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In northern Nigeria, Islamic police play matchmaker

May 05, 2012


In a photograph taken on March 28, 2012, divorcees and widows wait to be called in for a meeting with a screening panel, as part of a marriage scheme for widows and divorced women, in the northern Nigerian city of Kano. — Photo by AFP

KANO: A line of women wait their turn at a building in northern Nigeria, ready to participate in a program local officials hope will bring two results: marriage and peace. Love might have to come later.

The program run by the Islamic sharia police in Kano, the largest city in Nigeria's mainly Muslim north, aims to match widows and divorcees with available men.

Officials hope it will in part help curb unrest in the north, which has been hit by deadly violence blamed on Islamist group Boko Haram, as well as reduce other social problems by providing a stable home for children.

Such a program has the potential to raise obvious red flags, but local officials say the women participate strictly on a voluntary basis.

"With the current security situation in Kano, children with no proper parental guide and care are more likely to be influenced and fed with these extremist tendencies," said Nabahani Usman, deputy head of the Hisbah, as the sharia police are known.

"It is very important they are saved from these destructive elements through this program, where they can have stable family life with their mothers and step-fathers looking after them."

Analysts say unemployment and frustration among young people has helped feed the violence blamed on Islamists which has rocked Nigeria's north, leaving more than 1,000 dead since mid-2009.

Whether marriage will have a positive effect remains to be seen, but for now women and men seem eager to participate. Arranged marriages are common across northern Nigeria, an impoverished region near the Sahara desert.

Health NGOs offer free HIV screening to the spouse-seekers, which the Hisbah has made mandatory to the applicants.

Radio announcements were aired in mid-February calling on men open to marrying selected widows and divorcees to come forward.

The women were located through an NGO called the Voice of Widows, Divorcees and Orphans of Nigeria (VOWAN).

On a recent day in Kano, 38-year old Amina Adamu clutched her handbag under her arm and walked toward a long table at the end of the hall to a bearded man for her screening interview.

She was among the first set of 100 women brought to the Hisbah headquarters in Kano for the program.

Three other bearded men and two veiled women at the table called out names of dozens of applicants who sat on rows of plastic chairs.

Questions include basic information, such as occupation, income and number of children. Men are asked why they want to get married again, among other things.

Those who qualify are then allowed to meet each other at the Hisbah office, choosing on their own among the participants who they might wish to marry.

A group wedding will be held later for participants, but those who prefer not to wait can also go ahead with their marriages.

"I need a mature, sincere and caring husband, which is why I want the Hisbah to be involved in my choice because I need security in my marriage," Adamu told AFP shortly after being screened by the panel.

Outside in the courtyard, men in clusters waited to be called into the hall for the screening.

They included those who have been divorced or widowed, as well as bachelors and those looking for additional wives, as Islam allows a man to marry up to four women.

For the men, another important factor also plays a role: money.

Ismail Ibrahim, a 25-year-old bachelor and a school teacher, said he could not afford to get married since the dowry would be too expensive. The Hisbah program takes care of that, paying the dowry and also providing a small grant to help them set up a home.

Officials have declined to say so far how much will be paid, though dowries in Kano typically range from 10,000 naira ($63) to 20,000 naira ($126).

"It is quite expensive to marry a young woman, which is why I want to be part of this initiative to enable me to marry the woman of my choice at low cost," Ibrahim said.

Altine Abdullahi, head of VOWAN in Kano, also said divorce had become a problem in the city. Men who marry through the program cannot divorce their wives without permission from the Hisbah.

"People change wives the way they change their wardrobes and we feel the best way to stop this and give security to our members is arrange marriages through the Hisbah," she said.

She said the high number of divorces in Kano "leave (women) to fend for themselves and the children without any support from the fathers."

"The children end up as menaces to society, which is why most teenage criminals here are from broken homes," she said.

Hajara Adamu, a 48-year old widow, vowed to make the best of the program.

"I will not make a hasty choice. I want a responsible, respectable and mature man and I'm confident I'll get him here," said Adamu.

The men involved in the program ranged from the young to the not-so-young.

Muhammad Tukur, 75, was looking for a third wife.

"I have not yet made my choice. I'm still waiting for the woman my mind is at peace with," he said.