Belief

Lost in the Hajj stampede was a pioneering journalist who united Christians and Muslims

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Hajia Bilkisu Yusuf sits with former first lady, Laura Bush, at the National Center for Women's Development in Abuja, Nigeria, January 2006.

Hajia Bilkisu Yusuf sits with former first lady, Laura Bush, at the National Center for Women's Development in Abuja, Nigeria, January 2006.

Credit:

Charles Dharapak/ AP

In the crush of the Hajj crowd in Mina, Saudi Arabia last week, Nigeria lost a pioneering journalist and prominent women's rights activist.

Hajiya Bilkisu Yusuf was beloved in West Africa and beyond for breaking down social barriers. She'd worked as an editor at three national Nigerian newspapers since the 1980s, in an era when the country's deeply patriarchal society was especially suspect of  women's achievements.  

"She was like a role model," says Aisha Yolah, a newspaper columnist who, like Yusuf, is from the northern Nigerian state of Kano. "She was part of this movement that really captured my imagination." 

Yolah is not the only young Muslim woman Yusuf has inspired. She founded an array of NGOs dedicated to advancing equality, especially in Nigeria's largely Muslim north.

"You were compelled to listen to her," Yolah says. "It's a question of being able to define yourself without being boxed in to any stereotype that is easily set aside or pushed aside. She broke barriers across social and religious boundaries." 

Darren Kew of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, also knew Yusuf. 

"As soon as she started talking you understood you were in the presence of a really powerful person, who could really move people and make them see a way forward when none was apparent," says Kew, who directs the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development. 

Yusuf advocated on behalf of the missing Chibok girls — the teens kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014. Decades earlier, she founded one of northern Nigeria's first women's groups and led an association of Nigerian Muslim women that Kew says "opened the doors for women's political mobilization in northern Nigeria." 

She'll be remembered for uniting Christians and Muslims.

"She felt that Islam demanded that people try to reach across these religious divides and build bridges between Muslims and Christians," he says. 

Yusuf didn't always defy convention. Like others in devout Muslim circles in northern Nigeria, she observed rules like those that forbid men and women from shaking one another's hands. But one acquaintance described her as "a woman who could decline to shake a man's hand without offending him." 

Kew agrees. 

"Hajiya Bilkisu had a way of doing it that you still felt deeply respected," he remembers. "She would sort of nod her head and almost bow to you in a way that said, 'You know I'm very grateful that you want to shake my hand, but it's just not something that my religion allows.'" 

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