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These Muslim Women Are Fluent In The Language Of Love

Glenna Gordon documents a cottage industry of Muslim women writing romance fiction stories in the shadow of Islamist censors and militants in northern Nigeria

Posted on February 17, 2016, at 3:43 p.m. ET

Photographer Glenna Gordon spent months capturing female Muslim writers whose books are among the dozens of cheap, pamphlet-style novels popular across markets in northern Nigeria.


A woman reads a Hausa romance novel using the flashlight on her cell phone as a train traveled through Nigeria.
Glenna Gordon

A woman reads a Hausa romance novel using the flashlight on her cell phone as a train traveled through Nigeria.

Known as “littattafan soyayya” – meaning “literature of love” in northern Nigeria’s Hausa language - the plots all revolve around love and marriage. But not all the stories are Mills and Boons-style fantasies: some are subversive or political, tackling subjects like child marriage and trafficking.

The movement was born in the northern capital of Kano in 1990, when author Balaraba Ramat Yakubu published Sin Is A Puppy That Follows You Home. The novel was based on her experiences of being a child bride before being divorced and destitute by the time she was 19 years old.


Book covers by a popular author with drawings in a style typical of the genre.
Glenna Gordon

Book covers by a popular author with drawings in a style typical of the genre.

Gender disparity is high across all of Nigeria, but particularly in the Muslim-majority north, and many of the authors struggled to get an education. A minority are encouraged to pursue writing by their families. But all face public censorship. In 2007, then-governor of Kano, Mallam Ibrahim Shekarau, publicly burned the novels, which he claimed were “pornographic” and out of line with northern Nigeria’s traditional values.


Khadija Gudaji works on her novel while laying in bed at her home in Kano, Northern Nigeria.
Glenna Gordon

Khadija Gudaji works on her novel while laying in bed at her home in Kano, Northern Nigeria.

In her book titled Diagram of the Heart – named in the style of the pocket-sized novels – Gordon shows another side to a region known to the outside world primarily for attacks from Islamist militants Boko Haram.

Gordon, who has also tackled subjects such as the mass abduction of 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram, also documents the weddings and glamour that accompany life in northern Nigeria, which revolves around family ties.


A bride at a wedding in Kano, Northern Nigeria, stands apart from the guests. Male guests and female guests seldom mix in the conservative Islamic norther part of Nigeria.
Glenna Gordon

A bride at a wedding in Kano, Northern Nigeria, stands apart from the guests. Male guests and female guests seldom mix in the conservative Islamic norther part of Nigeria.


Sani with his first wife, though his second wife is pictured in their family portrait. Many of the books are about struggles between co wives.
Glenna Gordon

Sani with his first wife, though his second wife is pictured in their family portrait. Many of the books are about struggles between co wives.


Women buy novels at a shop run by Jamila Umar, a poplar writer who opened her own stall at the market in Kano.
Glenna Gordon

Women buy novels at a shop run by Jamila Umar, a poplar writer who opened her own stall at the market in Kano.


Novels and other books are put together by hand.
Glenna Gordon

Novels and other books are put together by hand.


Maryan Nazifi, a young bride getting married, poses for a photo with her mother.
Glenna Gordon

Maryan Nazifi, a young bride getting married, poses for a photo with her mother.


A young wedding guest, all dressed up.
Glenna Gordon

A young wedding guest, all dressed up.


Firdausy El-yakub reads a romance novel in her bedroom in Kano, Northern Nigeria. Her university has been on strike for weeks, so she spends most of her days reading and dreams of one day becoming a novelist too. Her father allows her to go to the market and buy new books often.
Glenna Gordon

Firdausy El-yakub reads a romance novel in her bedroom in Kano, Northern Nigeria. Her university has been on strike for weeks, so she spends most of her days reading and dreams of one day becoming a novelist too. Her father allows her to go to the market and buy new books often.


Rabi Tale in the courtyard of the Ministry of Information where she has a day job. Tale is a romance novelist in Nigeria.
Glenna Gordon

Rabi Tale in the courtyard of the Ministry of Information where she has a day job. Tale is a romance novelist in Nigeria.



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