Few women in African or Islamic history have been as celebrated as Nana Asma’u. Born in 1793, she was the daughter of Shaykh Uthman ibn Muhammad Fodiye (sometimes spelled Usman dan Fodio), an Islamic reformer and leader of the Sokoto Caliphate in what is today northern Nigeria. Nana Asma’u received the best education available to her, as her father was a firm advocate for empowering women―and in particular, empowering them through education. He taught her personally, and she mastered key Islamic disciplines, including Sufism, Arabic grammar and rhetoric.
From a young age, Nana Asma’u distinguished herself as a skilled poet, writer and translator. She was fluent in Arabic, Fulfude (her mother tongue) and Hausa (the lingua franca of the empire). She composed poetry in all three languages and also wrote three prose works in Arabic. Although she usually adhered to classical Arabic meters to compose her poetry, she sometimes experimented on her own as well, especially for the purpose of applying those meters to her poetry in Fulfude and Hausa.
Nana Asma’u had a keen interest in governance, international affairs, and diplomacy. She was often invited by emirs and sultans in many parts of Africa to advise them on matters of state. Not only did she offer her advice through letters, but on more than one occasion she freely rebuked certain emirs for their mistakes.
Perhaps Nana Asma’u’s greatest achievement was the network of schools which she established throughout the confederation. She ensured that her cadre of female teachers, who she trained personally, were recognized for their service in the same way that their male counterparts would be (i.e. by being allowed to wear a red turban-like headdress). She also set the curriculum herself. Many schools in present-day Nigeria are named after her and she is remembered as Uwar Gari, or “mother of all”.
Like her father before her, Nana Asma’u was a lifelong believer that orthodox Islam, if practiced correctly, enabled the empowerment of women, especially through its emphasis on education. She passed away in 1864. Today, she is remembered as the precursor to modern feminism in Africa.