Intimate Ethics, Grammatical Personhood, and HIV/AIDS in Islamic Northern Nigeria

Kathryn A Rhine. Africa Today, suppl. Special Issue: Love and Sex in Islamic Africa. Volume 61, Issue 4. Summer 2015.

Over the past ten years of conducting research in northern Nigerian HIV treatment centers, I would often read stories and hear gossip among acquaintances about young HIV-positive women who had sought revenge on the public by deceiving and infecting men. For example, in 2007, the newspaper This Day documented the release of a federally funded report titled Basic Facts on HIV/AIDS. The journalist wrote that this report sought to alert

the nation that there were increasing cases of Nigerian ladies who, in their desperate desire to get back at the society[, …] dress up provocatively and seek a lift from men, only to end up raping them and gleefully taunt their victims: “Welcome to the club, [sic] you are now HIV-positive.” (Ugeh 2007)

Rumors of young women intentionally spreading the virus have been documented by anthropologists in contexts around the world, from the South African lowveld (Stadler 2003) to Papua, Indonesia (Butt 2005). Scholars have argued that speakers spread rumors to make sense of the epidemic and the larger political and economic forces that contribute to the spread of the virus. These accusations may be a means through which people resist biomedicine’s tendency to associate HIV risk with individual behavior, instead making the case that one’s risk of contracting HIV is largely beyond their control and in the hands of promiscuous, greedy, and immoral agents. In northern Nigeria, however, where a family is fundamental to a person’s sense of self and well-being, nonmarried HIV-positive women find themselves in a difficult position. Those with whom I worked knew that partners were critical for meeting social, economic, and religious obligations, and they knew that their pursuit of these relationships could expose them to accusations of immorality, rejection, and further marginalization.

In early 2008, I accompanied an American USAID official to a meeting organized by the Nigerian Supreme Council on Islamic Affairs. The goal of the program was to construct the second draft of the National Islamic Policy on HIV/AIDS. In small groups, the attendees examined the nation’s HIV prevention and treatment policies. Participants searched digital versions of religious texts on their laptops and mobile phones for passages in the Qur’an and the Prophet’s teachings that reinforced these prescriptions. A few months later, the council’s leaders circulated an e-mail with the updated draft of the policy. Beneath a list of policy priorities under the heading “Prevention,” the leaders referenced two particular prophetic traditions (Hadith), which contradicted the leaders’ inclusive programmatic aims directed toward protecting the health of HIV-positive persons through testing, health-care services, and treatment: “The Prophet (SAW) advised a companion to have a proper look at a Madinah woman who[m] he proposed to marry to ascertain that she is free from a defect they are known to have.” And in the following section, under the heading “Prevention with Positives,” they stated: “The Prophet (SAW) prohibited people in an epidemic area from leaving the area for fear of infecting others. Caliph Umar directed that the infected should not leave the area[,] nor should uninfected [people] enter the infected area.” I argue that these moral discourses-as a set of normative, codified principles that outline how HIV infected persons in Nigeria should live “positively” with the virus-are unmoored from the everyday ways in which Muslim women resolutely strive to live virtuous lives in the face of social and economic precariousness.

How do HIV-positive women in this stigmatizing context chart new ways to find meaning, forge relationships, and survive with their dignity intact? This essay draws from a body of ethnographic fieldwork evaluating the intersection of communication and power as HIV-positive persons navigate the morally ambiguous terrain of questions surrounding disclosure. Through an interview with Halima, a Muslim woman from the northern Nigerian city of Kano, I concentrate on the entanglements between language and these ethical sensibilities. As we conversed, I observed how Halima uses a shift in grammatical person to transfigure a discourse about immoral, dangerous, HIV-positive women into an account in which she can present herself as an ethical subject. I show how this discursive move is enmeshed in competing Islamic and cultural expectations, social obligations, and material needs. These discrediting public sentiments surrounding HIV-positive women, and the repercussions infected persons may face if they reveal their status, may discipline them into silence; however, such popular sentiments do not entirely efface their efforts to express their desires for a different future-one in which they can protect their dignity, claim respect from others, and fulfill crucial economic, social, and religious aspirations.

