A court’s decision to execute a woman for adultery has fueled controversy over Nigeria’s version of Islamic justice. Now an influential Islamic body hopes to stop the country’s planned ratification of numerous U.N. conventions protecting human rights.
Sokoto, Nigeria (WOMENSENEWS)–An Islamic court will decide the fate of a woman sentenced to death by stoning for committing adultery when it hears her appeal today.
Safiya Huseini, a 35-year-old divorcee from a poor village in northern Nigeria, was convicted last fall by a local Islamic court on the basis of her pregnancy. Her lawyer, Abdulkadir Imam Ibrahim, is expected to defend her before the appeals court using an obscure tenet of Islamic law that holds that an embryo can "sleep" for years before swelling a woman’s belly.
Ibrahim will argue that Huseini’s daughter Adama, the prime evidence in the case, was fathered by Huseini’s ex-husband during their marriage, which ended two years before she gave birth. In her previous trial, Huseini claimed she had been raped, but these new grounds of appeal are thought more likely to save her life.
"You have to fight them on their own turf," said Ruud Peters, an expert in Islamic law at the University of Amsterdam and the originator of the strategy.
Huseini’s case has focused international attention on Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north, where an Islamic surge has led many states to introduce hard-line, religious criminal codes. Activists have struggled to find a place for women’s rights in the new order; while few argue that the Islamic, or Sharia, law should be repealed, some hope to temper it in its implementation.
"The interpretation of the law needs to be progressive, so that women’s rights are not denied them," said Mufuliat Fijabi, a devout Muslim who studies Sharia law for Baobab, a Lagos-based human rights organization.
It’s not an argument hard-liners are likely to accept, however. On March 11, the Supreme Council for Sharia, a nongovernmental group, launched a campaign to stop ratification of several U.N. human rights conventions on the grounds that they are contrary to Muslim values. Although Nigeria has signed the treaties–which outlaw gender discrimination, torture and child abuse–ratification is not complete until Parliament has passed laws giving the treaties legal backing as statutes.
The U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women has been ratified by 168 countries, including every industrialized nation except the United States.
The council objects to the convention on women on the grounds it would eliminate religious beliefs such as polygamy, thereby giving women "full and unfettered equality with men." The council said moves by President Olusegun Obasanjo to get Parliament to back the conventions covering human rights issues were part of a "plot to destabilize our country through the United Nations’ covert campaign against Islam."
Only Women Have Been Charged With Adultery
Nigeria’s northern Muslims have long used Islamic courts for family law, but it was only in 2000, as decades of military rule yielded to a civilian regime, that states began introducing religious penal codes. While many in Nigeria’s Christian and animist southern half are wary of the law, Sharia is extremely popular in the Muslim north, where it is seen as a symbol of religious identity in this oil-rich–yet poor, populous and fractured–country.
Since the first governor introduced the Islamic laws, one out of three states has adopted the Sharia criminal code, usually in response to public pressure.
"Islam envisages a community that is morally, religiously and ethically a sound one," said Mansur Ibrahim Sa’id, one of the drafters of the criminal code in Huseini’s home state of Sokoto and the dean of the faculty of law at the state’s Usmanu Danfodiyo University. Crimes of drinking, fornication and adultery carry stiff penalties because they degrade the moral environment, potentially leading others along similar paths, he said.
Because adultery is one of the more serious crimes under Nigeria’s brand of Islamic law, it carries an unusually high standard of proof. In the absence of a confession, which may be retracted up until the time of execution, four reliable witnesses must testify to having witnessed penetration of a woman. The only other allowable evidence, pregnancy, requires the woman to prove extenuating circumstances. A rape victim must prove she was attacked and may be subject to harsh punishments for defamation if she cannot.
While in theory this high burden of proof protects both men and women from baseless accusations, the application of the law has prompted charges of gender bias. Since Sokoto introduced Sharia law last year, four women have been charged with adultery–all because they were pregnant.
