September 19, 2013 By Noor

Empowerment of Women: An African Agenda


Amina Sboui has recently quit Femen, citing the Islamophobia of the feminist group and saying, ‘you have to respect the religion of others.’ The Tunisian activist is a noted figure, who was jailed for posting her nude photos online, a staple of the Femen protest. The Liberal version of feminism, moored as it is on the belief that religious societies – especially the occidental ones – can’t frustrate patriarchy since in such societies patriarchy is sacred. Most western feminist groups are whites and turn their eyes to the formations and voices in the black communities the world over.

There are many Muslim feminists – including academics like Sadiya Sheikh and Amina Wadud and writers like Mohja Kahf – who believe that patriarchy is conceptually on the other side of the direction towards which faith and spiritual values progress. Significantly, these scholars don’t attach themselves to the modern reformist tradition in Islam. They have been influenced more by the Sufi tradition, going back to the works and lives of personalities like Ibn Arabi and Rabia. Notably these scholars are known more as academics and writers than as activist and, rather than involving themselves in the social and political issues at present, go back to the sacred texts and interpretations to construct a woman inclusive reading and epistemology. Their contribution to the formulation of an Islamic feminist epistemology is outstanding, though they are not popular outside the academic circle where they engage.

In Niger, the tradition and grouping which concentrates on the empowerment of women while at the same time moving ahead for reforms in the family law is a pointer to the fact the Muslim feminist movement is not monolithic and not unrelated to the activities for the empowerment of women at the socio-political level. The collective named the Jamiyat Nassirat Din (JND), is a multi-ethnic organisation founded by Saida Oumul Kahdiri Niass (known popularly as Mamma Kiota). Mama Kiota is a Sufi Sayyida being the daughter of Ibrahim Niass (1902-1975) the founder of the Niass branch of Tijaniyyah, a Sufi tariqa which originated in north Africa but spread all across the West Africa. JND does not call itself a feminist movement. But scholar Pearl T Robinson, an academic, activist and author, who has brought Mamma Kiota and JND into the limelight, thinks that alongside global feminist approach, the psycho-social approach of the group has a major role to play as far as women’s empowerment is concerned.

Pearl Robinson narrates the history of Mamma Kiota and JND in the following manner: ‘Originally from Senegal, she is a Tijani spiritual leader, a daughter of Ibrahim Niass, and wife of the late Cheikh Aboubacar Assimi of Kiota, who was the Grand Caliph of the Niassene Tijaniyya in West Africa. A venerated personality in her own right, the charismatic Mamma Kiota strategically deploys a mix of personal authority, spiritual authority, cultural capital and kinship ties to obtain financial resources and technical support for girls and women to have access to Franco-Arab education, maternal and child health care, training in income-generating skills, and Islamic knowledge. She engages the state to articulate a broadly construed agenda of female empowerment that connects women with the pilgrimage economy and is grounded in an interpretation of the Koran and the Hadith. Hence, her approach is culturally sustainable.’

(Research Note to Islam and Female Empowerment among the Tijaniyya in Niger)

One of the interesting facts in the biography of Mamma Kiota is that she was the fourth wife of her husband Cheikh Aboubacar after she was married to the sheikh for political reasons (to spread the Niass branch of Tijaniyyah). The sheikh died in 2004 but had been supportive of his wife’s social and educational activities. This is a pointer to the fact that social and political activities for the empowerment of women are being carried out the world over by negotiating the geographical and cultural ethos and customs.

Pearl Robisnson is working on a documentary on the life of Mama Kiota to bring the notice of the world to the struggle of the women in Niger to forge a way to the empowerment of women

Posted in: Woman