Yet Another Way Romance is Powerfully Politically Subversive

Need a dose of “Romance and its Readers Rule?” Got it right here: relationship books published in Islamic northern sections of Nigeria are a huge hit among local women who crave reading about relationships based on mutual feelings:

The books are mostly written in the local language of Hausa. They extoll the values of true love based on feelings, rather than family or other social pressures. Some also carry anti-drug messages.

Several volumes instruct women on how to send loving text messages to their intended mate’s mobile phones: “Knowing I can love U with the distance between our hearts makes my love 4U stronger.”

Still, readers hoping for Kama Sutra-like instruction in male-female relations will be disappointed. The story lines in most of the novels highlight issues facing women and girls, particularly their relations with men. Many men in northern Nigeria have up to four wives….

Of course, these books, which are described as little more than stapled brochures with paper covers, are a huge hit with women readers and set on fire by religious and cultural authorities.

Conservative scholars and clerics in Nigeria’s north deride the tomes as pulp fiction that degrades Islamic and indigenous cultural mores. A top Islamic leaders recently set fire to a pile of the books.

But female readers say the volumes — with such titles as “Edge of Fate,” “False Love” and “Undeceiveful Heart” — help them navigate contemporary life and their titles are proliferating rapidly, pitting younger women against a predominantly male, conservative elite.

Critics in Nigeria dismiss them as poorly written negative influences that threaten to pollute the sanctity of their culture, their language, and their society. These books are also attracting the attention of academic scholars in the past few years as a new example of feminist literature, and Novian Whitsitt’s article from June 2002 details the objections raised:

Public opinion harshly criticizes the literature for allegedly corrupting the minds of the youth, especially young women. Much of the response is based on hearsay, as most people have only familiarized themselves with the literature through word of mouth. Common belief holds that most books are read by female youth in secondary schools and that the vast majority of the works have prompted moral decay. Critics contend the romantic stories promote sexual promiscuity and the encouragement of youthful disobedience of parental desires in conjugal affairs.

My, oh, my. That doesn’t sound familiar at ALL, does it?

In [the writers’] estimation, [the] novels possess the dual attributes of entertainment and instruction. Readers can experience an array of pleasurable fantasies while remaining conscious of the fact that the romantic trope of stories is a vehicle for the social concerns of writers. Books become thematic commentaries on the place of auren dole (forced marriage), auren mata biyu (polygamy), purdah (female seclusion), and ilimin mata (women’s education) in contemporary Hausa society.

The Yahoo!News article also examines the possible advances brought about by these books, “known to Hausa speakers as Littattafan Soyayya (books of love):”

For many others, the books herald broader shifts, while also encouraging literacy among women in a region with low levels of female education. “I do think (the books) have some prophetic qualities, in terms of where Islamic and Hausa culture is headed,” says Novian Whitsitt, an associate professor at Africana studies at Luther College in Iowa, who has studied the phenomenon.

“It speaks to younger generations’ desire to make for a more liberating environment with regard to women’s expression and contributions to society.”

While some books have had publishing runs of over 100,000, the writers say authorship doesn’t pay a living wage, but they find importance in communicating with a mass audience.

So, the next time someone disses the genre, you can bring up this bit of information, along with the Cook sisters to refute them. Pass me a romance, please.

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  1. 1

    Can I get an “Amen!”?

    Subverting the paradigm, one romance novel at a time.

  2. 2
    Carrie Lofty says:

    dismiss them as poorly written negative influences that threaten to pollute the sanctity of their culture, their language, and their society.

    Could be any Western lit critic speaking about romance novels. Interesting.

  3. 3
    Esri Rose says:

    Wow. This is inspiring, disturbing, heroic and sad, all at the same time. It’s just like love!

  4. 4

    Having lived in neighboring Mali, W. Africa for several years, I have a couple of thoughts.  In my experience, all of this hand-wringing about the corruption of young morals is misplaced.  What I saw was a lot of horny men taking advantage of the fact that they were allowed to have multiple wives and seducing young women just because they could.  Sure, it’s much easier to blame the girls, but it takes two to tango.  And a lot of them are impressionable and taught from a young age that their only value is as a wife/mother/sexual partner.  Ergo, snagging a guy with money becomes something to strive for.  If that means putting out, well then that’s what you ought to do.  The end goal is securing a steady source of income be that a sugar daddy or being the third wife of a rich man.  So where are the pillars of the society and moral guardians when these older men are doing their thing?  uh huh.

