Usman dan Fodio lived in what is modern day Nigeria. He was deeply troubled by the injustices which existed in his society. He began critiquing the leaders of Hausa States for their greed, paganism, and heavy taxation. And you know what else? He critiqued them for their mistreatment of women that existed in their society centuries before the advent of modern feminism. In a work entitled ‘THE FAULTS OF THE HAUSA RULERS,’Dan Fodio writes critiquing the men in his society, “Most of our educated men leave their wives, their daughters, and the slaves morally abandoned, like beasts, without teaching them what God prescribes should be taught them, and without instructing them in the articles of the Law which concern them. Thus, they leave them ignorant of the rules regarding ablutions, prayer, fasting, business dealings, and other duties which they have to fulfill, and which God commands that they should be taught.”
Of significance is that Usman Dan Fodio believed that women should be taught and brought into business transactions! Elsewhere, Don Fodio challenges the mistreatment of women in society by cruel husbands; he writes, “women – do not listen to the speech of those who are misguided and who sow the seed of error in the heart of another; they deceive you when they stress obedience to your husbands without telling you of obedience to God and to his Messenger (May God show him bounty and grant him salvation), and when they say that the woman finds her happiness in obedience to her husband. They seek only their own satisfaction, and that is why they impose upon you tasks which the Law of God and that of his Prophet have never especially assigned to you. Such are – the preparation of food-stuffs, the washing of clothes, and other duties which they like to impose upon you, while they neglect to teach you what God and the Prophet have prescribed for you.”
Here Usman Fodio believes that it’s NOT a woman’s duty to simply be involved in preparing food and washing clothes without receiving an education—centuries later, feminists would be making similar statements. In addition, Usman Dan Fodio criticizes men who keep women in darkness and advocates education for women. He states, ”Alas! How can they thus shut up their wives, their daughters, and their slaves in the darkness of ignorance, while daily they impart knowledge to their [male] students? In truth, they act out of egoism, and if they devote themselves to their pupils, that is nothing but hypocrisy and vain ostentation on their part.” Usman Dan Fodio’s tone of voice was one of indignation and anger over the injustices occurring to women.
But unlike western feminists whose work is largely confined within the ivory tower of academia, Don Fodio lead a social revolution, took over his society and established what is now known as the Sokoto Caliphate. He established educational systems for women. In this society established by Don Fodio the concept of “secular education” did not exist; the Qur’an formed the basis for educating women. His daughter emerged as a scholar of Islam who spoke and wrote prolifically in multiple languages and has 60 surviving works to her. One may say that Don Fodio being Muslim had nothing to do with his devotion to uplifting women – and they would be totally wrong: As a young kid, Don Fodio wanted to travel to Mecc afor Hajj with his teacher but his father refused to give him permission. It had a profound psychological impact on him; since he could not physically visit the Prophet Muhammad’s grave, he decided to get close to him by dedicating himself to scholarship. After being refused the opportunity to visit the Prophet’s grave, Don Fodio write the following poem:
I possess not a single excellent trait,
I am only totally encompassed in the love of Prophet Muhammad
I give a description of the affliction of my longing for him which is plain to see
Truly for me there are no pleasures and joys in life without Muhammad.
I have become exhausted yearning to hasten to his grave
For me there are no enjoyments without visiting that Master
The sun is nothing nor is the eclipse which distorts it,
There is no eclipsing the light of that Master.
The desire of my heart is to visit his house,
My tears overflows from the absence of that guide.
My tears pour forth when I remember his demise,
For I am consumed in the love of Prophet Muhammad.
If it is said to me ‘Who fills you with longing among mankind?’
Then I will say, ‘I am passionately in love with Muhammad.
Completely destroyed is the one who refuses to follow his path,
His torment will be prolonged here and likewise in the next life.
All of Don Fodio political pursuits stemmed were influenced by his Islamic beliefs. Moreover, we are often told how western intervention and secularism is needed to advance women’s rights. But guess how the Sokoto Caliphate was destroyed? Colonialism from Britain and their armies!
Usman Dan Fodio, https://www2.stetson.edu/secure/history/hy10430/danfodio.html, Selected Writings.