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Houses of Women: Courtesans in Hausaland

I rolled my eyes when I stumbled across a link to an article in which a faux intellectual accused me of promoting prostitution because of these posts on (historical) sex work in indigenous African societies. I refused to click on the link, no point in giving views, but really one post on a tiny part of the interwebz is not going to stop me from sharing things like this.

Another fascinating chapter in Christine Oppong’s Female and Male in West Africa is “Houses of Women: a Focus on Alternative Life-Styles in Katsina City” by Renée Pittin. Here houses of women refers to houses that accomodate women who support themselves wholly or in part through selling their sexual services. Hereafter, I will use gidan mata (singular) and gidajen mata (plural), when referring to house(s) of women. Katsina is a Hausa and Fulani state in northern Nigeria, Katsina City being the capital of the state and historically a city-state believed to have been founded circa 1100.

Pittin’s research was carried out between the years 1971 and 1973 in Katsina, and despite the relatively modern times of the research, it does show yet another example of an indigenous African form of sex work that traces back in time from what I’ve read on gidajen mata from elsewhere. At the times of research, there were 123 gidajen mata. Typically the inhabitants of any gidan mata were not all sex workers, most were independent women who chose to live apart from their kin and a sizeable number were men who, as Pittin puts it, “are economically and socially an integral part of what may be treated as the sexual demi-monde of Hausa society”. The women who lived in gidajen mata were karuwai or karuwa (sing.), a karuwa was an unmarried woman not living with her parents or other kin who gained income from the men who she provides sexual services to.

These were women who were deviants as they did not live with husbands and/or relatives having rebelled against seclusion either in their parent’s or husband’s house and are no longer dependant on them. Karuwa is translated as “courtesan” because she was courted, at the same time the word courtesan does not translate the term fully. Pittin found that a large majority of karuwai had been married at least once, and that most would marry again. When they married, karuwai married men who were wealthier and of higher status than the men they left behind in the village. Nonetheless these subsequent marriages were usually fragile and short-lived when compared to those of women who have never been karuwai. Pittin suggests that this may be because the former karuwai had the option of returning to karuwanci and finding a better spouse in the future. As independent women, they remarried but were not dependant on their husbands for money and maintained their independent status after marriage.

Pittin claims that in the 70s the institution of karuwai was more egalitarian and that the profession was optional. In Katsina at that time 76 of the 123 gidajen mata were owned by women. Almost all these houses were bought or built by the present owners, only five where inherited. Wealthier women owned other houses that were not gidajen mata as well.

The important male population in gidajen mata were the ‘yan daudu (plural), or dan daudu. They were bisexuals, homosexuals and transvestites who inhabited the space of the gidan mata, intermediate and intermediaries between the worlds of men and women. Most people who are aware of the ‘yan daudu know them as transvestites who dress like women, talk like women and perform activities associated with women. Fewer people are aware that this is just one category of ‘yan daudu. They are frequently held as proof of a gay culture in a traditional West African society, this ignores that not every dan daudu has sex with other men. Some dress in men’s clothing and do not adopt women’s mannerisms. Many ‘yan daudu participate in the ancient Hausa spirit possession of bori, another practice that is associated with karuwai.

‘Yan daudu were present in gidan mata for many reasons including their economic activities which could be conveniently realised within the walls of the gidan mata, as well as the ambivalence of their sexuality which will be considered as inappropriate as that of the karuwai in a patriarchal society. ‘Yan daudu worked in gidajen mata as mediators between karuwai and the men that “court” them, as cooks and as sex workers. The ‘yan daudu in the house of women also provided cover for men seeking to sleep with other men. Some of the ‘yan daudu became quite rich due to their economic activities, and apparently the bisexuals and heterosexuals among them were considered good marital prospects.

Interestingly while attention is given to same-sex sexuality in the gidajen mata, these are only from the perspectives of men. We don’t know if the women in gidajen mata may have also been women who have sex with women. Considering that some of the karuwai had run away from husbands and that a good number of them did not remarry, this might not be farfetched but then again one should not jump into conclusions.

In highlighting gidajen mata and karuwanci as indigenous institutions, there is mention of a figure-head of the karuwai known as the Magajiyar Karuwai. The Magajiyar Karuwai was appointed by the traditional ruler of the area and once provide a link between the patriarchal power structure and the karuwai. She also exercised some control over the karuwai in her domain, and was, nominally or actively, leader of the spirit-possession “cult”. The Magajiya also protected the karuwai from any that sought to exploit or mistreat them.

I use the past tense here in recognition of the fact that things have changed. As someone born and raised in Northern Nigeria, karuwanci is not really something talked about and when it is, it’s always negative. I am not sure if the gidajen mata Pittin writes about still exist today as they did in the past.

What I read
Pittin Renée, “Houses of Women: a Focus on Alternative Life-Styles in Katsina City”, pp 291-301, in Female and Male in West Africa edited by Christine Oppong

Featured image
Hausa House, Nairaland


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