How Culture and Religion are Holding Ambitious Women Back
The Feature

How Culture and Religion are Holding Ambitious Women Back: Northern Nigerian Women Speak

Being an ambitious woman in Northern Nigeria is one of the biggest challenges a woman has to face. It is often very stifling and restricting because of the many unwritten rules that shape the lives of women. If you’re a woman from the North of Nigeria, you’re probably very much aware of all the obstacles in our path when it comes to pursuing and achieving our dreams.

A lot of people, both men, and unfortunately, women in my community are highly critical of women with ambitious dreams or women who intend to work and make a name for themselves. There’s a lot of emphasis on culture than there is on religion, with culture stating that “a woman’s place is in her husband’s house.” It is this popular belief among individuals of the society and the community which I am from that has slowed down the progress and success of a lot of aspiring, promising and talented women.

For anyone who is bold enough to go against the norms and pushes to be successful and make a name for herself in this age and era of the 21st century, she ends up having to deal with awful and mean comments, discouraging and downgrading remarks, accusations and finger-pointing. This plunges the woman into despair and oftentimes, women subjected to this treatment may eventually give up on their dreams, jobs and businesses in which they are hoping to thrive or are already thriving.

As a woman myself who has been subjected to discouraging and biased remarks after voicing out my dreams of achieving huge feats and milestones that may not conform to the ideal place of a woman in my community, I’ve been discouraged from my dreams of being a scientist because I was told that a woman cannot be a scientist because it’s a man’s job.’ A lot of women are enraged with the situation of things and I think it is necessary that the status quo is changed to allow women to pursue the many beautiful and wonderful dreams they have.

Religion (Islam) allows a woman to work and actualize her dreams. With regard to women’s work, Islam does not put any impediments in the path of a woman who wants to work. Islamic law however permits women to work in Islamic conditions such as the work not requiring the woman to violate Islamic law e.g. serving alcohol and maintaining her modesty while she performs any work outside her home. There’s always the question that pops up for an ambitious woman “If a man knows you are ambitious, how can he marry you?” or “How will you find a husband with all your ambitions?” We as a society need to accept the fact that women have a right to have ambitions and dreams just as men do.

I conducted a study where I documented the opinions and views of Muslim women in my community on their experiences and thoughts on being a Muslim woman with ambitions in Northern Nigeria. It challenges the existing standards and beliefs set in society and expresses the innermost thoughts and desires of these women. They share their perspective on the topic.

Yusrah Kabir Yar’adua

In Northern Nigeria, girls are denied their dream ambitions due to the northern traditions from ages ago that believes that certain careers are only meant for men for example military, aviation, banking, politics etc. These careers are known to require strength, travelling and timing and they believe women can’t do any of these because they are seen as weak and are supposed to be the family’s caretakers and indulging in these jobs will occupy their time to the extent they won’t be there for their family, because of this, it is considered forbidden for the woman. In those days women were seen as doormats, they had no rights or value in society.

When modern lifestyle came and western education, the core Northern leaders became educated and understood that there shouldn’t be a career boundary for women. Today we have many women from Northern Nigeria today that are holding executive and leading positions around the world and in different sectors. I am a northern Muslim woman with a degree in political science and I hope to be Nigeria’s first female president someday. A Northern Muslim woman’s career dream should not be crushed because of gender bias in society.

Maryam Sani

As a Muslim woman from Northern Nigeria, you’re not allowed to go into certain professions, you’re not allowed to dream beyond your confined space because it is believed that you shouldn’t have wild ambitions because eventually, you’re going to get married. Marriage is not a life sentence and it shouldn’t limit your ambition as a woman. I’ve always wanted to work for the United Nations and I still want to but when I first aired out my opinion to people around me, I was told that I shouldn’t even dream about it because my “ husband might not want me to travel around the world.” Isn’t the secretary general of the United Nations a woman? A northerner, in fact, Fulani to be precise. If she wasn’t supported and encouraged, would she be where she is right now?

On the issue of women, marriage and giving up their dreams, religion doesn’t overshadow a woman’s ambition, in fact, it supports it. As long as a woman has a loving and supportive husband which is something most northern men don’t have, she is good to go in finding her path to success in life. I personally think everyone has a right to their life, regardless of who they end up with.

Hafsah Mu’az

In my opinion, being a Muslim woman doesn’t stop one from being ambitious, it only encourages one’s ambition. Allah says to look after our hereafter and our Dunya. Being a Muslim woman shouldn’t stop you from being ambitious. As long as you stick to your ethics as a Muslimah, and dress decently, you shouldn’t care what other people say because you might be a pioneer in something as long as it doesn’t go against your religion.

Salma Tsadu

I honestly don’t think women should stay at home doing nothing. If the truth must be told, women too need to be independent. Women also have dreams and aspirations and I feel nothing should come their way. In the society we find ourselves in today, you’ll be told that a woman’s place is her husband’s house which is so wrong.

Zulaiha Bello Mahmud

Being an ambitious Muslim northern woman is honestly a challenge I haven’t thought of a way to counter. In these modern times, our parents encourage us to strive for a higher level of education but sometimes it feels like that support doesn’t go beyond wanting their daughters to be educated enough, and match up with an equally educated well established spouse. After finishing your education, the question is always “when are you going to get married?” and never “How are you going to make use of your education to make a living?” It feels like the next step in your life should always be towards securing a spouse and never securing a personal means of living.

When you do get married and think “Now I can finally concentrate on my ambition,” it doesn’t work out that way because then you’re expected to have children, stay in one place and manage a household. There’s also the possibility of your spouse not supporting your ambition and preferring you to stay at home. A man most especially in the Northern sphere of the country is mostly always placed on a pedestal, allowed to act as he wills and this is all justified with the sole reason that he’s a man.

Though that’s not always the case in all households, some with parents making sure to ensure their daughter’s ambitions are unhindered by cultural factors and the ties called marriage. It is also not always so in other households because apparently, your single most important ambition in life should be securing a husband, or at least that’s what it feels like living as an ambitious Muslim woman from the North. The belief that women should not be allowed to pursue their dreams and ambitions needs to be eradicated. We all need to accept and respect that women too have the ability and the right to dream of a bright future for themselves. We shouldn’t have situations whereby culture plays a role in hindering women from achieving their dreams over religion which has allowed it.

Hayaat Santuraki

Hayaat Santuraki is a writer, artist, avid reader and women’s rights activist.  She is the founder of The Pink Project, a community of women providing safe spaces to make women's lives better. She loves reading, drawing and photography. When she's not dreaming of travelling the world, she's busy trying to achieve her plethora of dreams.

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