Context and Methods

From the time HIV was first identified, in 1986, until the present, Nigerians have accounted for at least three million of the thirty-six million people who have died AIDS-related deaths globally. Initial responses in the country were characterized by widespread denial and gross misunderstandings. To counter suspicions of HIV as a fictitious disease, early public health campaigns employed pictures of skeletons, blood, and coffins to accompany awareness messages such as “AIDS kills: Protect yourself,” and “If you think you can’t get AIDS, you’re dead wrong.” As a result, the Hausa terms for HIV/AIDS suggest an irreversible, near-death condition. Kanjamau refers to a lifeless body that is virtually skin and bones, and kabari kusa means literally ‘nearby grave’, and figuratively, ‘one foot in the grave’. These names and images reinforce the fatal connotation of the virus. While epidemiological reports projected a dramatic increase in prevalence in Nigeria over the 1990s, advances in health infrastructure to support prevention, HIV medications, and care remained minimal. For most Nigerians, HIV was an undetectable disease, whose sufferers lived with and died of a fatal illness with an unspeakable cause.

I began my research among HIV-positive women on the cusp of a major epidemiological and epistemological shift. In 2003, motivated by national security concerns and widespread global criticism for its recalcitrance in intervening in HIV/AIDS concerns, the United States Congress approved the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to provide free antiretroviral therapies to countries most affected by the epidemic. Nigeria, with the second-highest number of HIV-infected persons in the world, behind only South Africa, was among the first to be recognized by PEPFAR and receive support for its HIV prevention, treatment, and care initiatives. Over the past decade, the number of HIV-positive persons collecting subsidized medications in Nigeria has grown to close to 500,000, with as many as 1.5 million more under medical supervision and on waiting lists for treatment. For most patients, antiretroviral therapies transformed the illness into a manageable chronic condition. While they have not been granted a life free of disease, an HIV diagnosis no longer means a death sentence, as the terms above implied.

Between 2004 and 2014, I made eight trips to Kano, for a total of more than two years of ethnographic fieldwork in the region. I primarily lived with Hausa-speaking families in several densely populated areas within this urban state capital. Much of my day-to-day life centered on the activities of the families with whom I resided. I would accompany them to their workplaces, markets, schools, relatives’ and friends’ homes, parties, weddings, condolence visits, and other formal occasions. I concentrated my research among HIV-positive women in support groups and clinics. I collected interviews with more than eighty married and nonmarried HIV-positive women, covering an array of topics including their childhood and family life, marriage and childbirth experiences, and illness narratives. I carried out a survey of more than a hundred ever-married HIV-positive women, charting their movement from household to household since their first marriage. These women came from three different support groups and four different hospitals across the city. In addition, I spent more than a year carrying out research in the middle belt city of Jos and Abuja, the country’s capital. In these sites, I continued to conduct interviews and participant-observation among people living with HIV, as well as among policymakers and health-care practitioners in nongovernmental organizations and treatment centers.

Sex, Language, and Local Moral Worlds in Islamic Africa

The study of African sexuality was traditionally an object of inquiry by agents of colonialism who sought to justify their authority and policies through the exoticization of colonial subjects. Descriptions of these patterns of hypersexuality, promiscuity, and irrationality have resurfaced in contemporary public health analyses to explain the high rates of HIV across the continent (Ahlberg 1994; Caldwell, Caldwell, and Quiggin 1989). In Nigeria, HIV-prevention campaigns have attempted to address the risks associated with intergenerational and casual sex by warning young women of the dangers they are exposed to through their desires for money, phones, and other gifts from boyfriends or sugar daddies. Numerous problematic assumptions are embedded in these campaigns and their critiques of transactional sex. Most evident among them is the idea that intimacy is inimical to exchange; that is, the exchange of sex for money or gifts debases love, sentiment, or religious virtue.