Thus far, only Huseini has been declared guilty of adultery, but another pregnant woman was convicted of the lesser crime of fornication, or sex before marriage, and sentenced to one year in prison. Women in other states have also been found guilty and lashed.
Though men in Nigeria readily brag about their mistresses, not a single one has been charged with adultery.
Reports of Violence, Discrimination against Women on the Rise
"The way the law is written only women will ever be convicted of fornication or adultery, and it will be mostly the poor who don’t have access to sex education or abortions," said Sanusi L. Sanusi, a moderate Muslim who supported the introduction of Sharia but opposes its current implementation.
"We are living in a time when we can also prove paternity beyond a reasonable doubt," he added.
Sharia has also begun to trickle down into the social sphere. Islamic vigilantes have attacked areas where prostitutes work. And while the new laws are not supposed to apply to non-Muslims, Zamfara state requires its female employees to cover up regardless of religion. A bylaw there also prohibits women from riding motorcycle taxis or sharing mass transportation with men.
"There are smaller buses for them, but most times there are not enough," Fijabi said.
The topic of Sharia is a highly charged one and its opponents are subject to charges of being anti-Islamic. Applying too much pressure can backfire. Last year in Zamfara, a pregnant 17-year-old girl, Bariya Ibrahim Magazu, was found guilty of pre-marital sex and sentenced to 100 lashes. When nongovernmental groups ramped up pressure to free the girl, the government immediately carried out the sentence, ignoring a promised appeal process. The local authorities said they wanted to put an end to the controversy.
Instead of tackling the issue head on, Baobab, the women’s rights organization, is urging others to tread carefully and is arguing for a modernized interpretation of the Koran.
"The law should not necessarily revolve around women as if they are evil-doers in the society," Fijabi said. "After all, women participated in politics during the lifetime of the prophet."
Stephan Faris is a freelance reporter based in Lagos, Nigeria.
For more information:
Human Rights Watch
"Nigeria: Woman Sentenced to Death Under Sharia":
A database of African newspapers. Please sarch "Safiya Huseini" as well as
"Safiya Hussaini Tungar-Tudu":
Women to Press for Changes in Global Development Plans
MONTERREY, Mexico (WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s organizations coming from all over the world are prepared to lobby a world conference here for dramatic changes in how development is financed.
More than 50 heads of states–among them U.S. President George W. Bush, Mexican President Vicente Fox and French President Jacques Chirac–will convene at the U.N. International Conference on Financing for Development, getting underway today. This summit has raised great expectation since it is the first time representatives of non-government organizations, the business sector, international financial institutions, government officials and heads of states have sat down at the same table to discuss this issue.
More than 2,000 representatives of organizations from over 40 countries met last week here at their own conference called "Global Forum: Financing the Right to Sustainable Equitable Development." This meeting, in preparatio for the summit, was organized by three Mexican women’s associations: the Women’s Eyes on the Multilaterals Latin American Campaign, the Mexican Coordination of Women’s NGOs For a Feminist Millennium and the Latin American Network-Women Transforming the Economy. NGO is an acronym for non-governmental organization.
Financing for development is a women’s issue because 70 percent of the poor are women, said Laura Frade, coordinator of the Women’s Eyes on the Multilaterals Campaign and member of the Global Forum’s Mexican Organizing Committee.
The women’s organizations agreed they would lobby at the U.N. forum for more participation of developing countries and non-governmental organizations in economic policymaking, including the actions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The women’s groups would also press for the developed nations to live up to their pledges to provide 0.7 percent of their Gross National Products to assist the development of poorest countries and the establishment of taxes on capital transactions to finance development.
Despite their efforts, the leaders of many of the women’s organizations expressed concern that the final declaration of the Monterrey summit would be disappointing.
Still,Frade said, "We are the vanguard, we are the hope. We will never let it die."
The women’s forum closed yesterday with a "miniskirt" march to denounce sexist and economic "fundamentalism."–Laurence Pantin