As difficult as it is to believe, nay conceive of, while we talk about women’s achievements in Nigeria over the years there is a whole generation of women left behind in the most populated region of the country.
For International Women’s Month, we interviewed some of them to highlight unique problems missing in public discourse about gender equality in Nigeria.
This week, 57-year-old Zainab Hashim shares a gutting story about clawing her way through life. From an innocent 14-year-old married to the son of her father’s best friend, to a disillusioned woman in her early 30s determined to chart a new path for herself, to an estranged remarried woman now living miles away from home and family.
I understand you are living in Benin Republic with your new husband for a reason, do you mind sharing with our readers?
The simple of it is that I overreached by thinking I deserve more.
I was married off at 14 to the son of my Dad’s best friend. That was all I knew about him when the whole thing started. This was just after the Nigerian Civil War, and there was the promise of prosperity in the air, in Kano at least.
I had also caught this fever, I had just finished elementary school, and had ideas about going to Teachers’ College someday. I still did even when the whole marriage arrangement began. I hadn’t met my first husband then, but I’d heard he went to Bulgaria for his Higher Diploma, so I was excited that I got a good deal. I figured he would be delighted with my dreams.
Not in the least.
Mind you, I couldn’t broach the subject for 5 years. First, because I didn’t get comfortable with him for over a year, by which time I was a child nursing a child of her own. Then I didn’t even care anymore – about life, about dreams, about anything really, I just wanted the baby to shut up, forever if possible. I learnt much later that I was depressed.
When I broached the subject, this was the late seventies, I had two children already. He pointed towards them and asked, “Who will take care of them if you go to school?” I didn’t know, so I just kept quiet.
I was in this unhappy union for 20+ more years and 3 more children. At some point I was just going through all the motions and praying to Allah to kill my ambitions or kill me, or – and I was specific about this, preferably my husband. I had no problem being a widow, I could already envision my extravagant grief, after which I’d pick myself up and start my life. He didn’t die. In fact, he is still alive back home in Kano.
My ideas about liberation didn’t die, even though I knew it would come at a cost.
We had fought over it intermittently for years. Having to seek family intervention on multiple instances. The answer was always the same, “a woman’s dignity is in her matrimonial home.”
It drove me crazy. Because I wasn’t asking for a divorce. I was just asking to return to school and get a diploma. That was all.
What I was told in response was simply that as long as my husband doesn’t want that for me, I have no choice but to abandon my dreams.
The year 2000 meant a lot of different things for many. It reignited that hope I had in the post-war years. I figured if Nigeria can enter a new era of hope, I too could renew my hope for the life I always wanted. This time, I simply asked my husband for a divorce.
Did he grant it?
Not at first.
Islamically a woman can request for a divorce on many grounds. Mine, because it involved no injustice in the eyes of the law – he takes care of all my needs, after all, meant that I had to pay for his remarriage. I, who had never earned a penny of my own, unless you see the pocket money he occasionally paid me as payment for my home duties.
I gave up after I found that out, for another year anyway. After that, I just began planning an escape.
I saved up for 3 years. All the while my children, all grown up save for my youngest that was 7 at the time, were an enduring source of heartbreak for me. I knew I would be abandoning them, but I also knew I was never a great mom because of the resentment I had for years. For my husband, for my parents, for my friends who always had an advice or two about how lucky I was to have a husband who was perfect in every way, and for the children who I partly blamed for making me soft enough to endure nonsense.
When I left, first for Lagos, where I stayed with an old elementary school friend from the east, I cried a lot for the first week. After that, it was just me looking into the future and praying this isn’t my last and biggest mess up.
Have you been in touch with home since then?
Of course. My children are devastated, but my oldest gets it. My embittered husband texted me the divorce I asked nicely for.
My parents, thankfully, are all past. Rest their soul.
And the diploma?
I find I have lost taste for that. I think now that I really just wanted the freedom to choose. I was sick of having everything about me being decided by everyone but me. Maybe had my family stood by me and I wasn’t stifled with no options I would have pursued and abandoned the dream.
What I do now is work with nonprofits fighting for the rights of women and girls to education. I give context to the question, “why is it important to ensure women and girls have the choice and access to education.”
My youngest is presently in her first year in University. She lives with her older sister. It is my greatest joy.
I rebelled, so nobody feels the need to. Ours is now a kind of outcast family, but with that comes the freedom to breathe. I’m glad my children and grandchildren get to have that.
Surely that isn’t easy.
What part of the story I just told you sounded easy? No it isn’t. It gets easier though when you understand you’re doing it for posterity. It might have been about me at some point but it isn’t about me anymore.