Working in conservative, Muslim northern Nigeria, Hajiya Rabi Wali champions women's rights chiefly through the creation of centers that give disadvantaged women practical child-care and domestic job training. She also fights for the right to educate female children.
Rabi Wali was born 46 years ago in Mandawari Quarters, Kano City, into the privilege of the Emir's family. As a child of the upper class, Rabi had the benefit of a primary education before being married at the age of 12. The bit of education she received served to stimulate a desire for more, as well as the desire to share what she had gained with other women who were not as fortunate.Divorced from her first husband and widowed by her second, Rabi continued her education in 1970-1972, when she was able to obtain a secondary school education at Women's Training College, Kano. From there she went on to Bayero University, Kano from 1974-1978 to obtain her bachelor's degree. She has also done post-graduate work towards a masters in child development at Bayero."I want all women to know that they can do anything they want and that they do not need to depend on men to run their lives. Education does this for a woman. It makes her able to be independent," she says. "My brothers used to try to run my life, but they know that no one can marry me off now. I work hard to support myself and care for myself."The potential for bringing women into the mainstream is central to Rabi Wali's dream of a future society where every female has the opportunity to have some form of practical education, allowing her to gain skills which will provide her with self confidence, and a way of meeting her needs and enhancing the quality of her own and her children's lives.
Rabi Wali has established a multi-faceted women's training center to alleviate some of the social problems faced by Nigerian women and children. The center focuses on giving women practical education, awareness of their Islamic rights, and domestic and child-caring skills. She has particularly targeted middle-aged women who, due to early marriages, have had little opportunity to be educated or trained.In her northern state of Kano, women receive little or no education and are generally married to uneducated or semi-educated men. Twenty percent of these women are divorced or widowed and probably have not received primary education -- education having been consistently denied them by their parents and husbands. "One has to know the attitude of men in this part of Nigeria," Rabi Wali points out. "Women are like chattel: when they are new they are cherished, but the moment they start to wear out, they are discarded to be replaced by newer ones."Rabi Wali's centers help these uneducated and often abandoned women become employable. The centers also try to provide poor women with the opportunity to interact with middle and upper class sisters, thus establishing relationships with families and agencies that can open doors and provide some security.Through years of experience as a teacher and an observer, Rabi Wali has concluded that the social and educational problems of children start at conception. "It starts with the environmental influences that affect the unborn child and continues throughout the child's life," she says. "Women -- as mothers, caretakers, teachers, and siblings -- play the first and most important role in shaping a child's development. In order to enhance the life cycle of any individual, the quality of the life of the women in that individual's environment must be the best possible. The empowerment of women in our society must be a top priority in positively changing the patterns of the society."
Kano state, located in northern Nigeria, is predominantly Muslim. This society has traditionally assigned very different cultural norms and roles to each gender. While females represent 70% of the population in Kano, less than 2% of them are educated enough to care properly for their home and children. Typical for most of northern Nigeria, 99% of women in Kano are illiterate. Rabi Wali points out that, "Islam does not completely prevent women from going out to pursue an education, but unfortunately there are a lot of misconceptions held in this society which put women at a disadvantage and contribute to their general underdevelopment and financial constraints." According to Islamic law a husband who divorces his wife must be responsible for her up-keep for at least three months following the divorce, and despite the fact that the children often remain with her, the father, and not the mother, is responsible for their proper up-bringing. The divorcee can, however, take the man to court if he defaults. Suspicious of western education, Islamic tradition in this part of Nigeria has given its girls very little opportunity to be educated beyond Arabic for religious purposes. They do, however, often engage in street hawking as early as age four. By the time they reach age twelve, they are usually married and are confined to their marital homes. By the time they are thirty they are likely to be discarded and left alone with four or five children to support. If the woman is lucky enough to have boys, they will be sent away to be educated. If her children are girls, however, the mother has to fend for them and for herself. Most of these rural women and their daughters gravitate to the cities, hoping to find menial jobs in the homes of the middle and upper classes. Because they are uneducated and have no knowledge of modern domestic and child care practices, they are unable to get or keep jobs. Many survive by begging on the streets.
Rabi Wali has designed a practical one-year curriculum for her women's training center that introduces the women to modern domestic practices such as hygiene, child care, household budgeting, grooming, sewing, exercise and good posture. Rabi has converted space in the compound of her nursery school into a modern kitchen and sewing room where the women get practical experience. The academic work focuses primarily on the reading, writing and math that a good domestic servant needs.Rabi Wali sees her role as helping local individuals overcome the many obstacles blocking women in general, and especially the cast off women who are her chief concern. More and more women are coming to the center after having seen her earlier successes. She uses her affiliation with a variety of international, national, regional, religious and cultural women's associations to cultivate alliances across northern Nigeria, hoping to stimulate the development of centers in other states.Rabi Wali is confident that the increased global interest in women's rights will eventually spread to Nigeria, including the conservative, traditional north. She hopes that her approach will help focus this growing interest on the concrete, often unglamorous needs of the very large number of women most in need, community by community.