Writing in the New Humanist, Nigerian human rights activist and author Chitra Nagarajan raises the issue of the rising level of strict religious interpretation in Nigeria, and asks whether anything can be done to effectively combat the subsequent negative impacts on women, girls, and vulnerable groups. Chitra begins by contextualising the issue, noting the failure to pass legislation against child marriage due to concern the change was “un-Islamic” and the subsequent public debates, and the impact of Boko Haram on internal displacement, food security, and access to education, particular for girls. Yet these simple narratives conceal a deeper and more complex influence from strict religious thought that exists throughout Nigerian culture. In the article, Chitra explains how rising levels of extremist and fundamentalist thought, and the cultural attitudes they embody and engender, is impacting communities, women, and children through violence, discrimination, child marriage, and the denial of education to girls across vast swathes of the country.
Chitra gives examples of how religious fundamentalism is impacting the lives of Nigerians, from death sentences being handed down for blasphemy, to accusations of witchcraft, to the introduction of Shari’a to Nigeria’s north after the end of military rule in 1999, and which was subsequently influenced by more hard-line thought from groups in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Iran. Pre-Islamisation, traditional northern Nigerian beliefs and practices had been more syncretic, adopting and mixing elements from different and older cultures; now, people are more afraid of being seen to condone anything remotely “pagan”. Meanwhile, many see Christianity as also imposing and erasing traditional culture and identity.
A combination of religion, cultural norms and patriarchy also hinders access to education, yet research has shown many imam’s as being open to having secular, as well as Islamic, education that serves both girls and boys. Yet often they face resistance from parents worried about their children being corrupted by what they perceive as “western” learning. Chitra closes her piece by mentioning various ways in which activists and religious leaders are working to tackle the issue, and notes the negative influence of politicians that use religious arguments to divert from issues of class and wealth.