In response to statements such as these, anthropologists have described how exchanges between sexual partners have the potential to cement gendered identities and social bonds, and reproduce a moral economy in which objects and relationships are intertwined (Hunter 2002; Poulin 2007; Setel 1999; Smith 2006). They have argued that anxieties about the epidemic’s dangers relate more to the ways political and economic shifts influence sex, courtship, marriage, and generational identities than they do to violations of religious principles or even the actual risk of infection (Alber, Van Der Geest, and Whyte 2008; Cole and Durham 2007; Smith 2003). Andrea Cornwall, for example, has noted how Nigerians label “today’s women” openly defiant and disobedient, impatient, and greedy in comparison with the “olden days,” when they were perceived to be dependent, obedient, and devoted wives and mothers who endured their suffering. These accusations, she has suggested, reflect Nigerians’ efforts to reclaim “a moral high ground that, in the wake of socio-economic change and the exigencies of modernity, has slowly slipped out of their reach” (2001:69). This sense of disenfranchisement fuels the stigmatizing discourses that envelop representations of HIV-positive persons in religious messages, the mass media, and popular opinions.

For decades, the social reproduction of gendered identities, power differences, and the matrimonial economy have been dominant themes in studies of Muslim women in Africa. In spite of this, lack of anthropological research on gender, Islam, and HIV remains (Cooper 1997; Gray 2004; Masquelier 2009; Pittin 2002). Among Muslim, Hausa-speaking Nigerians, nonmarried “women of childbearing age” have “no acceptable place… Adult Hausa society is essentially a totally married society” (Callaway 1987:35). In the past, if a woman chose to remain single, she was likely to be called a karuwa (‘prostitute’) (Pittin 1983, 2002; Smith 1959:244). Mutunci (‘respectability’), a reflection of the stability of one’s marriage and the moral authority she possesses, is revealed through her comportment within married life, particularly as she bears and raises children (Callaway and Creevey 1994; Coles and Mack 1991; Renne 2004; Schildkrout 1983). Normative religious and cultural discourses in Nigeria reinforce the dichotomies of responsible husbands and obedient wives. Qur’anic principles dictate husbands must provide for their families and may marry multiple wives only if they can support them. Many Nigerian men cannot fulfill this expectation: they rely on women to make key contributions to household economies, even as their wives’ labor is often hidden from view (Coles 1991; Pittin 2002). Nevertheless, the ease with which they can abandon their wives through divorce frequently undermines women in their attempt to call attention to exploitation and problems within their marriages, including abuse, infidelity, and neglect. Women who lack the economic and social resources needed to access the protections of religious or political institutions risk losing their children, houses, and possessions without compensation.

Just as the sentiments of romantic attachment that underscore how Muslims negotiate sexual relationships are often underrepresented in the Africanist literature (Fair 2009; Larkin 1997; Thompson 2013), so are the ways in which these feelings pervade acts of violence, deception, and abandonment. Love and sex involve a complex array of affects, and these emotions are “embedded in historically situated words, cultural practices, and material conditions that constitute certain kinds of subjects and enable particular kinds of relationships” (Thomas and Cole 2009:3). If social scientists and public health practitioners reduce these relationships to sexual behaviors in their analyses and programs, they obscure the emotional frameworks within which individuals experience intimacy (Fassin 2007; Hunter 2010; Klaits 2009; Susser 2009). These frameworks include pleasure, companionship, respect, and hope, as well as fear, disgust, ambivalence, and anger. Among northern Nigerian women, HIV is only one form of distress among many. While depictions of violence in Africa often center on spectacular displays of injuries and death, a myriad of abuses unfold in the domestic sphere. In contexts defined by patriarchal ideologies, the home is the “ideal haven that is the women’s obligation to secure; [however, when] female labor fails to achieve that ideal, it leads to male violence as retribution” (Das, Ellen, and Leonard 2008). Interpersonal violations between sexual partners are commonly kept secret.

Unsurprisingly then, HIV-positive women in northern Nigeria are reluctant to disclose the social betrayals that precipitated their infection and continue to shape their lives after their diagnosis. Work among ‘yan daudu-men who talk and act like women-in Kano revealed the absence of discussion surrounding HIV in this community of Muslim sexual minorities. Hausa blessings, such as Allah ya rufe asiri (‘May God cover your secrets’) reflect Nigerians’ deep respect for the Islamic virtue of personal discretion (Gaudio 2009:199). ‘Yan daudu, argues Gaudio, creatively employ speech, not only to navigate these moral quandaries through the strategic use of silence, but also to situate themselves flexibly, in both women’s and men’s social worlds. They use gendered labels, pronouns, styles of laughter, and phonetic practices as linguistic resources to represent themselves as feminine. Emphasizing subject positions obligates scholars to incorporate “ideas such as strategy, purpose, rhetorical ethos, agency (and hence responsibility), and choice-without, of course, ignoring the many ways in which individuals’ options may be limited or sometimes nonexistent” (Johnstone 2000:419). It imagines other people not just as “the creatures of their social relationships,” but as their “orchestrators” (Cohen 1994:93). In short, language makes subjectivity possible. Indirect language and opaque interpersonal interactions-including conversations between researchers and their informants-reveal how ambiguity becomes a technique through which humans forge ethical subjectivities (Berthomé, Bonhomme, and Delaplace 2012; Han 2012). In the following case, I focus on an HIV-positive woman’s shift in the use of pronouns over the course of our interview to illuminate this effort.

