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(© Glenna Gordon courtesy Red Hook Editions)

Matters of the heart

These women are risking everything to write romance novels in Northern Nigeria

By WITW Staff on February 19, 2016

In recent years, the Northern region of Nigeria has made international headlines as the site of brutal attacks by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. The group has been responsible for rampant gender-based violence, and the 2014 kidnapping of hundreds of school girls, brought to light by the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. It’s a region where women are under siege and marginalized; as a result, many of their narratives are rarely heard. Now, in a new photobook titled Diagram of the Heart, photographer Glenna Gordon has captured another side to the lives of women in Northern Nigeria.

This isn’t Gordon’s first time working in Nigeria. She’s photographed extensively there, focusing on Nigerian women, and even documenting the belongings of the girls who were abducted by Boko Haram. This time she set her sights on a group of Muslim women who write pamphlet-style novels about love and marriage known as “littattafan soyayya” or “literature of love.” Some novels tackle hard-hitting issues like human trafficking or arranged marriage, some offer advice on how women can please their husbands, and others offer the fantasy of escape — the familiar narrative of the poor girl marrying the rich man.

In the strict Muslim-majority country, many of the women Gordon photographed struggled to receive an education. Even for the few whose families encouraged them to pursue a career in writing, the act of publishing their novels is a dangerous one, with the constant threat of censorship and violence. Some of the women sell their books in the same markets targeted by Boko Haram terrorists. Back in 2007, then-governor of Kano Mallam Ibrahim Shekarau burned a collection of novels in public, claiming they were “pornographic” and at odds with the region’s conservative values. Nevertheless, Gordon’s quiet, contemplative portraits offer a glimpse into a world where, though the backdrop may be one of violence and fear, women have found creative, subversive outlets to pursue their passions and make their voices heard.

Read the full story at Buzzfeed News.


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