More Than Being Housewives: Images and Roles of Women in Folk Music and Its Performance in Northern Nigeria

By Haruna, Zainab K. | Ethnologies, Annual 2000 | Go to article overview

More Than Being Housewives: Images and Roles of Women in Folk Music and Its Performance in Northern Nigeria


Haruna, Zainab K., Ethnologies


Custom and social convention in northern Nigeria limit women's freedom of speech and leadership roles in politics, education, the military and religion. Men publicly exercise authority and are associated with work in the public sector, while women in this predominantly Muslim region tend to be associated with the home and mothering.(2) But matan arewa (northern women) of both Muslim and Christian faiths understand themselves and their social roles differently than custom and convention dictate. And in the context of folk music and its performance, women's views can be heard and they can express their perspectives on social, religious and political issues in both private and public with some degree of freedom.

During my fieldwork in northern Nigeria over the past ten years, I noted that the women who assemble in church at least twice a week to learn new songs and to rehearse for upcoming performances form a community of women and use their religious and social roles to create a social space in which they can feel free and relaxed. These church women also realize their personal potential and develop leadership qualifies which they would stifle in the presence of men. Today, women's involvement in national politics and other public sectors has been strengthened partially through their musical activities.

I conducted field research in Borno state of Nigeria where I recorded songs performed by women and interviewed women recognized in their communities as musicians. During my first fieldwork, in 1988, I collected data for my Master's thesis (Haruna 1989); during my second, from December 1994 to April 1995, I collected data for my Ph.D. dissertation (Haruna 1998). I used various methods, but two -- participant observation and interviewing -- provided me with the most information.

As a woman born and bred in northern Nigeria, who speaks some northern Nigerian languages, including Hausa and Bura, I was accepted as an equal in most of the situations I was observing, so I studied performances which were generally natural and unaffected. Sometimes I simply looked from "the outside in and describ[ed] the situation" as I saw it (Goldstein 1964: 77), but at other times I also participated, dancing or singing choruses. Thus I was not only able to observe what went on around me, but I could also feel and experience the interactions. I was able to identify with other participants, and thus to obtain additional information from them. Their insights in turn assisted me in formulating meaningful questions for interviews with audience members as well as with women musicians.

One problem with assuming the role of participant observer is that I could not take notes during a performance, and had to delay putting my impressions on paper until afterwards. When a music event was long or had a large number of separate actions, I could not retain in my memory all that needed to be remembered and recorded. This happened particularly when the performance was part of lengthy, complex activities marking weddings, funerals, festivals and anniversaries. Fortunately, I realized the problem early, and stopped participating. Instead, I just observed the performances. I was then able to view as clearly and objectively as possible the entire kaleidoscope of activities, and take notes.

I sat in the audience and when I needed to write down an impression, I would bring my notepad from my handbag. Once finished my notes, I would replace the notepad to avoid drawing attention to my actions. Observing a musical event in an open space with a large crowd of people, some walking around and others dancing, especially in the front yard of a community leader, I tried to avoid inducing self-consciousness in the participants to a degree which might radically affect the situation. So, when they were on break I would either sit in my car or go to the bathroom and put my impressions on paper. I was fortunate to have had the assistance of a technically trained recording artist who accompanied me to social events and recorded them. …

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