“She Lives Dangerously”

Halima, a Hausa-speaking Muslim woman from Kano, insisted on conducting our interview in English. We sat alone in the office of the treatment center where she would collect her medication each month. It was 2010, and I had conducted interviews and participant-observation in this hospital for several months over the course of the previous three years, so most of the women I spoke to were already well aware of my project. They knew I was particularly interested in relationship stories, and I had no difficulty finding patients with whom I could work, so long as we could meet at the clinic. One of the hospital’s counselors, respected by many patients, had made this particular introduction, and Halima appeared eager to speak to me. The conference room offered a safe space, where women could talk about their lives without interruption or fear of being overheard. My being a foreigner, not a member of these women’s communities, I think helped assuage women’s concerns over their participation in my project. Nevertheless, these women find certain experiences difficult or impossible to share for fear of how their interlocutors will respond, as will become evident in this case.

The focus of this particular interview was on women’s beauty practices and their bodies, but as we proceeded, our discussion veered into a different direction. Halima began by stating that she had recently remarried as a second wife. Her children from her previous husband, who had died several years before, were living with her parents in another city. Noting that Halima looked not only healthy, but also stunningly attractive, I asked, “If men see a beautiful person or girl, what does he like?” She did not offer me a long list of physical features or particular personality characteristics, as many women did; nor did she describe her own traits, which men undoubtedly admired. Instead, she echoed my reference to the abstract categories of “men” and “girls,” and told me a vivid story about a couple, using the pronouns he and she. From the onset, it was not clear to me whether this couple was a specific pair of individuals whom she knew, or an abstract exemplar she created to address my question.

First, a man sees a girl he likes. He says, “Hi baby.” He says, “Fine baby. Come so I can help you reach where you are going.” He has a car. If the girl agrees, she follows him to his car. He tells her he wants to take her to a restaurant. Before long, he has bought things like yogurt, chicken, eggs, and so on.

I asked: “The man spends money on the lady?”

He buys a lot of things for the girl. The girl has already melted inside. Anything he says, she will agree. He will tell her let me take you to my house. She will follow him.

Halima trailed off. “What happens after that?” I prompted.

He will tell her to lie on his bed. She will not object. He will kiss her, romance her, anything. Then he will make love to her. Anything could happen to the girl. She doesn’t know his HIV status.

As our interview progressed, Halima elaborated on how the man will infect his girlfriend without her knowing. He deceives her by showering her family and her with gifts. Because he is not married, he routinely calls upon his many girlfriends. He avoids meeting her family in person and tries to keep his girlfriends from knowing about each other. “He likes beautiful girls,” Halima pointed out. “He has a weakness for them.”

As described above, religious, public health, and popular discourses across Africa present premarital and extramarital sexual relationships as both immoral and dangerous; however, for many Nigerians, these practices were less of a concern than the act of transmitting HIV to one’s sexual partners without first disclosing one’s status. My interlocutors rarely mentioned how these dynamics are intertwined. Islamic doctrine is unambiguous in its prohibition of adultery. Even so, I found that northern Nigerian men often justified the simultaneous courtship of multiple women by pointing to the Qur’an, which permits them to marry up to four wives, so long as they can support them. Indeed, many men take pride in their ability to provide for both their families and their girlfriends. As Halima stated, attractive men own expensive cars and offer their girlfriends elaborate gifts. Men’s peer groups reinforce this ideal (Smith 2006), and yet men, even if they lack a stable salary or savings, may mislead their girlfriends into believing they are wealthy and can provide their current-and potential-families these resources. Conspicuous displays of prosperity in courtship thus become a public performance, which men use to create and secure their vision of success.

