In Northern Nigeria, Riding Too Close for Comfort

In the next few weeks, police in Kano, a city in one of Nigeria's 12 Islamic states, will fine motorcycle drivers caught carrying women who are not their relatives. Driver's licenses may be suspended.
In the next few weeks, police in Kano, a city in one of Nigeria's 12 Islamic states, will fine motorcycle drivers caught carrying women who are not their relatives. Driver's licenses may be suspended. (Photos By Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 23, 2005

KANO, Nigeria -- For women, commuting across this ancient Islamic city has long been as easy as hopping into a minibus or climbing on the back of a motorcycle taxi. Both are cheap and readily available. Even if some female passengers found it unsettling to be so near strange men, who might make lewd comments or press their bodies close, such was the price of efficient transport.

But the days of casual travel are ending for the women of Kano, a bustling trading center of about 500,000 in northern Nigeria. Government officials, determined to halt what they see as the decline of public morality, are banning women from all but a handful of Kano's motorcycle taxis and are requiring them to sit in the back of public minibuses.

It is the next logical step, officials said, in their effort to bring the strict Islamic legal code, or sharia , to Kano, which is in one of 12 states in northern Nigeria where Islamic law holds sway to varying degrees. The remaining 24 states, and the federal capital, Abuja, have a mix of religions and are governed by secular laws.

Since 2000, authorities across northern Nigeria have sought to reestablish traditional sharia rules disrupted in the 20th century by British colonialism and post-colonial political struggles, including floggings for drinking alcohol, amputations of hands for stealing and death by stoning for adultery. The harshest of these penalties have rarely been carried out, but a broader campaign toward regulating behavior -- especially in relations between men and women -- has taken hold.

Underlying the move toward sharia is a growing concern that life is changing too fast in Kano. Traders hawk DVDs of often-lewd Hollywood movies. Residents who can afford satellite television can get an eyeful of dancing, scantily dressed women. And some young women are choosing not to wear the traditional head coverings or long, loosely fitting robes preferred by their elders.

The new transit strategy, for which the government has bought a small fleet of gender-restricted vehicles, has met initially with widespread approval. Men say they believe the virtue of women is better protected when the sexes sit separately. Women say the new minibuses are more comfortable and private. Sitting in the back, they say, frees them from the potentially amorous gazes of men sitting behind.

Zabbaatu Auwal, a woman carrying a toddler, boarded one of the new minibuses at a hectic, smoggy depot. The vehicle was emblazoned with the words "A Daidaita Sahu" or "Be Orderly," in Hausa, one of the four most widely used local languages beside English. Taking a seat in the back row, she praised the new system.

"I don't have to mix with men, which is a source of discomfort to us," explained Auwal, 27, as she held her 2-year-old son.

However, the second phase of the transportation policy, which will include the ban on women riding motorcycle taxis, threatens to be far less popular. In the next few weeks, police will begin fining motorcycle drivers caught carrying women who are not their relatives. Drivers licenses also may be suspended. And gender-based seating restrictions will extend to all commercial minibuses, even those that are privately owned.

That will leave women with far fewer choices for getting to work or school or going shopping. If the seats designated for women on a minibus are full, they will have to wait for the next bus or one of the new single-sex vehicles. The government has purchased 176 motorcycles and 500 three-wheeled vehicles with covered seating areas that are physically separated from the driver. Together, though, they represent a fraction of the tens of thousands of public transport vehicles that ply Kano's streets.

This is a dense, fast-paced city, with a centuries-old historic quarter whose narrow streets are not accessible to minibuses. Aisha Lawal, a 19-year-old student, said she will have difficulty making her twice-weekly visits to see her grandparents if the vast majority of motorcycle taxis are prohibited from carrying her. She predicted resistance from women.

On a sidewalk a few blocks away, Miriam Muhammed, 24, prepared to climb onto a motorcycle taxi. "We don't want this," she said of the new system. "Goodness, I'll be frustrated."

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