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Nigeria: A ritual by the name of "isiku" that a widow is subjected to upon the death of her husband

Publisher Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Author Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada
Publication Date 4 May 2000
Citation / Document Symbol NGA34292.E
Reference 2
Cite as Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Nigeria: A ritual by the name of "isiku" that a widow is subjected to upon the death of her husband, 4 May 2000, NGA34292.E, available at: [accessed 20 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

No information on a ritual by the name of "isiku" could be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate.

However, several sources provide information on rituals that a widow is subjected to upon the death of her husband. These rituals include drinking the water that was used to wash the husband's corpse, the shaving of the widow's hair, sleeping on the ground without a blanket for a month and a week, wearing the same garments for a year, sitting on the ground motionless for a specified period of time, eating only with the unwashed left hand, and fasting (The News 30 Nov. 1999; WIN News 30 Apr. 1999; IPS 30 Dec. 1998; Baltimore Afro-American 27 Nov. 1998; Headway 28 Feb. 1999; Post Express 8 July 1999). The widow's drinking of the bathing-water of her husband's corpse is a ceremony of self-exculpation whereby it is believed the widow will die if she was blameworthy for her husband's death (ibid.; Baltimore Afro-American 27 Nov. 1998; IPS 30 Dec. 1998; WIN News 30 Apr. 1999). According to an article in Headway: "To refuse, or to even wretch while imbibing, would be showing complicity or joy in his death" (28 Feb. 1999).

The practise of these rituals is common to different ethnic groups in Nigeria including peoples in the eastern region of Nigeria, as well as the Yoruba and the Igala (ibid.; IPS 30 Dec. 1998; Baltimore Afro-American 27 Nov. 1998). The Headway article claims that "all 200-plus ethnic groups generally have similar widow rites and customs" (28 Feb. 1999).

The following information is excerpted from a Country Report on Nigeria from the organization "Empowering Widows in Development":

Mourning rites differ between ethnic groups. These practices are imposed on urban as well as rural people. Because it is such a taboo subject, only one NGO has managed to open up discussion and involve its members in collecting information. Even so, although some harmful practices were openly acknowledged, respondents to the survey refrained from speaking of ritual cleansing by sex. The practices are most obnoxious in Eastern Nigeria. They are worse in the ethnic groups which have remained animist, and less horrific in Muslim and Christian groups.

Here are some examples among the Igbo people of the north [sic]:

Drinking the water that the dead husband's body has been washed in for the purpose of proving that the widow is innocent of murder;

Trial by fire as an ordeal to prove innocence of murder;

Shaving of the head. In extreme cases the pubic and armpit hair is removed. "Hair scraping" is a process whereby the hair is scraped from a widow's head with a razor blade: usually in an untidy manner by older widows called the "umuada". The first "scraping" is done immediately after burial, and the second "scraping" after a year of mourning when the hair is burnt with the mourning clothes. Sometimes the "scraping" is done three times, the third time after the ritual cleansing by sex. In Ezeagu the hair is "scraped" as soon as it regrows i.e. as often as once a month throughout the year. The widow looks very ugly and "untidy" and is easily noticed and shunned;

She is untouchable and defiled and so must not receive gifts, pick items up from the floor, or receive a handshake;

She must not speak out or make a noise unless she is required to cry;

Some rites insist the widow must be fed by others and her meals reduced in number;

Scarification (scarring) of face with a knife or razor;

Sleeping with the corpse as a symbolic last sexual act with dead husband;

Sleeping on the bare floor;

Prohibition on bathing. This could last from 28 days to 8 months, even when the widow is menstruating;

Nakedness. Sitting naked to wash in a stream. In Owelle in Awgu after the bathe, the widows' clothes and shaved hair are burnt and she must return home naked. (At this time she is vulnerable to rape). This is called the "naked walk" and part of the ritual cleansing (see below). She may have to repeat this walk one year later. The Uzo-Uwani widows stay naked for 3 months with hands covering the breasts. In Igbo-Etiti the cloth she wears for 28 days is washed at night and she must stay naked until it dries;

Obligation to wear a black dress for many weeks. (Some churches have substituted white for black) In the Oji River area the period is for 3 months but it may be much longer;

Restrictions on movement. Widow is prohibited from leaving the home for 28 days. She cannot go to work, or meet people, fetch water, cook, go to market or farm;

The widow must weep for long hours even when she does not feel able to;

Chewing a bitter nut "kola";

Eating off unwashed dishes and plates for the duration of mourning, from 28 days to three months;

Sitting for long hours on the floor for many days to demonstrate her "dethronement". Sometimes her hands are padded so she cannot scratch herself;

Sexual relations with family members, brothers-in-law, father-in-law to "cleanse" the widow of evil spirits. This ritual cleansing is the most taboo of all subjects. Its purpose is to sever the links between the living and the dead (n.d.).

