Nigeria state seeks husbands for 1,000 brides-to-be
KANO, Nigeria — He should be tall. Kind, of course. And generous, especially when it comes to buying all those little trinkets that a woman desires.
“A little handsome,” but not too much, says Altine Abdullahi. “It’s a danger.”
In northern Nigeria, it is a truth almost universally acknowledged that a woman of a certain age, and in a certain situation in life, must be in want of a husband.
But if the woman in that certain situation is a divorcee or a widow, finding a husband isn’t easy, even without the shopping list of desirable qualities ticked off by Abdullahi (a divorcee).
That’s why 1,000 women have thrown their fates into the hands of the Kano state government, which will act as their matchmaker. The religious authority in the Muslim-dominated state, the Hisbah Board, has embarked on a massive husband hunt for divorcees and widows. The first 100 women, including Abdullahi, are to be wed in coming weeks.
“I’m getting married,” she says. “God willing!”
She has no idea who her husband will be. But, like the practical character in a Jane Austen novel, she’s no romantic.
“I know love is something, but ...” she pauses wistfully. “Love doesn’t really last.”
Abdullahi, 44, preens like a fine, glossy bird, creaming her plump lips, powdering her face, fluttering her eyelashes girlishly. Her smiling face, with perfect white teeth, peers out from dozens of photographs stacked on her desk and decking the wall of her office, where she heads the organization Voice of Widows, Divorcees and Orphans Assn. of Nigeria. Her skin is clear, her eyes bright, her silver bangles jangle happily, yet she complains that she looks “tired.”
“Beautiful? You should have seen me when I was young. Then I was beautiful.”
The state-as-matchmaker plan came after Abdullahi made an emotional plea on Kano radio for husbands for desperate widows and divorcees.
In Nigeria, women of marriageable age who remain single are seen as suspect, their respectability questioned. Throughout many parts of the Muslim world, divorced and widowed women are forced to go home to their fathers or brothers and are viewed as a burden and failure. Or they live on the edges of society, shunned and forced into begging or prostitution to support their children.
Sometimes the brother of a dead man will marry the widow and support her and her children. But many divorced women find it difficult to remarry.
In Kano, the state capital, there’s a sense of crisis about the number of divorcees, although statistics aren’t available to back up widespread perceptions of an increase in failed marriages. The problem sharpened here after Kano state and 11 other predominantly Muslim states adopted sharia, or Islamic law, between 1999 and 2001, allowing men to divorce unilaterally simply by thrice stating “I divorce you,” an act that cannot be undone with a simple change of mind.
“With growing cases of divorce among couples, the state has reached an unenviable record in the country. In any social gathering and various fora, the most common discussion in the metropolis is the growing rate at which divorce is taking place,” said a February article in the Nigerian newspaper Leadership.
An everyday quarrel can easily escalate into divorce, says Abdullahi, whose divorce happened as quickly as a car crash, in a moment of heat, instantly regretted by both sides.
The row came after her husband took a third wife who was demanding more nights with him. When he conveyed the demand to Abdullahi (as second wife), she told him it was women’s business. He should send the third wife to her.
He said, “Be careful.”
She insisted. He told her to leave. A few more sharp words and before anyone could stop it, the couple were divorced.
“I started crying. Even he started crying too. We cried together. He said, ‘Just go back to your room and forget about the divorce.’” But she couldn’t. Under sharia law, she says, she cannot go back to him unless she remarries and her husband either dies or her new marriage ends in divorce.
She left their four children with him, as is often the case. (“He treats them very well. So why should I worry myself about them?”) She has seen them once since, in 2005. She left, certain he’d miss her and her cooking, especially his favorite dish, spaghetti bolognese, made from a recipe she’d found in a magazine.
That was 12 years ago.
“I know he misses me.” Still, she says, 40 days can now pass without him entering her mind.
After the divorce, Abdullahi decided to put herself through law school, but being smart didn’t compensate for her lack of a secular education.
“I didn’t understand a word the lecturer said.”
In 2008, the state government’s religious Social Reorientation Program, A Daidaita Sahu, meaning “straighten your lines” in the local Hausa language, urged men to be tolerant of trivial marital problems. One reason for the state’s high divorce rate, the government found, was “the misapplication of power by men to divorce women.”
Many Kano men, who see obedience as an important wifely trait, don’t want to marry divorcees, Abdullahi contends.
“Nobody comes to us. They say we are not disciplined,” Abdullahi says. “We challenge that. They’re our men and if they don’t marry us, who will?”
The Hisbah Board is subjecting all marriage applicants, male and female, to medical and HIV tests, and requires each to fill out a form, providing details of their social “status,” education, likes and dislikes and an outline of what he or she expects in a spouse.
Husbands will pay a modest bride price, but no less than one gram of gold (which Abdullahi wants to go to the bride but usually goes to her family). The state will also pay all wedding expenses.
About 2,000 men have applied to be screened as potential husbands. For men, it looks like an affordable way to get hitched, with the bride price low, the trouble of haggling with the bride’s parents averted and the wedding paid for.
Even members of the Hisbah Board have recently taken extra wives “to set a good example,” board official Nabahani Usman said. (The board sees it as an act of charity and kindness to take in an extra wife.)
For many of the divorcees and widows, the attraction is the protection offered by the board, which will make sure any future divorce isn’t trivial.
Some critics of the marriage plan, such as writer Ayisha Osori, argue that its great flaw is in giving false hope of success in marriage to women when society’s views of wives remain problematic.
“Absolutely nothing has changed. The men have not changed, the state has not changed, and the realities of the women — right where society wants them to be — have also not changed,” Osori wrote in Leadership. “And so the cycle continues, with women in and out of the homes and beds of men who can discard them as quickly as it takes to say talaq,” she added, referring to the Islamic term for divorce.
Abdullahi met recently with Aminu Daurawa, head of the Hisbah Board, who promised to personally select the best available man for her.
He’d better find someone who appreciates a bold, charismatic woman.
Abdullahi’s outspoken ways have been controversial. In 2009 she planned a “million divorcee march” in the streets of Kano to protest the dire situation of many divorcees and widows. Tongues wagged over such a scandalous idea. Men — and women — condemned it.
She was summoned by the Hisbah Board, forced to cancel the protest and had to promise never to talk about it again. She was chastened but didn’t give up fighting.
“I’m a strong woman. I got my strength from my father.”
These days, Abdullahi looks anything but downtrodden. She adores fashion (which can be quite an expensive habit, even in Kano) and goes a little starry-eyed when listing the hoped-for qualities of her soon-to-be-found husband. She may not be romantic but can’t help dreaming big.
“I want a husband who will get me anything I want in my life. It’s not important to be rich. But I don’t want poor.”
And if he’s cruel, miserly, bad-tempered, violent or simply doesn’t suit, she will reject him.
“If he can take good care of me, fine, I’ll stick with him. But if not, I’ll find my own way.”
But can she? The Hisbah Board’s determination to save all but the most dire marriages may cut both ways. If she (or any of the women) doesn’t like the board’s version of Mr. Right, she may be stuck.
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