Men’s notion of respectability is further reinforced by their ability to control women’s sexuality. This is best accomplished through relationships with women dependent upon their economic support. In Halima’s terms: “The girl has already melted inside. Anything he says, she will agree.” Men employ these elaborate performances of affluence to seduce girlfriends into having sex with them. These sexual relationships are public secrets, social facts that are widely known, but never spoken about (Hirsch et al. 2010). They are implicitly accepted as a natural consequence of men’s inability to control their sexual impulses. While women are suspicious of men’s deceptive tactics, the only moral violation in Halima’s above story that most Nigerians would recognize is men’s failure to disclose their HIV status. Halima’s statement reflected the problematic separation of HIV transmission inside and outside marriage, perpetuated by religious and public health programs, including the National Islamic Policy on HIV/AIDS.

Halima, following her thoughts about men’s weakness for women, then explained that this woman, in fact, cares only for the man’s money. Because her parents are poor, she gives gifts of food, money, and other items to her family, which makes them reluctant to question whether this boyfriend is serious about his marriage intentions. Halima said if the parents begin to suspect otherwise, they will be angry and take the woman to the hospital for an HIV test. “If she has HIV, the parents are as good as dead.” In other words, her parents will disown her. She will then leave the house, “looking for and following men.” Halima continued:

If the HIV-positive girl is dirty [or her appearance is unkempt] and not feeling fine, a boy might approach her. He will start to wonder if this is the Aisha, or Zainab, or Hajara whom he knew when he was younger. He doubts it is her. She says it is she! He asks her what is wrong with her and what she is doing. He offers to take her to his house. She follows him, takes her bath, eats, and he gives her everything she needs… She will then tell him lies. She will say her parents are dead and she has no one. But this woman will know her HIV status, and he will not know his. She will continue to sleep with him. After some time, she will start looking good again because she is taking proper care of herself. She will go and see other men and spread the virus; all the while, she knows her status.

When women finally find men whom they wish to marry, Halima explained, they hide their status from them. The husband will eventually find out, once she becomes pregnant and the doctors inform him:

The husband will become so happy that his wife is pregnant. Then, the hospital will want to test the wife because of the baby. The husband collects the form and looks at what happened. She lives dangerously. She was sleeping with all kinds of men before he came to marry her. She knows her status.

I probed Halima for more details about the woman above. Did she tell him that she knew she had HIV? Halima surmised that she would never tell him, and he would eventually make her a widow.

As anthropologists have pointed out, sex is always situated within emotional and material entanglements. The resources northern Nigerian women acquire through their relationships allow them to give gifts and loans to family members, who, in turn, should reciprocate these resources when women need them. Women repeatedly told me it is difficult to distinguish between men who are serious from men who are not. Consequently, most women circulate through numerous suitors in search of men who are sincere in their desire to marry and possess the resources to back these claims up. In Nigeria, women often face far greater social sanctions for premarital sexual relations than men. These impressions persist despite the fact that sex is commonly part of an unspoken contract between nonmarried women and their potential husbands. Families may look the other way, particularly if they are anxious for their daughters to wed and rely upon marriages for their own support. Echoing public representations of promiscuous youth, Halima’s narrative depicted a woman who is largely to blame for the consequences of her sexual behavior. While she may have made the gesture to fulfill her obligation to support her family, she appears to disregard religious and cultural ideals surrounding monogamy.

At this point in our interview, Halima confirmed the importance of the material basis of sexual relationships. Moreover, she underlined the precarious positions of poor women who are severed from their family ties. In Nigeria, women today have fewer resources than previous generations while being subject to even more stringent religious expectations of virtue. By emphasizing that HIV precipitates a perception of a moral violation that illuminates women’s tacitly accepted transgressions, Halima revealed a direction that is understudied among scholars of gender, ethics, and health care: an HIV-positive test result unveils a “critical moment” in women’s lives (Han 2012); it is a threatening event, which women acknowledge through concealment to protect their dignity. The extent to which Halima agrees with these moral discourses was unclear to me then, nor did she indicate how this story related to her own experience. This does not mean, however, that she did not have deep emotional stakes in our conversation.

