Muslim Nigerian Women as Refugees in Brazil
Originally published at Abeautifulresistance.org.
“I believe that our human condition is defined more by the push-and-pulls of multiple, often contradictory commitments, than by linear strategies, limpid “worldviews” and direct cause-effect relations.” (Andrea Brigaglia)
Before starting a conversation about Nigerian women in refuge in São Paulo, Brazil, it’s necessary to point out the gross negligence of global media in reporting any news about Nigeria. As a country with a booming economy, vast natural resources and vibrant culture, the occasional mentions of it are overwhelmingly within the context of Islamist terrorism. Boko Haram is indeed an urgent issue, it has been for decades and affects millions of people. While the organization overshadows all other news about Nigeria, it isn’t discussed with the level of urgency it deserves. Any genuine concern over the well-being of Americans in the aftermath of 9-11 ought to be matched with concern over the well-being of Nigerians in the continuing conflict with Boko Haram. At alarming rates, this conflict has been displacing vulnerable populations which are further silenced in their foreign countries of refuge.
Brazil, despite its unmatched connection to Africa, is utterly unequipped to care for the influx of African refugees, especially Muslim Nigerian women. Upon arrival, these women are only further victimized by the weakness of Brazilian institutions and how oblivious the local population is to their plight. This leads to, of course, a new type of precarious living circumstances, which may not involve Boko Haram, but involves instead exploitative and clandestine working environments, as well as religious and social isolation.
To understand the failures of counterterrorism efforts in Nigeria, perhaps we ought to look at the failure of counterterrorism efforts of a post-9-11 geopolitical paradigm ignited by the United States. Surely, ethno-religious conflict in that region is a result of arbitrary borders put in place by a British colonial regime. Hundreds of ethnic groups were lumped together as either Northern or Southern Nigeria, which were soon “amalgamated” for the sole purpose of facilitating accounting of the exploration the British crown was doing across the Niger River. Not to mention all the years of conflict before British occupation, at the peak of the slave trade. All of which laid a foundation of brutality framing the events to come at the turn of the 21st century.
Boko Haram is a “franchise” of Al-Qaeda. According to Andrea Brigaglia, a former director of the Centre for Contemporary Islam, the “looseness” of the connections between these franchises has been both a weakness and a strength in Al-Qaeda’s strategy. On the one hand it facilitated the speed and vastness of its reach, but on the other it led to frail control over the distant factions.
During the early 2000s, Islamist Nigerian groups were forming and dismantling, Boko Haram being an enduring example of one. Debates among Islamic leaders over how to handle life and public education under a western (Christian) Nigerian Government (arbitrarily crafted by a colonial power) were prominent. Due to the pressures caused by the ‘War on Terror’, “the absence of any exchange of arguments on the legitimacy of Al-Qaeda’s project of global jihad” is “curious and conspicuous”. One would imagine that such conversation or public stance in that period would be undodgeable, unless “to avoid threading any organic links with Al-Qaeda”.
The United States’ ‘War on Terror’ has failed to eradicate or contain Boko Haram, and though they only occasionally become major news, the organization is consistently portrayed as horrific abusers of women and children. There are untold parts of this story, however. To portray the multiplicity with which Brigaglia’s defines the human condition, away from “limpid ‘worldviews’”, we ought to talk about Nigeria in multiple ways. Or as the brilliant Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it, we must avoid “the danger of a single story”.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY FABIO TEIXEIRA
The story of Muslim Nigerian women in refuge in Brazil could be one of beauty and power, where the protagonist is not Islamist violence and suffering. And it can also be about the responsibility of the West to understand the complexities of these women’s lives, especially a life within a society built upon Christian dominance. In this photo series by the photojournalist Fabio Teixeira, about 20 Nigerian women refugees in São Paulo became vibrant protagonists of their own stories. They made their own clothes from fabrics they got at work, which is sewing for clandestine factories that come down as quickly as they pop up. Some of them work cleaning the mannequins on which these clothes are displayed. All these jobs offer no security or proper payment, yet these women can bring dignity to their humble homes in São Paulo, and in some cases care for very young children.
In both Brazil and Nigeria, poverty is the main obstacle between Muslim Nigerians and the fulfilling dignified life we all deserve. To practice your religion in peace and provide for your family and loved ones is a right that should be granted to everyone, despite race, nationality, or gender. While we may discuss how the Nigerian government has failed to ensure this right to its peoples, we ought not to forget the failure of Western countries in treating Nigerians with the respect they would expect for themselves. The region which is now Nigeria has been exploited for hundreds of years, and religious violence has taken many forms, including in the form of islamophobia in Christian regions.
What is the difference between saving and empowering? Have these refugees been saved from brutal regimes? Perhaps. But they are yet to find a place in this world where they can enjoy the humanity we all have the duty to uphold. If we vow to crack down on terrorism, we vow to support victims of terrorism as well. Is that what the West has been doing to Muslim Nigerian women? According to a publication by Anoosh Soltani at the United Nations University, “popular Western media outlets strongly perpetuate a hegemonic view of Muslim women”. By doing so, these women are confined to the categories of either oppressed, and/or “incompatible with the values and norms of the Western world”. In reality, there are multiple ways of practicing Islam, most of which would be against Western values to berate.
Islam arrived in the region we now call Nigeria in the 11th century — a couple hundred years before European colonization. For many women, wearing the hijab was a statement against colonial rule. As such, head coverings worn by Muslim women have been a fierce symbol of belonging and resilience. In the history of Islam, Boko Haram is a recent and distinct phenomenon, born as a result of the pushes and pulls of history, global conflict, and the human condition. To do better, more of us in the West must show Muslim Nigerian women respect and provide them with the basic human dignity we are all entitled to.
MIRNA WABI-SABI is a writer, editor and director of Plataforma9.
FABIO TEIXEIRA is a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker living in Rio de Janeiro. He has worked for The Guardian, Folha de São Paulo, the International Red Cross, Unicef, among others.