Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Silk Roads, Other Roads: Textile Society of America 8th Biennial Symposium, Sept. 26–28, 2002, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.


Copyright 2002 by the author(s). Used by permission of TSA.



The Hausa people of Northern Nigeria have long been known for their production of voluminous robes known as babban riga (Heathcote 1972; Kriger 1988; Lamb and Holmes 1980; Perani and Wolff 1999; Picton and Mack 1979), which are handembroidered in a range of embroidery stitches, materials (mainly cotton and silk), styles, and designs (e.g., fig.l). Until recently, the embroidery of these robes was primarily done by men (Heathcote 1972, 1979). However, women have taken up this work (fig. 2) in the past twenty years, as men have turned to machine embroidery and other occupations, though women generally sell their robes through male relations or dealers.

This paper considers the situation of Hausa women who hand-embroider in one of the major centers for hand-embroidery in Northern Nigeria, the old, walled section of the town of Zaria, known as Zaria City or Bimin Zazzau. Robes and kaftans, both handembroidered and machine-embroidered that are produced in Zaria City, are available in local shops and are marketed throughout Nigeria (fig. 3a-e), In other words, the production and marketing of these garments is big business and is the major occupation of many men and some women in Zaria City.

For these Zaria City women, hand-embroidery (dinkin hannit) is an important source of income and more accessible without a large cash outlay than other occupations open to them as one Zaria City woman explained:

Before I was selling soup ingredients but now I don't have money to buy them. But hand-embroidery, you can do it for people [without needing capital] and get money. And especially for us women who stay at home, it is good for us (Interview: QA-3, Zaria City, July 2002).

This woman is referring to the practice of seclusion by married Muslim Hausa women (Callaway 1987; Schildkrout 1983), whose respectability (mutunci) rests on their staying at home during the day, while going out under cover of darkness—to visit and pay condolence calls as well as go to Islamic schools at night. Hand-embroidery of babban riga is a particularly suitable occupation for these women as they can work in their homes. However, as will be seen, this situation puts women at a disadvantage when it comes to marketing, particularly if they are producing robes on their own and not doing piece work for someone else. In such cases, they are at a double disadvantage. First, they are subject to the vagaries of the market, as one woman noted:

Before, if you take a babban riga to the tailor to sew it, before he is finished he will find someone to buy it.. .But now there is no such thing unless you are lucky and you have people like those who have titles [i.e., are rich], who will buy them from you, then you'll get a profit (Interview: FEAP-RI-4, Zaria City, July 2002).