When I first began my quest to be literate apart from the education which I received from the university and other institutions before it, one of the first pieces of literature I read was a 1969 novel titled, ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman.’ The book’s intro said it was an expose on women’s liberation and blah blah... and that in fact the book had been made into a movie starring Meryl Streep. What I found from my direct reading was a love story with an out-of-the-box, beautiful story line. However in my subconscious, I mean indirectly, I began to awake to certain aspects of my mental makeup. I became aware that social conventions were many times a hindrance to the full expression of one’s personality and one’s self. The book allowed me to discover that I was a believer in gender egalitarianism, and it led me to understand that mine was a liberal spirit.
But my write-up is not about my deliverance from social norms and conventions, it is about Habiba, my prostitute friend. I met Habiba in Gwaram, Jigawa State, a deeply muslim community with strict cultures. It was the rainy season and almost everyone would fall ill with malaria fever. She had caught an early dose and came to see me at the clinic. She was loose with her dressing, had the hard and battered look that only prostitutes and drunken sailors successfully manage, and had fungal skin infections on her face, a sign of HIV infection. She knew all the men in the facility and called them with a friendly boldness. She constantly referred to herself as Hajia Habiba (title for females who have made holy pilgrimage to Mecca). She was quick to show me her shoulders and said she was scared of needles. At first I was repulsed by her garrulousness, but in time we became friendly, and then friends, but only as far as a non Hausa speaking stranger can become friends with a non English speaking social outcast.
I thought it strange that Gwaram with its *Ba shigar homes, strict muslim dress codes for females and Sharia courts would have its share of ‘business’ women, and so I asked Mumin, a community health worker in the health facility about it on our way to buy balangu for dinner. ‘So that woman today was a prostitute,’ I said, introducing the topic. He told me that she was not the only one available in the town, there were others like her. When I asked why they were not dragged to the Sharia Courts, He expressed surprise and asked me ‘Why?’ ‘I...I thought it was against the law’, I stuttered. He answered gravely that the women were untouchable by the law because they would be able to claim successfully that they have human rights which include the authorization to do what they want with themselves and their bodies. ‘They will pay for it in the end, these women,’ he said in conclusion to our discussion. As a medical officer, I agreed with him but I could not help wondering where this woman got the audacity to go against the grain of such a conservative and stereotyped society, especially as I found out that she had grown up here in this old fashioned town, and that her family are still very much around. I could immediately link her with the book character, Sara, the French lieutenant’s woman.
In the book, Sara starts out a naive little governess who soon meets a French ship-wreck survivor, who she helps nurse back to health and falls in love with. On recovery the French lieutenant leaves town suddenly, leaving Sara heartbroken. She sets out to find him but discovers that he is not the gentleman he claimed to be as she catches him in the company of ‘strange’ women. She is heartbroken and seems unable to return to her job because stories making the rounds are that she had given her honour to the Frenchman but was still rejected by him. She becomes a recluse and settles for being a servant with a new, hard-to-please madam in the village where the story begins. She is looked at by the villagers as being ‘a little crazy’ and earns the nickname the French Lieutenant’s woman. As one reads on, one finds out that Sara’s craziness and heartbreak has little to do with her lover’s disappointment. Hers is turmoil of the mind, a heartbreak caused by the restraints of society. ‘Why can’t a woman be free to express herself and her sexuality? Why is it wrong for a lady to take control of things in a relationship, to make the first move, to give love instead of waiting till it is given or thrown at one? These seem to be the questions that afflict her. She consequently abandons conventional society and resigns herself as a recluse in her new village. But soon she meets, by accident, a young man who she falls in love with, and this time, she takes the reins in directing the affairs of their very abnormal liaison.
Bringing this home, I think that the factors that make women like Habiba go contrary to societal norms may be much more than promiscuity. I believe that in some cases prostitution is an expression of sexual freedom, a form of rebelling against societal strictures... It may be a misguided mode of expression but it is a bold, if not admirable attempt at exercising ones human rights. Sacrilege! I hear you scream. Wait. Hear me out. In most cases, prostitutes are of the low, uneducated, underprivileged classes: they do not have the wherewithal to express their mental rationalisations appropriately – they have no schooling, no role models and sometimes are products of sexual and/or psychological abuse. They are illiterate but are still human. And like human beings they may have notions and convictions about life such that they couldn’t be inwardly happy or outwardly free until they lived according to these notions and desires. I guess I am trying to say that a prostitute may be normal variant of life, and not a nuisance aberration; that they may only be looked upon as one would an artist who is detached from conventional life and living and moves about with unconventional clothing and strange behaviours – They are both just slight disparities contributing to the irony of a balanced society.
We all agree that prostitution has more disadvantages than advantages and so is better discouraged. This however should not be achieved by lining up our ‘beautiful’ sisters and asking the Master permission to throw stones at them. We should instead consider the option of education, policy advocacy and human rights enforcement. If men are taught to see the female folk as different but equal members of society; if women are taught that they need only themselves and their acquired skills for real fulfilment in life, then maybe women like Hajia Habiba will be given a chance. Maybe she would put her free spirit to being a dancer or a musician; maybe she would be a pillar of her community, or maybe a single mother living quietly and minding her business....And maybe I won’t be considering paying her harem a future late evening visit.