African Encounters with Domesticity

By Karen Tranberg Hansen | Go to book overview

2 Harem Domesticity in Kano, Nigeria

Beverly B. Mack

It may seem redundant to speak of "harem domesticity." Since the fourteenth century the term "domestic" has referred to the household ( Oxford English Dictionary 1971, 594), while the term "harem" itself (Arabic, harim) describes a part of the household that is both a sanctuary for women and an area that is forbidden to men outside the family. The harem is the heart of the household, its domestic seat and most private area, where the family's women preside. Women generally are restricted to this part of the household, leaving it only on special occasions, and with the consent of their husbands. 1 Thus the domesticity of the harem may be distinguished both from that of the rest of the household and from that of households without harems.

In Muslim northern Nigeria the Hausa tradition of restricting women to the home is known as wife seclusion (H. kulle). Originally a local custom, it is logically connected to Islamic philosophy by virtue of the Muslim woman's religious obligation to act as guardian of the domestic sphere. As a secluded wife she is restricted to the physical space in which activities relevant to her role are carried out. Furthermore, Islam--which is commonly understood to pervade every aspect of a Muslim's daily life--has as a main focus the unity of the family, in which both men and women hold religiously mandated social roles. Thus the importance of the domestic realm is magnified in Muslim households by the family-oriented nature of Islam, and a woman's domestic role is an integral part of the religious philosophy that directs Muslims' lives. This ideological framework is the central influence on the form domesticity takes among the urban Hausa, and must thus be a central consideration in the study of harem domesticity in Kano.

Among the Hausa of Kano, Nigeria, the Emir is the traditional political and religious leader whose behavior is said to exemplify Hausa Muslim ideals; by extension, his wives and concubines are also expected to uphold traditional and religious ideals. This study explains why the royal harem community in Kano may be

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