She followed the old adage “If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a nation.”
As an intellectual, a prominent feminist icon and mother, Nana Asma’u knew that by educating a woman, she would be able to shape and reconstruct communities in the Muslim world and beyond.
And she didn’t fail in doing that, as the princess, teacher, and poet contributed significantly to women’s education to the extent that in Nigeria today, many Islamic women’s schools and organizations are named after her.
Generally, she was a great influence to the masses in West Africa, intellects from the Banks of the Nile, and scholars towards the Middle East, writes mvslim.com.
Born in 1793, Nana Asma’u was a member of the Fodio clan who ruled the Sokoto Caliphate, the African empire which existed in modern-day Nigeria and extended to Burkina Faso, Niger, and Cameroon.
Accounts state that her family was part of a fundamental Islamic sect – Qadiriyya – who “focused on the pursuit of knowledge as a spiritual path.”
Most importantly, her father, Usman Dan Fodio, who founded the Sokoto Caliphate, campaigned against the subjugation of women. He raised issues about the lack of education among women and criticized Islamic scholars who taught that women’s duties were to cook, wash or do other domestic work instead of letting these women know what God had prescribed for them.
As an activist, Dan Fodio ensured that his sons and daughters were educated as well. All his children attended classes and learned to read and memorize the Quran.
Nana Asma’u did benefit greatly from this. She memorized the entire Quran and became fluent in four languages: Arabic, the Fula language, Hausa and Tamacheq Tuareg.
She wrote poetry in the first three, and soon became a respected scholar and an authoritative figure for her poems and other published works, some of which are still being studied today.
With her poetry concentrating on topics such as repentance, paradise, and largely on the rights of women under Islam, her works “made Muslim women feel more confident about themselves to derive a solid sisterhood, which enforced a supportive and sustaining community. Runaway wives from abusive relationships, for example, exercised a voice that they were no less privileged,” an article on culture trip noted.
To deliver her poems and teachings to women in the rural areas, Nana Asmau trained teams of women as educators under a system she called Yan-taro.
These women “would sit with Nana Asma’u learning the curriculum for that season, and then together they would trek to their assigned village, where they would stay and teach the women. Sometimes they would return to Nana Asma’u with questions and thorny problems they needed help with, and sometimes they would bring her a woman with her own questions,” writes Anse Tamara Gray.
In the following, Nana Asma’u praises Hauwa’u, one of the female educators she trained:
I accept what has happened, and remember Hauwa’u
Who loved me, a fact well known to everybody.
During the hot season, the rains, harvest, when the Harmattan blows,
and the beginning of the rains,
She was on the road bringing people to me.
She warned them to journey in good faith, for she said intention was important.
As for myself I taught them the religion of God in order to turn them From error and instill in them the knowledge of their obligatory duties.
Despite bad weather and predators, these women were dedicated to spreading knowledge to other women across the Caliphate who subsequently passed on their education to others.
And this has paid off as today, Nana Asma’u is not only seen as an inspiration to Muslim women but considered the precursor to modern feminism in Africa.
Even though it is true that many cultures and traditional practices of African societies put men at the forefront of things, this has, however, not overshadowed the fact that many traditional societies allowed women to take up “male roles” which they performed with much pride and diligence.
Today, Africa can boast of staunch feminists such as Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Joyce Banda, and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf thanks to ancient African societies and groups as well as early feminist icon Nana Asma’u.