“Women invoke often the help and protection of God, finding in God their greatest if not only recourse and succour. It is their need for divine assistance and their belief in God’s assistance that unites them. They are together in their faith, despite the different expressions that faith is given in their religious traditions.” – Kathleen McGarvey in Muslim and Christian Women in Dialogue: The Case of Northern Nigeria (2009, Oxford: Peter Lang, p 249).
Nigeria is perceived by many as a religious fault line. The perennial conflicts along religious affiliations – predominantly between Christians and Muslims – have made this assumption almost impossible to debunk. At the same time, gender awareness has never been so present in our national consciousness. Women not only want to be seen but also to be heard. However, there seems be a dearth of intellectual synthesis of these two aspects – religion and gender. Or so I thought, until I read Kathleen McGarvey’s book, Muslim and Christian Women in Dialogue: The Case of Northern Nigeria.
McGarvey’s transformed her two-year doctoral research into a lucid narration of the place and role of women in Northern Nigeria. She strides across both religious barricades – Islam and Christianity – in order to present a clear picture of the dialogue among women in the region. While we are used to discussions along religious lines, that are mainly initiated and executed by men, the author dares to present her-story of women.
Muslim and Christian Women in Dialogue: The Case of Northern Nigeria, tackles the often over flogged impression in certain atheistic discussions that religion is to be blamed for the violence between people. While not entirely absolving religion; McGarvey asserts that “poverty in the North is one of the main fuel to the conflict” (page 267). Her stand reverberates with a similar study by an American scholar Phillip Ositien: “widespread illiteracy, unemployment, a growing population of rootles and jobless young men, availability of arms, coupled with venal, petty-minded and short-sighted politicians.” As such, religion has been hijacked and used as a tool of continual manipulation.
The author also peered into the claim that religion and culture is the greatest obstacle to the social and human development of women. Her response is instructive: “Women of all faiths enter into feminist religious discourse globally as well as in Northern Nigeria… Motivated and rooted in their faith, but aware that their religion has been used to justify the oppression and exclusion of women, they seek to develop its unifying and liberating potential, convinced of its relevance for human well-being, justice and transformed human relations.” She explained further that since there is a wide diversity – social, political, cultural and religious – hue from which many women view reality, there cannot be a common solution to the problem. “Not all women share one understanding of human dignity…and not all seek to overcome oppression or establish justice by the same criteria.” In order words, feminist religious discourse has to be entrenched to study and address each peculiar socio-cultural context.
The conceptual abstraction of ‘feminism’ in line with the distinction between the global and the local Nigerian context is illuminating. McGarvey agrees that the term ‘feminist’ evokes rancid reactions. As such most Nigerian women will not “label their struggles to promote the dignity of women as feminist.” She proposed a definition of the Nigerian brand of ‘feminism’ as: “women’s awareness of unjust gender inequalities experienced in their society, and their struggles to promote women’s rights, interest and issues within their diverse social, cultural, religious and class contexts.”
The author thus redefined ‘feminism’ in consonance with the natural dignity of the human person. McGarvey echoes the position of Eugenia Abu, who scandalised a crowd of Western feminists with these words: “I know my grandmother’s needs are not theories but a borehole. When Mrs Ransome Kuti mobilised women in the sixties, her theories were neither Marxism nor Feminism, they were Nigerian” (In the Blink of An Eye, 2007, p 177).
Muslim and Christian Women in Dialogue: The Case of Northern Nigeria is structured along three main themes: Muslim and Christian feminist discourse of a global scale; discussion of the research context – Northern Nigeria; and area of interreligious dialogue. The book categories the inter-religious dialogue in Northern Nigeria into four subsections, starting with the dialogue of life. The seed of hatred was sown by the colonial creation of Sabon Gari in the most Northern cities. Although individual friendship bloomed, however due to the volatility of religion, discussions along those lines were usually skipped.
However for women, it was difficult to separate their life into segments, as such being women they story-tell amongst each other – even beyond religious boundaries. This ‘spiritual dialogue’ between women of both faiths in Northern Nigeria, according the author is easily recognisable (see quote above).
It will be hypocritical to impart accolades on Muslim and Christian Women in Dialogue: The Case of Northern Nigeria. The intellectual rigour encapsulated in this book is its strength, beauty and superlative recommendation. Being rather cerebral, it will obviously exclude some from savouring and appreciating it. McGarvey’s book is a meticulous and factual scrutiny of the inter-religious story-telling in Northern Nigeria. The author deserves praise for giving a ‘voice and face’ to those who usually bear the brunt of exclusion.