By Anote Ajeluorou
Although female writers have long taken centre-stage in Nigeria writing, it’s still a southern affair. Too few women from up north have taken the gauntlet to write their names on the literary map. This is as much a source of worry as it represents the marginal position women from that part of the country still occupy. Prof. Zainab Alkali is perhaps the only excerption to have emerged from this milieu notching up such prose titles as The Stillborn, The Virtuous Woman, The Initiates, The Descendants and a short story collection, Cobwebs and Other Stories. She has also co-edited a collection, Vultures in the Air: Voices from Northern Nigeria.
Nevertheless, Alkali is least discussed in literary circles; reasons for this apparent oversight is hard to conjecture except to say that her last out was in 2007 and probably made little impact. This tends to suggest a lack of currency in her writing that should attract much attention. However, this does not make her works less relevant to her socio-cultural and religious environment, works that continue to speak to the heart of many oppressed women struggling to find meaning to lives lived below their various dreams and expectations. It’s for excavating these depths of human and feminine emotions that Alkali has made a mark.
So that when she was put up on the programme at just-held Port Harcourt UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 (PWBC) last month, it generated considerable buzz among the literati in attendance. Sadly, Alkali didn’t make the event on account of being bereaved. Sighs of sympathy hissed through the hall. But the organizers had to improvise. A panel was drawn up to consist of Richard Ali (author of City of Memories), Ukamaka Olisakwe (author of Eyes of a Goddess), Bisi Oluyemi (journalist), Uzo Nwamara (author of Dance of the Delta) with university don, Dr. Margaret Nutsukpo moderating.
Although panelist members like Olisakwe and Ali wanted to ask the author questions such as the condition of women in the north and her views about feminism in the socio-cultural and religious environment that shapes her writing, they had to be contented responding these questions themselves. Ali described her as “an iconic person for us in the north as first female writer”, he said, “Alkali is not a feminist and she agrees with it (view that she is not a feminist). We should approach her with more nuance than feminism. She should be approached in a more rounded manner”.
Olisakwe disagreed, arguing, “Alkali calls for a new way of looking at feminism, where men and women have to live together. You can be a feminist but not without a man, as The Stillborn suggests. Even if you live in a weak marriage you must find ways to resolve things so as to have men and women living side by side for development”.
To which Oluyemi also affirmed, saying, “She believes so much in the culture of men and women working together. Alkali isn’t a feminist per se; she’s a realist. Every man is proud to have a woman who can deliver to her world. Her type of feminism is one that faces reality”.
Again, Ali stated that women in Muslim world “are striving for justice. The idea of emancipating women is not incompatible with Islam at all. Alkali has dealt exemplarily in tandem with Islamic religion”.
On the question of finding a healthy mix of brain, beauty and brawn in women, Olisakwe was up in arms against anyone who sees things otherwise. “Why can’t you as a woman have beauty, brain and career and all?” she asked. “Why not? Most times in our bid to maintain tradition, men tend to limit women’s aspirations. There’s education as a tool. In all her works, there’s a pushing forward for the girl child to go to school.
“She’s a strong writer who first portray women pushing upward. In her works, you find women who can have extra-marital affairs in her restrictive part of town. Even if some say her characters are weak, she portrays them as robustly presents them. 22 out of 39 writers that make up African 39 are women; only 17 are men. This is a testament to women’s ascendancy. Women are now telling their own stories and powerfully, too. Feminism is asking for human rights, a recognition of the woman as a human being”.
For Ali “western liberal education has changed the dynamism of society, which say nothing stops women from having it all as against what previously obtained. Alkali is exhorting women to come to a position where they even make choices. Only equal access to education that empowers boys and girls; that’s why females are writing their stories”.
For Nwamara, there is no prevarication about the position Alkali, saying, “She is a feminist pure and simple, and not a radical or benign one. Feminism is an attempt by women to repossess what they originally lost. From time immemorial, the woman is a god’ it was the reason why the serpent in bible account preferred to deal with her as Eve, rather than Adam!”
But to cap the heated discussion on feminism and whether Alkali’s narratives fit the brand, Director, Rainbow Book Club, organizer of PWBC, Mrs. Koko Kalango, said she regarded such issues of no consequence. Using her own experience as example, Kalango noted that she had never felt the need to campaign for feminine rights, as she had been allowed to dream to her full potential as girl while growing up and now as a married woman. She attested to having grown up in where boys and girls were given equal educational opportunities and that she’d had the support of her husband in what she current does.
She, therefore, canvassed for a healthy relationship between men and women.