For my first installment of F*cking Awesome Women Wednesday, I chose to highlight a woman I had never heard of until a few days ago. I hope you enjoy learning about her as much as I did.
Nana Asma’u bint Shehu Usman dan Fodiyo, or simply “Nana Asma’u,” rooted the importance of education and created a sense of belonging in Nigerian women. She was born in 1793 to Usman dan Fodio. Her father was the founder of Sokoto Caliphate, an Islamic spiritual community in Northern Nigeria. Nana Asma’u acted as a sort of counselor to her brother when he took the leader role of Caliph. In fact, she outlived most of the founding generation of the Caliphate, which meant that she was of much importance to later rulers.
Being educated in Qur’anic studies herself, Nana Asma’u firmly believed in the value of universal education. She spoke four languages, and she had a positive reputation as a leading scholar. For much of her adult life, Nana Asma’u was responsible for the religious education of Muslim women. Around 1830, she formed a group of women teachers (jajis) whose main goal was to travel around and educate women of the Caliphate. They based their teachings on her writings. The jajis and the women they taught were known as yan-taru, or “those who congregate together, the sisterhood.”
Over a span of forty years, Nana Asma’u wrote over 60 works, many of which are poems written in Arabic, the Fula language and Hausa, all written in the Arabic script. Her poems of guidance became pertinent tools for the teaching of the founding principles of the Caliphate. Her father believed in a strong emphasis on women leaders and women’s rights within the community ideals of the Sunnah and Islamic law, and those same beliefs were apparent in Nana Asma’u’s writings. Nana Asma’u also witnessed many battles of the Fulani War of 1804-1808. She wrote about these experiences in her prose narrative Wakar Gewaye (“The Journey”).
Nana Asma’u died in 1864, and was buried near her father in the city of Sokoto in northwest Nigeria.
Today, many Islamic women’s organizations, schools, and meeting halls in Northern Nigeria are named after Nana Asma’u. The republishing and translation of her works has emphasized the literary value to her writing, and the overall importance of her teachings.
“Women, a warning. Leave not your homes without good reason. You may go out to get food or to seek education. In Islam, it is a religious duty to seek knowledge Women may leave their homes freely for this.” – Nana Asma’u, A Warning, II, 1856