In the traditionally socially conservative Muslim-majority Nigerian North, the #MeToo movement has caught hold, with the hashtag #ArewaMeToo cropping up increasingly on social media alongside survivors’ stories of sexual abuse and harassment. The hashtag has exploded over the past few months, with its first usage in early February 2019 by Fakhriyyah Hashim, who has emerged as one of the leaders of the movement. She retweeted another woman’s story of domestic violence and abuse and added #ArewaMeToo, using a broad term for the Nigerian north, Arewa. Such conversations around sexual abuse and harassment, and sex in general, are rare in this religious and conservative region, and Hashim and the other organizers are fighting to break the taboo and expand awareness of this pervasive issue in a social culture initially resistant to such a discussion.
“For conservative northern Nigeria, where women are typically meant to be seen and not heard, I think the bravery of the women is similar to a revolution,” Betty Abah, director of a children’s health and education NGO, said of the women sharing their stories on social media as a part of the #ArewaMeToo movement. Explaining the origins of the movement, Al-Jazeera quoted Hashim saying that “we don’t talk about sex because we have this perception that we are a morally upright society,” but that such abuse still occurs, and victims feel silenced and powerless, concerned that if they do speak out, they will be socially ostracized, and their abuser will not face justice. Hashim continued that a main goal of the #ArewaMeToo organizers, beyond simply spreading awareness, is to push for a larger cultural shift in the perception of assault and advocate for legal action against perpetrators. “It is important that we get as many prosecutions as we can because that would make people believe that the system works and nobody is untouchable,” she said. The relatively small size of the organization, with fewer than a dozen activists directly working for the movement and additional local branches in various northern cities, has allowed for the #ArewaMeToo activists to work directly with survivors to confirm their stories and provide support in the form of psychosocial help as well as legal aid through the process.
The reckoning with rape culture ushered in by the #MeToo movement and picked up by local activists across the world is long-awaited and desperately needed. While the #ArewaMeToo movement is still young, the importance of the work it is doing cannot be overstated. In publicly acknowledging that sexual assault, abuse, harassment, and domestic violence are major issues in the region, the movement is pushing for a cultural shift towards survivor support and away from a culture of impunity for perpetrators of abuse and assault. Such attacks and abuse can have a psychological impact on survivors for the rest of their lives, and while a social culture in which these attacks are ignored, covered up, and explained away is common throughout the world, such beliefs must be exposed and broken down in order for survivors to gain any modicum of justice and to begin to prevent future abuses. The movement is also taking on the overloaded and notoriously corrupt Nigerian criminal justice system, which all too often fails survivors due to the prevalence of bribery and stagnancy that keeps cases from progressing.
The #MeToo movement, an Internet movement to call attention to the prevalence of sexual assault, was started over a decade ago by the American activist Tarana Burke. The movement began on MySpace, but was reignited in 2017 over multiple social media platforms, and spread from the United States to countries across the world, many of which saw similar issues in its social and justice systems with regard to survivors of sexual assault. Mistrust and ostracism of survivors in society and through the criminal justice process is not a phenomenon unique to Nigeria. However, the Arewa region was not initially reached as #MeToo expanded beyond American borders, and the activists working to bring this reckoning to Nigerian society, and make a lasting impact on the Arewan culture around survivors, are doing crucial work that is long overdue around the world.