Another description is provided by a Nigerian "gender researcher and writer as well as a frontline member of many women's Non Governmental Organizations":

"Among the Yoruba in Lagos State, the people of Ijora town have a three-month official mourning ...a widow is, by custom, not allowed to remove or change her clothes until the end of the mourning period. She is traditionally required to have a clean shave of her hair. The culture of making the widow as dirty and ugly looking as possible is seen to run through the various tribes in Nigeria," Ms. Okoye said (Baltimore Afro-American 27 Nov. 1998).

A Nigerian woman described some of the rites surrounding her becoming a widow:

The day after the burial, she began the mandatory rites of mourning as demanded by the customs of her clan in Edo State. She cut her prized long hair very low, festooned herself in black and for the first seven days, sat on the bare floor, without a decent bath. As expected, she cried her eyes out, intermittently howling the name of her late husband. At meal times, she was not permitted to use her right hand and she could only eat with the unwashed left.

As she told The News, "I wouldn't have liked to go through all this but I was told there was nothing I could do about it. If I had refused, they (my in- laws) might think I probably contributed to his death. But I was a bit lucky because my (Catholic church) parish priest objected to my observing some of the rites although some people insisted that there were some I couldn't do without" (The News 30 Nov. 1999).

This newspaper also recounted the story of another Nigerian woman:

Charlotte whose late husband was from a very prominent family and was an employee of a multi-national oil company, Shell. When the man died, his widow was made to cross his corpse (for her protection and that of their five children, she was told), shave her hair and sit by the fire-place for a couple of days. Shell, exercising a duty of care, somehow 'smuggled' her out of the village and away from a long-drawn period of mourning (ibid.)

The article in Headway recounts:

She is shaved of her body hair – head, underarm, pubic – and is expected to sit alone, sleep on the floor, not bathe, not change her sack-like clothing, neither shop nor cook. She may eat only the meager food brought to her and is not permitted to participate in any of the activities surrounding her husband's funeral. After days or even months of isolation and shunning, an organized gang rape ends her period of mourning and marks the beginning of her availability to enter into relations with other men. (Men, on the other hand, generally face only the head-shaving ritual that is standard in the death of any close relative.) (28 Feb. 1999).

Several sources stated that it is other women who perform these rites (The News 30 Nov. 1999; Post Express 8 July 1999; Headway 28 Feb. 1999) and that the rites are compulsory (ibid.; IPS 30 Dec. 1998; The News 30 Nov. 1999; WIN News 30 Apr. 1999). Some stated that the rituals are followed because of the woman's ignorance and a fear of what might happen if she refuses (ibid.; IPS 30 Dec. 1998; The News 30 Nov. 1999). According to Headway: "The terror a widowed Nigerian woman faces has little to do with the couple's ethnic group, their educational level or whether they live in the largest, modern cities or the poorest village"(28 Feb. 1999). A Nigerian professor of law related that "one superstition that holds women from excerising their rights is the belief that if they do not practice their tradition, this might mean the death of a male child" (IPS 30 Dec. 1998).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum. Please find below the list of additional sources consulted in researching this Information Request.

Baltimore Afro-American. 27 November 1998. Dorothy S. Boulware. "Third World Widowhood Rituals Devastating." (The Ethnic NewsWatch/NEXIS)

Empowering Widows in Development, London, U.K. n.d. "Country Report: Nigeria." [Accessed 4 May 2000]

Headway. 28 February 1999. Deborah Burstion Donbraye. "To be a widow in Nigeria …" (The Ethnic NewsWatch/NEXIS)

Inter Press Service (IPS). 30 December 1998. Remi Oyo. "Rights-Nigeria: Widows Tortured in the Name of Tradition." (NEXIS)

The News [Lagos]. 30 November 1999. Dotun Adekanmbi. "Nigeria; Tears for the Living." (Africa News/NEXIS)

Post Express [Lagos]. 8 July 1999. "Affairs of the Heart; Woman to Woman: Circle of Distrust and Cruelty." [Accessed 4 May 2000]

WIN News. 30 April 1999. "Reports From Around the World: Africa and the Middle East: Widows Tortured in Nigeria in the Name of Tradition." (GenderWatch/NEXIS)

Additional Sources Consulted

IRB databases


World News Connection (WNC)

Internet sites including:

Mail and Guardian [Johannesburg].

Nigeria Media Monitor

Nigeria News Network

Post Express [Lagos].

Search engines including:

Copyright notice: This document is published with the permission of the copyright holder and producer Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The original version of this document may be found on the offical website of the IRB at Documents earlier than 2003 may be found only on Refworld.

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