  5. 5
    Robin says:

    I’m seriously dragging my feet toward the “this is subversive” conclusion line.  I mean, it may have subversive elements (marrying for love), but, well, it’s still focused on women, and on

    how to approach men while remaining chaste, and how to live peacefully in a household with the four wives allowed by Islam.

    and on

    “Some ladies, when they’re married, they don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to take care of a man, how to seduce him.”

    It’s definitely more *contemporary,* but beyond that, is it truly subversive or just a more modern way to conform to religious, economic, and political domination by men?  Just because the clerics area against it doesn’t impress me a lot—I mean, look at some of the religious reaction to Romance novels in the West, and I’d hardly call the genre uniformly (or even substantively?) subversive.  But it may be a start, which is why I’m still in the mindset of ‘approach with caution’.

  6. 6
    snarkhunter says:

    I think you articulate a very good point, Robin, but I’m still inclined to see subversive elements here. It sounds like these books encourage some level of sexual agency, even if it is agency within a predominately patriarchal and (potentially) oppressive framework. I mean, we can only truly work within the system to make changes. Radical change from outside is much, much more threatening.

    Naturally, not all such books are going to be inherently empowering. It depends on what you do with them. But look at all of the Smart Bitches who read Woodiwiss’s rape-fantasy novels and were thrilled with them. Even stories that aren’t overtly feminist or empowering can actually promote a sense of agency and power, if only by giving voice to women’s experiences, and thereby encouraging other women to find their voices.

  7. 7
    lesia says:

    I remember reading that increases in women’s literacy rates and delayed childbearing are directly proportional all around the world. (And also increased number of years of schooling relates to lower numbers of children born.)
    It is harder to control uppity women who read, whether it is romance pamphlets or birth control instructions or feminist dogma. And we all seem to become uppity as we read.

    father15- it is easier to father 15 babies on four wives, especially if they are young and uneducated.

  8. 8
    Robin says:

    It sounds like these books encourage some level of sexual agency, even if it is agency within a predominately patriarchal and (potentially) oppressive framework.

    I got that impression, too, and agree with your point here.

    Even stories that aren’t overtly feminist or empowering can actually promote a sense of agency and power, if only by giving voice to women’s experiences, and thereby encouraging other women to find their voices.

    Depending in part, though, on how individual women read them. 

    What concerns me is not the discussion as to whether these materials are subversive, it’s the rush to designating them that way, because I don’t think that’s going to be discernable for a while.  But I think there’s a certain feminist anxiety about “liberating” women who live within certain patriarchal constructs that we can be too quick to see one thing as regressive and another as subversive on relatively superficial evidence, encouraging one thing and discouraging another without really know how X impacts Y.  And I also think there’s a difference between something having subversive aspects on its face and having subversive effects.

    I had an interesting experience some years ago while traveling in the Middle East, as a student myself, meeting many women of different faiths, all of whom lived in societies that looked to my Western feminist eyes to be pretty restrictive and patriarchal.  And yet, so many of these women (quite a few of them Muslim) were so much more educated about global politics and religions than so many American women of similar age, and they made some very compelling arguments for a widespread misinterpretation of the Qur’an’s treatment of women, and thus their own social freedom and power.  I’m NOT saying that same analysis is applicable here, just that IMO the extent of this literature’s subversive influence can only be measured through a long-term analysis, even if we find it subversive (to greater or lesser degree) on its face.

  9. 9
    R. says:

    Critics in Nigeria dismiss them as poorly written negative influences that threaten to pollute the sanctity of their culture, their language, and their society.

    The status quo – their power base – is being threatened.  Of course they’re going to criticise it.

    It is harder to control uppity women who read, whether it is romance pamphlets or birth control instructions or feminist dogma. And we all seem to become uppity as we read.

    Knowledge is power.  And freedom is first borne in the fertile mind.

    Sting said it best:  You can’t control an independent thought.

