Arewa Voices

The Price Women Pay For Their Freedom

By Habibah Shehu | Aug 25, 2023

 I was six when I learnt that I come from a place where a married woman’s silence is louder than her cries for help. On a bright day, I went with my mum to a call centre. I watched her say a few words to the man who sat under the shade of an MTN umbrella who gave her a mobile phone almost immediately. 

“Don’t follow me, Zainab. Go and sit there” she said pointing at an empty yellow seat beside the man. I obliged and watched her from a distance but a few minutes later, I became bored and began to wonder why she was taking so long. 

It took me a few uncertain steps to get to where she stood and I was afraid she would send me back but she didn't. Instead, she wiped the tears I was quick to notice with the hem of her hijab. That was the 6th time her attempt to hide her tears failed and I saw her cry. 

I thought adults never cry because no one would dare beat them or snatch their sweets so it’s been traumatizing since the first time. The sight of her tears haunted me and the realization that they were the same crystal-clear drops like mine unraveled the detective in me. 

I was determined to find out who beat my mother six times. But that day, under the scorching sun of Lagos State, I got the answers that my innocent mind couldn’t comprehend. Daddy didn’t beat her but he didn’t make her happy either.

“I am tired. I cannot stay in this marriage anymore.” That was what my mom kept on saying in between sobs she didn’t bother to hide again. I took three steps to close the gap between us and held her hand. 

That was probably my way of providing comfort or maybe I just wanted to hear what the person on the other side of the phone was saying.  

My uncle went on about how difficult life would be for her after the divorce and what people would say. He then concluded with; “You must stay for the kids. You need them more than they need you.”

My mom wasn’t convinced so she called her mother next and it was the same pattern of emotional blackmail. Six months later, without a word to anybody, my mom made the toughest decision ever by taking the first step to liberty which is the most difficult one. 

At twelve, I learnt that women traded their happiness for a reputation only marriage could give. My aunt was a victim of domestic violence and I was bold enough to tell her to leave like my mother did. She smiled at me and said, “I pray that you grow to become a woman who understands the value of marriage. Your mother made a very big mistake which I’m sure she’s regretting. You mustn’t idolize her.” 

I hated her ever since and 10 years later, she’s still nursing her wounds while my mother is happily married to a man who makes her happier than she thought it was possible to and I’ve grown into a beautiful woman who walked out of a relationship because like my mother, peace of mind comes first.

I spoke with five divorcees from different parts of Northern Nigeria about the challenges that come with being divorced and all of them had their fair share of trouble. This has brought me to the conclusion that marriage and divorce are harder than they should be.

Maryam, a mother of three voiced her regret. 

“Life became unbearable and I begged him to divorce me which he did but I’m still not happy. I’m sensitive to rumours and the stories I’ve heard about why my ex-husband divorced me gives me sleepless nights. Sometimes, I wish I listened and stayed.”

Hajiya Asmau, an international businesswoman, spoke about how she lost a marriage to find a name for herself.

“I fainted when I read my divorce letter. I wasn’t happy but at the same time, I never saw leaving my marriage as an option because I thought I would have no purpose in life again. But look at me going places and doing wonders now.”

Godiya spoke about how disappointing parents can be sometimes by caring more about what people would say than their daughter’s happiness. The place she thought was her haven turned out to be the worst.

“I was depressed for a while. I thought my parent’s house would be the safest place for me after being abused every day for 7 years but I was reprimanded instead and things got worse when he swore not to take me back. My parent’s house became a living hell.”

Fatima, a nurse, agreed that most times, children are used as a weapon to force women to swallow their plights and stay.

"He knew my children were my weakness and every time, he used them as a blackmail weapon to make me stay. When I finally left, he denied me every right to visit them just to make life miserable for me and I hate to admit that his mission was successful. I haven’t seen them in 6 years now and you can’t imagine the state of my heart."

Saratu, a primary school teacher in Kaduna State,  had a slightly different story to tell. In my discussion with her, I learnt that men always have it the easier way. A man is never denied any woman’s hand in marriage no matter how many times his marriage has failed. The narrative is always altered to protect him. But in a woman’s case, northerners, especially the women, count the number of times a woman has received dowry better than their missed fast in the month of Ramadan. It is so bad that if women had a choice, they’d rather be widows than divorcees.

“I knew no happiness ever since I got married to him and I thought that I would find someone who would treat me better. But him and his family dragged my name in the mud and her I am still single after 5 years while he has been married twice. "

In our largely conservative society, a failed marriage automatically makes the woman a failure and this is why women would rather live in trepidation than opt for divorce. A woman’s success is determined by her marital status, especially in northern Nigeria and it doesn’t matter whether she is happy or not. All that matters to society is how well she wears a mask. 

Of course, marriage is a beautiful thing but what happens when patience or love runs out and it fails? Is it fair to blame the woman alone like it’s her fault when there’s a possibility that she’s the victim? Or is it fair to make life a living hell for her to the point where she questions her worth?

Staying in an unhappy marriage is hard but divorce is harder. It’s a very difficult phase that takes a lot of courage and resilience to pass through and it’s unfortunate that despite all they have to go through, depression, grief, loneliness and destructive rumours that stain their reputation is the price they are forced to pay for liberty.

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