“I Went to a Very Dangerous Life”

As Halima proceeded in her narrative, she began to complicate the moral judgments cast upon HIV-positive women and their sexual lives by changing topics from these women’s sexual transgressions to the effects of men’s adultery on the well-being of their wives and children. Next, she emphasized men’s agency in their choice of sexual partners. Because the woman’s baby from her first husband becomes infected with the virus, Halima explained, “maybe she keeps following men to survive, and these men too have their own wives. Some two, some four, and she, too, has other men by the side. She infects the men, and the men infect their many wives at home.” When the woman’s new boyfriend falls sick, he returns home to his wives and the burden of care falls upon them: “Today he’s sick; tomorrow he is a bit better. He messes himself, and his old wives clean him up and change his clothes. If he doesn’t go to the hospital, he dies at home and leaves behind his wives, family, in-laws, and so on.” Halima’s gaze seemed to wander. She spoke quietly, “So before you pick girls, always think of the family you have at home. He should think well.” Halima then reiterated to me how the man’s entire family contracts the virus.

Halima’s initial illustration of men’s behavior suggested they are powerless in their attraction to beautiful women and are thus not subject to the same moral principles and standards as women, yet Halima’s final statement in this excerpt-in which she steps back to caution the man in the narrative to “think well” before he pursues girlfriends-suggested he is not entirely without power in these sexual decisions. As Halima gained confidence in this interpretation over the course of our discussion, she articulated how the moral imperative of responsible motherhood and wifehood, and to a lesser extent, self-care, trump social taboos surrounding HIV-positive women’s sexual relationships:

You could test your newborn baby. If it is negative, the doctor can continue to give you ideas on how to keep your child from getting sick. If you have the sickness, eat well, don’t think too much, don’t do overly hard work, keep yourself neat, all will be fine. If you don’t have the money, why won’t you work to feed yourself? If not, anything can happen tomorrow. Some people in Nigeria have no house, yet they have plenty of children. They give birth every year, they have no food to eat, and no money for school. If you are sick, what do you do?

Halima’s narrative did two things as she began to create and cement her own ethical subjectivity. First, she echoed her earlier emphasis on the struggles of men’s wives, highlighting how nonmarried HIV-positive women, including married men’s lovers, are engaged in the morally salient efforts to care for themselves and their families. She switched from the vague use of she and he pronominal references, to the impersonal use of the pronoun you. Her first use of you, uttered in the tone of a timid caution, was ostensibly directed to married men, warning them to be mindful of their families before they pursue girlfriends outside their marriage. She began to assume a more assertive voice, as she appeared to be addressing an audience that could refer to her society, more broadly. This impersonal pronoun usage “conveys the theme of generality-particularly a generally admitted truth or a personal opinion that the speaker hopes is shared,” and it can be replaced by an indefinite pronoun, as in English, one, or in Hausa, the impersonal subject pronoun /a/, as in an, aka, ana, ake, and so forth (Laberge and Sankoff 1979:275). Pronoun switches, scholars have argued, are frequently made as a means of identifying membership categories to which the speaker herself is seen to belong. The impersonal you may signify a “structural knowledge description,” in which a speaker relays “what commonly happens in a situation, so that its use indicates that the speaker’s experience embeds them in a wider class of people, that is, that the experience is only incidentally theirs but could be anybody’s” (Stirling and Manderson 2011:1584).

By speaking without specifics, Halima was attempting to transform a story rife with parallels to the popular and religious discourses about the perilous sexual lives of HIV-positive women to that of Everyman and Everywoman. In addition, the increasing frequency of modal auxiliaries in this latter set of statements, including should, could, and can-suggests that Halima is taking an evaluative stance here. Her combination of the use of an impersonal pronoun with modal verbs grounds these statements in the structure of a moral narrative. Specifically, her use of you allowed her to bridge the particular problem of HIV-infected women, who must make difficult decisions about their choice of sexual partners, to a larger social problem of economic hardships that exhaust women of the resources to care for their children. Rather than passively accept these circumstances, she asked, effectively: how could any woman not do everything she can to earn money to support her children when she encounters these situations? Powerful patriarchal ideologies confer greater status upon men who fully provide for their families and married women who remain secluded in their households, but she responded that there is virtue in women’s work (Pittin 2002). This labor is an extension of their maternal responsibility to care for children.

