How Nollywood is Reshaping the Image of Northern Nigerian Women

By Aisha Kabiru Mohammed | Nov 16, 2023

 In Nigeria, Northern women have seen little, but growing, representation in mainstream media. However, while more movies begin to incorporate female characters from the North, the problem of negative stereotypes and essentially inaccurate representation persists.


Growing up, one of the few ways I was exposed to different cultures was through film. I read books and watched a lot of movies and cartoons. These movies influenced my perspectives on several cultures in and outside Nigeria. I know a lot about American culture because I watched a lot of American shows and read a lot of American books.


Unfortunately, I saw more Americans on television than girls and women that looked like me. Besides the occasional Hausa or Indian movie I would watch. Nigerian mainstream media at the time(the early 2000s) did not have many Muslim women or Northern women on screen, which meant that I barely saw myself in the characters on TV. Muslim women were either extras or side characters. My earliest memory of seeing a Muslim Northern woman on mainstream television was the character Rekiya in the MNET series Doctors Quarters. Doctors Quarters aired on Africa Magic in 2005 and ended in 2006. The series explored the lives of Young Medicine students who were on the verge of graduating from Medical school as they balanced the hectic schedule of Medical school and the challenges in their lives. The first time she was introduced to audiences, she was the topic of conversation of the character played by Kate Henshaw. She is frightened by Rekiya's clothes, A black hijab. And tells one of the other students that a new student is in the quarters with scary clothes.


This depiction of hijab as dangerous or something to be scared of could be seen as a realistic but unnecessary portrayal.  Rekiya was a good student who had to deal with the pressures of marrying a man with a harsh mother-in-law. She was also one of the few students on the show who graduated. Rekiya was a character who was different from the stereotypes of Northern Women and, at the same time, pandered to the stereotype of the submissive, meek Northern Nigerian woman.  


As I got older, representation and inclusivity in the media became a global movement. Characters I didn't see while growing up began to pop up more and more on my screen. In Nigeria, this included Northern Nigerian women. I was now seeing more women who looked like me, but the depictions of these women needed the nuance and diversity I was familiar with. Northern women in mainstream media were either abused and stifled by oppression or side characters who contributed very little to the story. Movies like Up North and Amina do a great job of not following these stereotypes. 


In Up North  Bassey, the rebellious son of a business tycoon moves to Bauchi for National Youth Service as a punishment for his disobedience. Bassey meets several women when he decides to stay and teach at an all-girls school after the mandatory Three weeks of camp. These women are the most diverse depiction of Northern Nigerian women I have seen in recent Nollywood movies. Maryam, played by Rahma Sadau and Principal Hassan, played by Rekiya Attah, are working women who, at no point in the movie’s story, have to give up their careers for religious purposes or marriage. The contrast to this narrative is the story of Aisha, one of the school's students and the fastest runner on the running team set up by Bassey. Aisha is prevented from competing in the She Runs tournament by her father, Hassan. He initially refers to Aisha’s Asthma as his reason, and when Bassey purchases equipment to subdue possible attacks while she runs, Hassan gives religious reasons. The movie provides negative and positive aspects of life as a woman in Northern Nigeria, giving a balanced narrative.  However, there are inevitable mistakes in the portrayal of Muslim and Hausa culture, which is a common trend in mainstream  Nollywood Movies. 


Document Women previously reviewed the 2021 Epic Amina. The movie attempts to tell the story of the warrior queen of Zazzau, modern-day Zaria, in Kaduna state. The review mentions some faults, which provides another angle to discussing the representation of Northern Nigerian women in mainstream media. Costume errors and the inaccurate pronunciation of Zazzau are some of the mistakes in the movie. These mistakes can also be noted in series like The Johnsons, with the mix-up of Hausa and Fulani traditional clothing.  These mistakes might not support negative stereotypes of Northern Nigerian women. But they are complacent in their ignorance of the culture and practices of a large part of Nigeria’s population. There are frequent conversations about fostering unity and harmony in Nigeria. Representation of all people in mainstream media and, in this case, Northern Nigerian women bridge the large gap of ignorance and misconceptions that exist.