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Novel writing in Northern Nigeria is a fair innovation that began in the 20th century; queer relationships, however, have been a part and parcel of society for a much longer period.
A queer section of the Hausa society that has dominated the literary field, without any cause for rancour, is the ‘Yan Daudu’ – Feminine Men. These men comprise a bulk of the Hausa queer community and the 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 that covers the 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 so relatively new.
The literature of Hausa women as such became a cause that gives visibility to queer identity. However, conservatism, self and government censorship have continued to push these writings under the radar.
Hausa women 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). These novels when they were released all courted the wrath of the Kano State Censorship Board, a government agency in Kano – the city at the centre of the market for Hausa literature that embarked on an approach to uproot what seems to it to be indecency in the society, that existed in some films, books or novels. These novels were insinuated to have descriptions of explicit sexuality, explored queer themes, had fornication tendencies, nudity and as such all eventually fizzled out of the market, while copies still available were confiscated by the board.
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 cries 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 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 gay person:
“Oga does not 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 queer relationships are a part and parcel of Hausa society especially with the elites, the political and upper-class men of the society. In the novel, the author portrays the life and queer identity of politicians and elites in Northern Nigeria and how even their sex lives with women was just to serve as a cover to their queer identity.
The religious and cultural milieu of the Hausa people makes queer relationships a taboo act in 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 women 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 outcasting from 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 by norms of the society.
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 and censors to the works of literature in Northern Nigeria. As such Hausa literature does not fulfil its role of being a mirror of the society, as its reflection 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, even though 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.