A Discussion with Zulaihatu Jaafar and Bilhatu Idris Adamu of the Kaduna Office of the Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations in Nigeria
July 1, 2010
Background: As part of the Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding Fellowship, Christopher O'Connor interviewed Zulaihatu Jaafar, Kaduna state president of the Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations in Nigeria (FOMWAN), and Bilhatu Idris Adamu, Kaduna state secretary of FOMWAN. In this interview Jaafar and Adamu discuss their participation in interreligious dialogue forums and FOMWAN's work providing healthcare services, education, and interfaith tolerance.
How did you get involved with FOMWAN? What type of projects does the Kaduna branch of FOMWAN operate?
Zulaihatu Jaafar: Before working for FOMWAN I was involved with the Women’s Group of Islam, which had been working together with FOMWAN. When nominations were held, I was nominated for FOMWAN.
FOMWAN is the umbrella body for all Muslim women’s groups in Nigeria. We have three main targets: education, health, and the propagation of Islam. The first focus, the education of women and youth, is very important because Muslim women are often marginalized in our society. Frequently, marriage limits our educational prospects. At FOMWAN, we try to address these limitations through flexible education programs. For working-class women, who are often already married, we hold one-hour classes at night, with two-hour sessions during the weekends. For the youth we run numerous schools, including secular institutions. Additionally, we organize lectures for women. We have scholars talk to them about religion and other topics. FOMWAN also operates skill activation centers in Kaduna.
Health is our second major focus. Our health system is relatively well developed in Kaduna, but we would like to significantly expand our services in rural areas throughout the state. In the aftermath of a sectarian crisis in 1994, we opened our first hospital in Kaduna. Since then we have opened three other smaller hospitals. We have designed our health centers so that even the poor can access our services. Patients typically pay a very small fee, and in some instances we offer our services for free. For example, HIV/AIDS patients receive free treatment. Furthermore, we have assisted these patients in forming an association for economic activity so that they can support themselves. Our hospitals offer a full range of services enabled by our partnerships with other organizations and institutions, such as Pathfinder and state ministries. All of our nurses and doctors are state-certified. These health centers have been a stunning success. The only downside, as I mentioned, is that we need to expand, which presents a considerable financial challenge that we are working to overcome.
Our third focus is the dawah, or the propagation of Islam. The main focus here is not converting people to Islam, but rather, teaching Muslim women how to properly practice Islam. We go out to all areas throughout Kaduna, especially to rural areas where Muslim women do not know much about their faith. During Ramadan we have our women converge at the central mosque from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. in the morning to hear scholars give lectures and take questions. FOMWAN also runs hajj sensitivity training programs.
What would you identify as the root causes of conflict in central and northern Nigeria?
Jaafar: There is a lot of misunderstanding here, and therefore, we often misinterpret the actions and motives of those from other faiths. Simply put, we are skeptical of the other side. How do I know what his motives are if I don’t interact with him?
How is FOMWAN working to promote peace and tolerance in Kaduna?
Jaafar: One way FOMWAN Kaduna is working to promote peace is through interfaith dialogue sessions, where we are discussing and promoting peaceful coexistence. Interfaith dialogue and interfaith programs bring women in Nigeria, and subsequently men, closer together. Through them we better understand each other. We want to promote tolerance. In the long term, it will help foster peace and a stronger community.
Bilhatu Idris Adamu: We have participated in numerous interreligious dialogues to discuss how women from both faith groups can work together to simultaneously promote unity and development. The Interfaith Communion of Women’s Faith Based Groups, in particular, has championed such causes.
Jaafar: Recently the first lady of Kaduna organized a workshop titled “The Role of Women in Peacebuilding.” During this workshop women from both the Muslim and Christian communities came together and discussed ways in which they could work together to promote peace and tolerance. The keynote speakers were the imam and the pastor from the Interfaith Mediation Center, who presented their perspectives on the way forward.
Jaafar: In an effort to promote increased interaction, we have also begun collaborative programs with Christian organizations. These programs primarily focus on health. However, we are also working to promote peace and tolerance through our economic and educational programs. FOMWAN is supporting collaborative economic opportunities. We also host youth education programs during school holidays so that they are learning and not getting into trouble. As education goes, the better educated people are, the less likely they are to participate in the violence. Education shows students that certain things are wrong and against their religion. Through these joint ventures we are building bridges between communities.
Adamu: In many of our programs we partner with other organizations. For example, in our education programs, in our health initiatives, we partner with the Nigerian Interfaith Action Association, which brings Christian and Muslims leaders together to reach out to women. In this partnership we have religious leaders give lectures to women. While these lectures primarily focus on health, teaching women how to properly care for themselves, they also have religious undertones. Furthermore, these collaborative efforts seek to promote cooperation on broader-based health initiatives, such as anti-malaria programs which distribute mosquito nets.
Jaafar: While we have been participating in dialogue forums initiated by other organizations, we would also like to initiate our own interfaith dialogue workshops as well. Many of the efforts so far have come from the Christian communities, and we would like to reciprocate, showing that Muslim women are also committed to working across religious lines to promote women’s development, and in the process, peace and understanding. It is important to us that we start initiating these efforts, as opposed to just attending them. We want to show our commitment by leading, not just following. We have also been working with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which helps to coordinate all women’s organizations regardless of religion.
Adamu: We want to show that we are together.
What form do you envision your peacebuilding efforts, your interreligious dialogues, taking?
Jaafar: We primarily want to initiate our own workshops and seminars, where we invite Muslims and Christians alike to discuss peaceful coexistence. We want to draw on the topics of peace and tolerance to show women the possible benefits of living and working together. Furthermore, we hope to mainstream peacebuilding more thoroughly throughout all of our programs. Beyond this, we also hope to place a greater focus on peace in our education system, where we have already established peace clubs.
What advantages do faith-based organizations have over others working to promote peace and development in Nigeria?
Adamu: Faith-based organizations have more authority than other organizations. Almost everyone in Nigeria belongs to a religion, and people obey and respect their religious leaders. Because of this religious orientation, our organizations are more readily accepted. Interreligious organizations and programs are even more valuable because they provide for multiple perspectives that enable us to work past those issues that divide us.
Why women? What unique contributions do women bring to the table when we are discussing peacebuilding in Nigeria?
Jaafar: Women come together more easily than men. Women have common goals that are often not as relevant for men, reflecting women’s experiences, their role in Nigerian society. Regardless of religion, women care about the well-being of other women, of children, of family. With this in mind, women are very concerned about defending life and promoting peace, because at the end of the day, women and their children are the real victims of violence of conflict in Nigeria.