Halima had yet to say anything about her individual experience, but this shift in grammatical person, from the generic he/she to the impersonal you, set up an interpretive frame for me, the addressee, which challenged the ubiquitous stigmatizing narratives about HIV-positive women described above. After posing the question “What do you do?” Halima paused, waiting for a response. I said nothing. She continued:

This is the problem. After my husband died, I left my house for almost five years, and I did all kinds of work: cleaning, selling water, anything to give my children food. I sold bean cakes. I sold food in motor parks on the roadside. I did everything just to get money to feed myself and my children.

Then I replied, “But it’s not enough? “It’s not enough,” she said.

Before my husband died, all things were finished [used up] because he was sick… He was a businessman. All the money was used up on trying to care for him, and he wasn’t strong enough to make more money. We used money to buy food and drugs. The money finished even before he died. After he died, I went to a very dangerous life.

Halima’s transition to the first person, spoken now in the past tense, revealed far more than a simple answer to my initial questions. However ambiguous her language over the course of the interview, she appeared to have been a participant in the stories she had told me from the beginning. She was infected with the virus, but felt fine. She worked hard to eat well, not worry, and “keep herself neat.” She had children and struggled to earn money to feed them. Her first husband, who should have taken care of her children, could not provide for them because his sickness prevented him from working. And currently, as a widow, she had no other options but to pursue jobs many northern Nigerians consider disreputable, such as cooking food by the roadside. These occupations are widely considered precarious, and they are insufficient in providing an income that can support her family’s basic needs. By repeating the phrase “a dangerous life,” she discursively located herself as a member of this group of HIV-positive women, who have sexual partners they rely upon for economic support, even though she did not give me an explicit description of her relationship history.

As a woman and a person infected with HIV, Halima still occupies a marginalized position in northern Nigerian society. However broadly her experiences are shared among men and women alike, the social consequences she faces if her actions become known are far more damaging to her reputation and livelihood than they would be for others. Even as it became increasingly clear to me that she sought to protest the circumstances that exposed her to HIV and denied her the means to protect her children, she confronted the limits of what she could say aloud. Most critically, HIV infected people face severe social, religious, and legal consequences if the public learns they engage in sexual relationships with HIV-negative men without disclosing their status. Indeed, like many women who experience violence, neglect, and abuse in their relationships, Halima was deeply and understandably reluctant to narrate these experiences to me-or to anyone, for that matter. She circumnavigated the potential repercussions of identifying herself as one of these women through her prose. In switching from third, to second, to the first person over the course of our conversation, she made an ethical statement. She said, essentially: These circumstances can happen to anyone. It can happen to you. It happened to me. In doing so, she reworked entrenched and largely taken-for-granted moral discourses about deceitful and undignified women, who are largely to blame for the spread of HIV in Nigeria. In their place, she offers a narrative in which she can present herself as a virtuous subject, who acts as any woman would act.

As researchers conduct interviews involving the collection of personal narratives, our interlocutors simultaneously assess our own knowledge, experience, and the stances we take on particular concerns. Halima’s linguistic cues, identifying claims to both specific and generalized knowledge about how HIV is transmitted, allowed her to assume the position of a witness and the authority that accompanies it while discursively distancing herself from the pain of articulating her own sexual experiences (Stirling and Manderson 2011). In the beginning of the interview, she relayed a narrative that I would undoubtedly recognize, given how widespread these public discourses circulate, and she could read my response to assess whether I might judge her, and women in her position, for the sexual choices they make. In line with John W. Du Bois’s theory of stance (2007), I suspect she was concerned with our intersubjective alignment-that is, the extent to which I might have agreed with the popular and religious sentiments that she referenced-or whether I would empathetically align with her and similarly situated women. This knowledge, in turn, would afford her the option of withdrawing from the interview entirely if she sensed a threat, or of proceeding with caution. She navigated this uncertainty through the strategic use of speech. A similar observation about the difficulty of eliciting first-person coming-of-age narratives from ‘yan daudu in northern Nigeria is that these narratives “are more likely to be recounted in the course of a conversation where they serve to reshape speakers’ social relationships in the immediate interactional setting” (Gaudio 2009:67). As I was clear from the beginning that I wanted to learn from her experiences and share my understanding of northern Nigerian women with others, she likely discerned that this interview provided her not only an opportunity to persuade me of her virtue, but also to impose an implicit ethical obligation onto me, and by extension, onto readers, to rethink how and why women suffer in Nigeria.


