norms.
The novelist Balaraba Ramat Yakubu admits to this form of morality teaching and enlightenment using her novel Wane Kare Ne….? saying:
“… my advice to my readers is that they should not blacklist this story, because I tried as much as possible to censor the contents of the book, because as you know, we Hausa (female) writers are weaklings, and we are also guarded by culture and traditions, and we need to preserve the upbringing of our children under the umbrella of our religion Islam.”
This statement confirms how culture and religion have become barriers to and censors in the works of literature in Northern Nigeria. As such the Hausa literature does not fulfil its role of being a mirror of the society, since the reflection it provides is rather dimmed. Most writers tend to distance themselves from queer themes to avoid backlash from religious and traditional institutions, to avoid being branded as veiled homosexuals or accused of luring young people into this form of sexuality that is abhorred by the conservative society.
Queer literature is therefore still finding its feet amongst cultural conservatism, the ‘shamefacedness’ edict of Northern Nigeria, and the criminalization of same-sex relationships, despite the fact that the source materials for queer literature are available and continue to exist. However, cultural negotiation and weakening ties to traditional culture are trying to dismantle boundaries and be accommodating of cultural identity in queer literature. It appears moving forward the veil of conservatism is shredding, and certain norms in Hausa society are made visible, questioned, disrupted, and expanded in literature and elsewhere.
Sada Malumfashi is a writer living in Kaduna, Nigeria. He is an awardee of the Goethe Institute/Sylt Foundation Writing Residency in Germany. His works have appeared in Transition Magazine, New Orleans Review, The Africa Report and Saraba Magazine amongst others. He is interested in the intricacies of language and works on translations from Hausa to English.
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