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Nigeria state seeks husbands for 1,000 brides-to-be

In Nigeria's Kano state, where the number of divorcees is cause for concern, the government is acting as matchmaker to help ex-wives and widows find Mr. Right.

May 02, 2012|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • Divorcee Altine Abdullahi is among 1,000 Nigerian women who have turned to the Kano state government to find them a spouse.
Divorcee Altine Abdullahi is among 1,000 Nigerian women who have turned… (Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles…)

KANO, Nigeria — He should be tall. Kind, of course. And generous, especially when it comes to buying all those little trinkets that a woman desires.

"A little handsome," but not too much, says Altine Abdullahi. "It's a danger."

In northern Nigeria, it is a truth almost universally acknowledged that a woman of a certain age, and in a certain situation in life, must be in want of a husband.

But if the woman in that certain situation is a divorcee or a widow, finding a husband isn't easy, even without the shopping list of desirable qualities ticked off by Abdullahi (a divorcee).

That's why 1,000 women have thrown their fates into the hands of the Kano state government, which will act as their matchmaker. The religious authority in the Muslim-dominated state, the Hisbah Board, has embarked on a massive husband hunt for divorcees and widows. The first 100 women, including Abdullahi, are to be wed in coming weeks.

"I'm getting married," she says. "God willing!"

She has no idea who her husband will be. But, like the practical character in a Jane Austen novel, she's no romantic.

"I know love is something, but ..." she pauses wistfully. "Love doesn't really last."

Abdullahi, 44, preens like a fine, glossy bird, creaming her plump lips, powdering her face, fluttering her eyelashes girlishly. Her smiling face, with perfect white teeth, peers out from dozens of photographs stacked on her desk and decking the wall of her office, where she heads the organization Voice of Widows, Divorcees and Orphans Assn. of Nigeria. Her skin is clear, her eyes bright, her silver bangles jangle happily, yet she complains that she looks "tired."

"Beautiful? You should have seen me when I was young. Then I was beautiful."

The state-as-matchmaker plan came after Abdullahi made an emotional plea on Kano radio for husbands for desperate widows and divorcees.

In Nigeria, women of marriageable age who remain single are seen as suspect, their respectability questioned. Throughout many parts of the Muslim world, divorced and widowed women are forced to go home to their fathers or brothers and are viewed as a burden and failure. Or they live on the edges of society, shunned and forced into begging or prostitution to support their children.

Sometimes the brother of a dead man will marry the widow and support her and her children. But many divorced women find it difficult to remarry.

In Kano, the state capital, there's a sense of crisis about the number of divorcees, although statistics aren't available to back up widespread perceptions of an increase in failed marriages. The problem sharpened here after Kano state and 11 other predominantly Muslim states adopted sharia, or Islamic law, between 1999 and 2001, allowing men to divorce unilaterally simply by thrice stating "I divorce you," an act that cannot be undone with a simple change of mind.

"With growing cases of divorce among couples, the state has reached an unenviable record in the country. In any social gathering and various fora, the most common discussion in the metropolis is the growing rate at which divorce is taking place," said a February article in the Nigerian newspaper Leadership.

An everyday quarrel can easily escalate into divorce, says Abdullahi, whose divorce happened as quickly as a car crash, in a moment of heat, instantly regretted by both sides.

The row came after her husband took a third wife who was demanding more nights with him. When he conveyed the demand to Abdullahi (as second wife), she told him it was women's business. He should send the third wife to her.

He refused.

She insisted.

He said, "Be careful."

She insisted. He told her to leave. A few more sharp words and before anyone could stop it, the couple were divorced.

"I started crying. Even he started crying too. We cried together. He said, 'Just go back to your room and forget about the divorce.'" But she couldn't. Under sharia law, she says, she cannot go back to him unless she remarries and her husband either dies or her new marriage ends in divorce.

She left their four children with him, as is often the case. ("He treats them very well. So why should I worry myself about them?") She has seen them once since, in 2005. She left, certain he'd miss her and her cooking, especially his favorite dish, spaghetti bolognese, made from a recipe she'd found in a magazine.

That was 12 years ago.

"I know he misses me." Still, she says, 40 days can now pass without him entering her mind.

After the divorce, Abdullahi decided to put herself through law school, but being smart didn't compensate for her lack of a secular education.

"I didn't understand a word the lecturer said."

In 2008, the state government's religious Social Reorientation Program, A Daidaita Sahu, meaning "straighten your lines" in the local Hausa language, urged men to be tolerant of trivial marital problems. One reason for the state's high divorce rate, the government found, was "the misapplication of power by men to divorce women."

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