An HIV-positive diagnosis, though no longer a death sentence, continues to transform northern Nigerian women’s social lives in fundamental ways. For many women, it precipitates a moral breakdown by exposing taken-for-granted assumptions about their faith, family, intimacy, and body, which are then marked in different ways in women’s narratives (Zigon 2007). Their cultural and religious ideals may be undermined by their acute economic needs and imperiled by overt threats to their social reputations. Women thus work upon different aspects of their lives-their health, their relationships, and their occupations, for example-to protect themselves from the unknowable threats of a public that can abandon, abuse, and discredit them more quickly than a virus that can replicate in their bodies. Halima emphasized how critical her economic support was to her children and parents. She sought a husband who could provide resources and work opportunities to ensure that her duties to her family would be fulfilled. Even as she acknowledged the dangers of entering precarious relationships and occupations, she relentlessly pursued respectability through her comportment within her family life.

Susan Reynolds Whyte (2002), writing about people living with HIV in Uganda, makes a similar connection as she reflects upon scholarship analyzing the grammatical mood in which actors narrate their lives. She quotes Jerome Bruner on “the subjectivising language of narrative,” who states, “to make a story good, it would seem, you must make it somewhat uncertain, somehow open to variant readings” (Bruner 1990:53-54; Good 1994:153, emphasis mine). Likewise, in the beginning of the interview discussed here, Halima offered an open-ended story of a couple whose identity was unknown to me, but whose actions sounded analogous to tropes about the dangerous sexuality of HIV-positive women. Using a third-person voice, she distanced herself from the description she provided, yet still guided me to a conclusion that these tropes do not typically reach. Subjunctivity—the mood of doubt, hope, will, and potential—is a quality not just of narratives, but also of individuals’ lives: “When people are negotiating uncertainty and possibility, subjunctivity is an aspect of subjectivity” (Whyte 2002:175). In other words, the subjunctive is not only a grammatical mood, expressed in language: it can be productively applied to describe how HIV-positive people think, act, and relate with others as they look toward a future contoured by an array of medical, material, moral, and epistemic uncertainties.

My interpretation of Halima’s interview thus advances a broader body of scholarship, which focuses on narratives as a means through which people clarify, reinforce, or revise what they morally believe and value, as well as generate new meanings, coherence, and mutual understanding in their lives (Lambek 2010; Zigon 2012). These speech acts enable individuals to take a stance on a particular set of concerns, and thus constitute their identities as moral subjects (Ricoeur 1992). By moving from a third-person account to a firsthand experience, Halima sought to lend credibility to her argument. She could not, or chose not to, detail the sexual decisions she had made to secure support for herself and her children, instead establishing and prolonging the ambiguity between her past behavior and her present situation, yet her narrative clearly reveals what is at stake in these transactions. Her ability to “tell but not tell” hints at her personal struggles-and at how speech itself can be used as a means of social and ethical engagement.

This analysis contributes to anthropological efforts to demonstrate how Muslims in marginalized social positions selectively appropriate dominant discourses-and remain silent in the face of others-to carry out particular social goals. Northern Nigerian women live in a context characterized by strict religious, political, and kinship ideologies surrounding virtuous personhood. These dominant and dominating discourses often malign nonmarried women, and their economic activities are disregarded. Such symbolic acts of exclusion are reflected in and reinforced by language (Pittin 2002). In many respects, Halima’s stories, dilemmas, and fears resemble those many women face, regardless of their HIV status. She desired a dignified marriage with a supportive husband, but knew she must work, given the instability of these marital ties. Even as HIV-positive women are shamed into silence-stigmatized both because they are infected with the virus and because they are not married-they remain steadfastly committed to cultivating and displaying their virtue. Halima, through her spoken and unspoken testimony, expressed her anger, sense of violation, and powerlessness, at the same time that she offered a profound illustration of women’s agency amid these formidable structural constraints.