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In the urban areas of northern Nigeria, a burgeoning corpus of contemporary Hausa popular literature has captured the attention and concern of the entire Hausa community. The literature can be found in the cities of Kano, Zariya, Kaduna, Katsina, and Sokoto, but given that the majority of the books are written and sold in Kano, the literature's English moniker is Kano market literature. Avid readers have little difficulty in locating booksellers who have strategically positioned themselves in the midst of every potential direction of foot-traffic. Sidewalk displays, market stalls, and independent book kiosks dizzy onlookers with hundreds of appealing book covers of youthful couples acting out different love-interest scenes. Currently, this genre of popular romance fiction, known to Hausa speakers as Littattafan Soyayya (books of love), enjoys huge popularity as interested parties voraciously devour books and await the soon-to-be-published works of their favorite writers.
The popularity of Kano market literature rests firmly upon its subject matter, one that has proven quite controversial within the conservative Muslim environment of Hausa society. As expected from any work of romantic pulp fiction, Soyayya novels preoccupy themselves with sagas of love and marital relationships. Some writers depict the ordeals faced by courting lovers whose aspirations of marriage are continuously frustrated by meddlesome family members or uncooperative parents, and others explore the challenges of maintaining healthy relationships in the aftermath of matrimony. In either case, writers address the reality of Hausa youth confronting dramatic social change in an era when traditional mores must negotiate the onslaught of contemporary sensibilities. The swirl of cultural pluralism has generated consternation over the conventional practices of gender relations, and Kano market literature situates itself at the core of this discussion. The romantic novels have become an explorative forum for the socially and culturally loaded issues of polygamy, marriages of coercion, purdah (the Islamic tradition of seclusion), and accessibility of education for females. As a result, the literature indirectly and candidly questions the gender stares quo and works to modify the social, familial, and educational position of Hausa women.
Public opinion harshly criticizes the literature for allegedly corrupting the minds of the youth, especially young women. Much of the response is based on hearsay, as most people have only familiarized themselves with the literature through word of mouth. Common belief holds that most books are read by female youth in secondary schools and that the vast majority of the works have prompted moral decay. Critics contend the romantic stories promote sexual promiscuity and the encouragement of youthful disobedience of parental desires in conjugal affairs. Others maintain that the literature is so riddled with so-called Western notions of love that it no longer reflects any modicum of Hausa tradition. For such critics, the swift banning or brusque censoring presents the best solution to the problem.
Contrary to public perception, all Soyayya writers assert that the novels are created with the ultimate intention of instilling proper moral behavior among the reading constituency; and as they contend, the didactic intentions of their stories are unmistakable. In order to clarify their ethical agendas, numerous writers include prefaces that unequivocally explicate the thematic direction and instructive nature of various novels. Writers, without exception, feel a sense of social responsibility in advising a youth confused by the volatile social climate. Readers confirm that the literature has had the desired effect, claiming that the books are beneficial on several levels. In their estimation, Soyayya novels possess the dual attributes of entertainment and instruction. Readers can experience an array of pleasurable fantasies while remaining conscious of the fact that the romantic trope of stories is a vehicle for the social concerns of writers. Books become thematic commentaries on the place of auren dole (forced marriage), auren mata biyu (polygamy), purdah (female seclusion), and ilimin mata (women's education) in contemporary Hausa society.
Both male and female writers address the issues of gender relations, but women writers have understandably proven more committed to communicating the female perspectives and concerns. Women writers and readers maintain that though male-authored texts concur with the general literary sentiment of female empowerment, they too frequently privilege the masculine emotional response and fail to explore the psychological reactions of women regarding the problematic institutions of forced marriage and polygamy. Speaking from first-hand experience, female writers imagine heroines who must navigate their way through conservative familial politics in order to secure their aspirations of marital choice or educational improvement. Other female protagonists encounter the emotional adversity inherent in co-wife relations due to a husband's ineffectualness in executing unbiased treatment.
Hausa women writers are undeniably feminist, in the sense that they possess an awareness of the constraints placed upon women because of their gender and a desire to dislodge these constraints, thus creating a more equitable gender system. The single most important consideration in the construction of Hausa feminism is the significance of Islam, given that the religious faith colors virtually every aspect of social relations. Writers have attempted to negotiate the tensions between cultural/ religious tradition and the elements of modernization by identifying themselves as Muslim writers who do not see these forces as incompatible entities. Regardless of the religious veracity of their claims, writers have been condemned as espousing un-Islamic teachings when condemning forced marriage, discouraging polygamy, or encouraging women to further their education at the expense of the tradition of seclusion.
The Islamic legalistic notion of ijtihad, the historically accepted practice of reinterpreting the Qur'anic philosophy on human relations based on the political, educational, cultural, and economic norms of a specific era, offers insight into some of the varying religious perspectives of Soyayya writers. The assumption of those not well versed in the origin and development of the Shari'a (formal Islamic law) maintains that it is totally divine and immutable in form, and such a view is often encouraged by a conservative class of religious clerics (Engineer 6). In truth, the Shari'a never came into being instantaneously but went through an agonizing process of evolution. Its configuration never remained static as well; even after it assumed a recognizable shape, jurists employed the principle of ijtihad (literally, "exertion"), meaning individual creative interpretation of the scripture and the application of legal reform (Stowasser, "Gender Issues" 34). The implementation of ijtihad in the early Islamic community constituted the dynamic element of Islamic law, but its admittance was barred after the decline of the Abbasid empire in the twelfth century (Engineer 6). The formulated Shari'a then reflected an inert and perpetual quality. In the religious spirit of ijtihad, Hausa female writers have sought to alter cultural interpretations of certain Qur'anic codes of behavior. Thus writers insist that the call for social change and female empowerment occurs within the sanctions of Islamic doctrine.
The range of the figurative ijtihad offered by Soyayya women writers reflects a wide variety of social criticism on the gender-sensitive subjects. A few have assumed a conservative view, voicing concern for the welfare of women while simultaneously preserving their attachment to traditional Islamic thought and cultural conventions. Such writers support the existence of auren dole, seeing it as institution that should fall within the bounds of parental jurisdiction. Writers of this traditional ilk often defend polygamy as a religious establishment and thus offer advice to women on how to cope with the emotional turmoil stemming from such circumstances. The conservative ijtihad within the Soyayya novels limits itself to the championing of female education and the abatement of purdah restrictions, both social features that can be notably connected with the "Golden Age" of the first Islamic community and the era of the Prophet. By summoning the social spirit of the Golden Age, cautious writers can portray themselves as "fundamentalists" while encouraging greater social mobility for females.
For some of the women writers, this degree of ijtihad is only one step towards progressive change. In their …