  10. 10
    SB Sarah says:

    Robin said: “is it truly subversive or just a more modern way to conform to religious, economic, and political domination by men?”

    My feeling is, and has been, that there’s two ways to make change: storm the castle, or sneak in the back door (no pun intended). When dealing with such deeply-rooted, fear-entrenched conservativism that subjugates women to such a degree, the only kind of change that will have lasting effect is the one that sneaks in the back door and whispers to those women, “Psst. There are other options. Take a look.”

    But because those women are within that paradigm, anything shockingly different will be rejected for it’s foreignness, it’s otherness, so working within the established political/sexual structure to make subtle changes, starting with, as snarkhunter said, sexual agency and education, is a big step, in my opinion.

    You’re right that the women readers in that community are still operating from a place of considerable disenfranchisement, and that’s not a ton of progress if even with big giant steps they’re still stuck there. But any progress is progress, and I still embrace the idea for its subversion of the dominance working against those women.

  11. 11
    azteclady says:

    If it engenders change, even if it’s slow and minute, and if that change ultimately leads to increased freedom in such a repressive society… yes, I would definitely call it subversive.

    Thanks for the news, Sarah

  12. 12
    Robin says:

    Sarah:  I don’t see this as a choice between storming the castle and sneaking in through the back (although I agree that the second approach is often underrated as an effective strategy for change) so much as an issue of being cautious about designating something subversive because we (and I use that pronoun in the general term, not we Romance readers or people at Smart Bitches, or even people in the West) see it that way given our perception of the social paradigm in operation (and because of our desire for a certain outcome).  Historically speaking, it’s sometimes the agencies of oppression or colonization that become profoundly subversive as they move through different cultural contexts (Stephen Greenblatt’s Marvelous Possessions remains a fabulous book on this, IMO).  And sometimes it’s those things we believe will be most subversive that end up consolidating certain cultural practices and traditions.  So I tend to be of the ‘time will tell’ contingent on whether what appears to be subversive on the surface will, indeed, be so in practice.

  13. 13

    Ironic how romance writing can be dismissed as worthless trash on the one hand and yet on the other hand it is powerful enough to threaten an “indigenous cultural more”. 

    I hate to tell the clerics, but now that the cat is out of the bag, there will be no stopping it now.

  14. 14
    Kaz Augustin says:

    Those damned Muslims! They can’t do anything right, can they? Just as well we’re killing them.

    The why’s and wherefore’s of this particular article to one side, hasn’t anyone else noticed a shift in the past few decades? When I was growing up, the news items made sure to highlight the Godless communists. My father used to hunt and kill them in the jungles of south-east Asia, under orders from a heavily-influenced British military structure. I read comic books about distraught families trying to make it across the Berlin Wall, and being shot upon by the East Germans. In Australia, it was the Yellow Peril after WWII and even unto modern times. We were always told about how inhuman those people were, how they Weren’t Like Us, they didn’t think Like Us.

    Now, we’re using it on the Muslims. Myself, I wonder how many FLDS women in Texas were/are allowed to read romances? 

    Look, I’m not disagreeing with any of you on the facts. Any religion can be used by the presiding power structure to perpetuate a regime that panders to only their opinions. And you don’t even need religion—look at Myanmar or China. I’m just leery of the easy, almost promiscuous, coupling of Islam with Repression these days. That’s like saying all Christians burnt people at the stake at one time, or all Christians practised polygamy in Utah. Like Christianity, Islam is much too fractioned to take this one-size-fits-all mentality, although that sure as hell isn’t stopping anyone.

    I’m not Muslim, but I have Muslim friends, and while there may be a bit of a cultural disconnect between us every now and then, every single one of them—male and female—would resist a fundamentalist Islamic regime. Good dog, try to tell these women that their driving licences will be revoked, or that they’ll need a male’s permission to travel outside the country and there’d be bloody riots in the streets. In the last Malaysian elections, as many Muslims voted for a non-Muslim party as non-Muslims voted for a Muslim party. The schism that’s being portrayed in the media is, by and large, an artificial one, and it saddens me whenever I see it.

    Verification word is western51 … now I know your anti-spam blocker is telepathic. :)

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