Arewa Voices

Powerful Women in Hausaland's History: Inna Leaders and Bori Cult Influencers

By Aisha Kabiru Mohammed | Aug 10, 2023

Though many title holders and monarchs in Nigeria no longer administer over their various kingdoms, their roles in our society are now custodial—holding our traditions and history. These monarchies have the only semblance of what our communities resembled before imperialism. 

In Northern Nigeria, they hold the history before the Fulani Jihad introduced Islam and what some scholars believe led to erasing some of the region's customs.  Therefore it is pertinent to evaluate these monarchies to establish and understand women’s roles in the kingdoms they ruled over. 

The Hausa-speaking kingdoms that dominated Northern Nigeria within the 14th-16th  centuries all had various positions reserved for women. At the time, the kingdoms all fought against each other for dominance. By the 16th century, The kingdom of Zazzau, (modern-day Zaria in Kaduna state), was the most dominant of all these kingdoms, from Queen Barkwa Turunka and her daughter, Queen Amina

Their rule established Zazzau’s dominance and laid a formidable history of women’s role in conquest, government and administration in Hausa Land. In post-jihad Sokoto, Nana Asmau was an influential figure. In Zamfara, the office or title of Yargoje was an established office controlled by women. 


Inna System of the Gobir Kingdom

Other names in other parts of Hausaland knew the Inna. When asked about the existence of female title holders in the Hausa Kingdoms, Professor Jimada of the History Department of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, mentions that they existed but varied from one kingdom to the other, commonly called Magajiya others were known as Iya, and Mardanni. 

The title of Sarauniyar, or the female head of the Gobir kingdom, was named Inna. According to a paper presented in 2018 by Abdullahi Ibrahim Gobir, the inna served a central political role in the kingdom. The King appointed her and was of the same lineage as he was.

She collected taxes along with her appointed subordinates from artisans, butchers, farmers and others. She acted as regent when the king was not around. Her home served as a dwelling place for Royal brides and grooms. The Inna was also regarded as a warrior often required to go to the battlefield. One of her epithets was maidamara(r) fama "one (or she) who girds for toil", always ready for war.  The inna dressed distinctly. She wore boots, trousers and a Turban adorned with a traditional cap. These clothes were worn to take away from her femininity. 

Although women's roles contended with the jihad, the office of Inna survived until 2003. After the reign of Inna Atumbulla, no other Inna has been appointed ever since. 

Influence and Leadership of the Bori cult

Bori is a traditional religious practice of the Hausa people. It involves the invoking of spirits (Iskoki) by beating drums to appease the spirits. When they are not, they cause sickness and ill fate. Bori is one of the Hausa people's traditional religious practices and beliefs, indigenous to them as it was once thought that they predate the appearance of the earliest forms of state formation in Hausaland. 

The Bori has been seen as primarily a female activity since it first emerged among the Gobirwa people. There have been many definitions of scholars as to what Bori is. Some scholars believe Bori is a territory dominated by women ruled by women to fight for their rights and advance their societies.

According to a paper published in the International Journal of Arts and Humanities, Ethiopia Inna was a member of the Bori cult. She had overall power over all the Gobirawa women, or more specifically, the Bori adepts in the kingdom, even though she hardly ever performed Bori. 

In the entire Gobir Kingdom, she is regarded as outstanding in healing and divination. 

“Indeed, the Inna was portrayed as having a tremendously imposing presence; no one dared let her booted feet contact the earth; instead, mats were placed up for her to walk on. She was brilliant and looked after widows, orphans and children. Except when the situation required a different response from her, she was calm and nice. She was kind and shared wealth equitably; she never abused any trust placed in her, and she supported her kin,” reads a quote from the Journal by A.B Bawa.

The Bori cult existed before Islam was introduced to the Gobirawa. Since the creation of the states, it has aided the Gobir people, particularly those who firmly believed in it, in many aspects of their lives. The 1804 Jihad significantly changed politics, society, demography, culture, religion, economy, and thought. Essentially, this movement denounced Bori as a nonreligious form of devil possession.  But once Gobir refugee women entered the Caliphate through conquest, Bori gained even more significance. 

For the women to be able to deal with the realities of their new predicament, they required healing and regeneration. As they struggled with isolation, disorientation, and personal loss, several experienced physical and mental disorders. As the chief, Inna's office has been vital as the leader of all Bori practitioners, whose approval was sought in matters of the state. Inna was actively involved in combating the oppression, exploitation, discrimination, and subordination of women in both her roles as a leader of the Bori and as a political officeholder. 

Professor Jimada confirms the influence of the Bori cult and its female leadership. “I am not aware of their influence post-Jihad and even in the modern world, but in a pre-jihad era, the Bori cult was an influential part of Hausa customs and traditions.”