On a Monday morning in January 2017, Khadijah nearly died at the hands of her abusive boyfriend. Later, in August that year, she would blog about the incident. Her supposed lover had hit her repeatedly, choked her and threatened to “kill and bury her body”. Khadijah would then try to hide her scars with make-up and long-sleeved turtlenecks. That was not the first time he had hit her.

It would take Khadijah two years to seek an alternate form of justice – on Twitter – and name her abuser, Lawal Abubakar.

Her post triggered an outpouring of commiseration for her plight and support for her courage on Twitter. In the past few weeks, several women have taken to Twitter after Khadijah’s post to describe the abuse and assault they have been subjected to and to name the alleged perpetrators. Women have found encouragement to come out and shame their abusers, using the power of social media to garner support and provide the necessary energy for the cause.

Generating open conversation

The shaming worked. It has generated conversations about intimate partner violence and sexual abuse in what is widely viewed as the “conservative” north of Nigeria. A handful of women have followed suit and dared being victim-shamed to expose their abusers on their timelines by mentioning their handles, forcing these men to lock and protect their accounts from a barrage of mentions and outrage.

This spur-of-the-moment conversation, tagged by some as #ArewaMeToo (“arewa” is the Hausa word for “north”), can be seen as progress in terms of springing the conversation and women in Northern Nigeria finally opening up and finding the courage to speak out about abuse. Lawal Abubakar, who had locked his Twitter account when the accusations were first made and tried to persuade his victim to keep mute again and not shame him, later admitted to the abuse, apologised and took “full responsibility”. 

Abuse of women as a form of patriarchal control

Intimate partner violence and the abuse of women in Northern Nigeria has long been under the radar, with men bragging about it and admitting to using it as a form of patriarchal domination. This “disciplining” of women is entrenched in the prevailing gender and power inequality. In addition, gradual changes in the traditional gender order and roles in Northern Nigeria are making it more difficult for men to maintain the patriarchy and control. As a result, violence against women has increased.

The online outburst exposed Northern Nigeria’s conservative spaces as being complicit in the abuse of women.

The online outburst exposed Northern Nigeria’s conservative spaces as being complicit in the abuse of women. The victims of physical, sexual and emotional violence and abuse find it difficult to talk about their experiences, because the conversation is easily tossed aside, booed and shut down by retorts, shaming the women and somehow holding them responsible for their suffering and for enduring abuse – while the abuser goes scot-free.

Why these feelings of shame?

In her blog post¸ Khadijah refers to this “feeling of shame”: “I do not know why I felt ashamed. I mean, a lot of people go through what I went through and even worse, so why did I feel ashamed?” The conversation generated by Khadijah’s posts on physical and emotional abuse, and other women pouring out their own ordeals (albeit some anonymously) has resulted in a group of Twitter users taking up the #ArewaMeToo coming out and shaming baton. They are now encouraging women to speak out rather than allow the narrative to peter out, as is the case with so many social media trends. The narrative is ongoing, shifting somewhat from calling out physical abusers to accusations of sexual abuse and predatory behaviour aimed at young women.

So far, the highest-profile Twitter user to be accused has been Abubakar Sadiq Aruwa, an aide to the Minister of Finance, Zainab Ahmed, and a former aide to the governor of Kaduna State, Nasir El-Rufai. Aruwa has denied wrongdoing and released an official statement by his attorneys, debunking “defamatory commentary” on his person and “spurious and unsubstantiated allegations of rape” from a list of seven Twitter handles mentioned in the letter. What began with tweets from resting couches is gradually making its way to the court benches.

Read: The sex lives of Northern Nigeria

Yet, even with almost one in four women reporting having experienced intimate partner violence in Nigeria, the fate of the #ArewaMeToo especially hangs in the balance. Some are concerned that the #ArewaMeToo movement is all about naming and shaming men, damaging their careers and reputations on Twitter without any concrete evidence or verification, except for (often anonymous) direct messages and snapshots of conversations, rather than following due process in a court of law.

The women who are driving the conversation believe that naming and shaming is an alternative means of justice.

But the women who are driving the conversation believe that naming and shaming is an alternative means of justice, and that it is a big and important step towards an end. #ArewaMeToo has been a turning point and women have a newfound will and energy to out their abusers and to send warnings to those men who have grown comfortable in and accustomed to a culture that feeds male privilege.

Shifting the burden of shame

The appetite for change in the culture of violence and abuse of women is intense on social media. The recent outpouring on Twitter suggests that the burden of shame that has rested on Northern Nigerian women for so long is gradually being lifted. By coming out to share their stories of hurt and humiliation, women are shattering a culture of silence and shame that has permitted patriarchal men to mistreat women with total impunity. 

Until now, young women in Northern Nigerian have been hesitant to openly take on men in power, for fear of falling into an even worse position in society. That hush has lingered for a long time, but no more. Victims are finally telling the predators: “Enough!”

Still, the pertinent question is this: Will #ArewaMeToo survive Northern Nigeria’s patriarchal domination, the culture of silence around abuse and men making all the rules? Men and women alike will be watching this space with interest.