The ‘Yan Daudu’ dilemma: Navigating a pre-Islamic queer identity in modern Nigeria

A feminine-presenting man in a village in northern Nigeria. Illustration by Minority Africa, used with permission.

This story was originally published by Minority Africa in collaboration with FairPlanet, and a shorter version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

After years of openly presenting himself as a woman, 32-year-old Adamu finds himself at a pivotal moment as he prepares to marry a woman.

“I believe it is the right thing to do as a man,” he says about his forthcoming wedding.

Adamu first started presenting himself as a woman during his teenage years. His early life dressing like a woman started in Ture, his grandmother’s village in Kano State, in northern Nigeria, where his family relocated after his father’s death.

Like many communal households, Adamu’s grandmother’s home was crowded with relatives, most of whom were women with children who lacked support from their husbands and fathers.

Initially, Adamu’s interaction with femininity involved quietly watching the women in his family engage in traditional feminine activities. As he matured, his fascination deepened, shifting from mere observation to genuine enjoyment as he spent more time with his aunts, styling hair and cooking.

Over time, he learned these skills and began to adopt his aunts’ mannerisms, he says. Even in social circles, Adamu naturally gravitated towards women. Most of his friends were female, and through their companionship and support, Adamu felt comfortable enough to express himself openly for the first time.

“When my friends were invited to weddings, I’d follow them and make-up with them as a woman.” This led him to his first career as a make-up artist. “Some women gave me the job of doing make-up on them, dressing them up for occasions like weddings and all that.”

Working at weddings allowed Adamu the freedom to express his femininity. Most times, after completing his duties as a make-up artist, he would adorn himself with jewellery, apply make-up, and enthusiastically join the festivities. Each event he worked at solidified his identity as a Yan Daudu in the eyes of society.

Yan Daudu, translating to “Sons of Daudu” in English, refers to feminine men within the Hausa society, an ethnic group in the northern settlement of Nigeria. The term originates from a historical queer community that predates Islamic influence in northern Nigeria.

Some interpretations of Yan Daudu portray them as transgender without a formal sex change. While this theory may not be universally accepted, it is a fact that they exhibit feminine mannerisms and possess an astute sense of women's style. According to Adamu, in northern Nigeria, their sense of style is even believed to surpass that of women.

“When women in the north are getting married, they like to invite or hire Yan Daudu to help out with the outfits and make-up for their weddings,” Adamu says. “They feel the men do a better job than women, so we get paid well for jobs like that.”

Beyond exhibiting feminine mannerisms, Yan Daudu are also known for their attraction to men. Although Adamu identified as a Yan Daudu early on, he didn't realize he was gay until after university, years after his first open presentation as a woman. “It wasn’t until after I completed university that I fully realised I was gay. I was never given the title of Yan Daudu; I gave it to myself because I had realised that that was what I wanted in my life.”

On discovering his identity, Adamu gained support and acceptance from his family, thanks in part to his upbringing in a household with women who understood his interests. Another small feat that also aided his family’s acceptance of his sexuality was financial security.

“My family does not have a problem with my identity because I make money and support them. None of them calls me names, insults me or calls me Yan Daudu.”

Adamu’s journey as a Yan Daudu truly blossomed after he departed from Kano State. Following his graduation, he left Kano in search of greener pastures. His journey took him through brief stays in Kaduna, Maiduguri, and Abuja before he eventually settled in Lagos.

In Lagos, Adamu faced problems related to his identity for the first time.

“When I was in Kano, Abuja, Kaduna, and Maiduguri, I never had any problems. Here in Lagos, people like looking down on me because of the kind of things (presenting feminine) I do, but I don’t mind them. I’ll keep doing my things and making my money.”

Despite Sharia law being practised in northern Nigeria, where men who dress like women can be imprisoned for a year, Adamu adds that being familiar with and having personal relationships with people while growing up influenced how well he was accepted.

“It’s only in Lagos that I keep my way of life a secret to others. People in the north treat me differently because I grew up with them, and I’ve known them all my life,” he says. “I just came to Lagos, and people here don’t know me that well.”

In contrast to the prevalent hostility towards queer individuals in most parts of Nigeria, it was evident from the reaction of Adamu's community during weddings that there was no overt negative response to his expression.

“Being gay is not frowned upon in Kano; everyone knows or will eventually know about it, and it’s not a problem.”

This acceptance extends not only to his immediate community but also to northerners he encountered in religious settings.

While the general treatment of Yan Daudu in the north may outwardly appear receptive, a closer look reveals that in Hausa society, Yan Daudus are treated in a nuanced way that separates sexuality from gender. There’s a prevailing belief that sexuality is viewed more as an act than a defining characteristic of an individual’s identity.

This perspective influences how relationships with men are defined within this cultural context. When Adamu discusses his partners, his tone shows a noticeable distance. He refrains from openly expressing love or discussing whether he misses them, suggesting a complex interplay between societal expectations, personal identity, and the relationships within the Hausa community.

After a decade in Lagos, the acceptance of Adamu’s identity took a strange turn.

“My mother said I should get married to a woman,” he says. “I am not being forced to marry, and neither am I doing it because of my mother. I believe it is the right thing to do as a man, and in Islam religion, a man is supposed to get married. My parents are not forcing me; I want to do it to act as a normal man.”

Yan Daudu marrying women is, indeed, a common practice. This occurrence is not isolated but rather emblematic of a troubling marriage culture where Yan Daudus marry women to fulfil societal expectations of masculinity.

For some Yan Daudus, marriage doesn’t alter their identity. Even though they may continue their way of life, their marriage doesn’t change this aspect. The women they marry are often aware of their partner’s lifestyle and choose to proceed with the marriage.

Adamu explains, “The lady I’m going to get married to already knows about my way of life, so it’s not a secret.”

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