Credit: Courtesy of Ayesha Imam
(WOMENSENEWS)–“The baobab connotes spiritual strength . . . and fortitude . . . in distressing times.”
Ayesha Imam and the women she worked with for years in the Nigerian organization BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights possess those very traits. The group, founded in 1996, fights to protect women’s rights in the maze of the Nigerian legal system, with its overlapping religious, secular and customary laws and courts.
Imam tells me they use tools from whichever system can “recuperate rights,” believing it is often possible to arrive at similar conclusions by working through Muslim discourses or international human rights. “My issue,” she underscores, “is not where you come from, but where you arrive at.”
With her colleagues, she tried to “deconstruct what is Sharia (Muslim laws). How does it get to be Sharia? Is it divine or is it merely religious?” In the ’80s and early ’90s, some of the Sharia courts in Nigeria had come up with “what we may call progressive” interpretations, “as opposed to following somebody’s idea of how it should have worked in 13th-century Arabia.” Imam’s efforts to support women living under these Muslim laws brought her, inevitably, to work on fundamentalism.
“Fundamentalism hit us in Nigeria so it was absolutely necessary, because otherwise fundamentalism was going to close us all down, close all the dreams down, close all the hope down,” she says.
The backdrop for this, a resurgence of communalism, was sparked in part by the harsh impact of structural adjustment and ensuing battles for resources. Structural adjustment–economic reforms imposed on Nigeria by international financial institutions–also meant there were many unemployed, uneducated young men looking for something to do. For them, “this was an opportunity to have power and assert themselves,” as Imam sees it. “They told women in taxis and buses that they had to sit in the back seats.” There was “general intimidation.”
This in turn led to greater emphasis on Sharia in Muslim majority segments of the population in the late ’90s in the north of Nigeria, and then to enactment of new legislation in the early 2000s. “The reaction among the Muslim community was really mixed. Human rights workers and those who identify strongly as democrats argued that we need secular law. The laws being brought in under the guise of Muslim laws are conservative, and detract from human rights.” Even some religious conservatives opposed Sharianization, Imam recalls, on the grounds that you could not have Sharia before you have economic development so that people can actually live good lives.
According to their worldview, “You can’t cut off people’s hands for theft if they have no other means of gaining a livelihood.”
Any such opponents, however, became targets of “vigilante responses.” Death threats, beatings, threats of being burned. In one state where the governor delayed enacting a Sharia Act and set up a committee to study the matter, there were even threats to his family. Imam recalls attending a meeting in Abuja with the governor who started Sharianization. Young men throughout the hall were telling women where they could and could not sit. “Every time a woman got up to speak, they were yelling and drowning her out. It didn’t matter if you were wearing a hijab or not.” This was new, Imam underlines. When she was a younger feminist, “You didn’t get shouted down. You were not in fear of being physically attacked, or being burned or harassed. You’d go to public meetings and people would get up and argue with you and they might laugh.”
As fundamentalism began to transform Nigerian lives, Imam and BAOBAB became involved in the cases of women who were facing sentences of stoning. One of the first, that of Fatima Usman, ensued when the woman’s father took the man who fathered her baby to court to get child support. “He had no idea he was going to set up his own daughter for the possibility of being stoned to death.” (Today Usman remains technically out on bail, as the case has never been finally resolved. Nor, thankfully, has the sentence been carried out.) Most such cases began with vigilante groups forcing the police to prosecute and ended in “lots of people convicted of Zina [unlawful sexual relations] and whipped because they were not married.” If people do not appeal, they are taken out and whipped right away, Imam laments. “It was really important to establish the principle that you can appeal. It’s your right.
“It’s not anti-God to appeal.”
However, it was difficult to rally victims of such prosecutions to fight back. “They thought, as Muslims, if they were charged under Muslim laws, they could not defend themselves. It would be tantamount to arguing with God.”
I had heard those words before.
While working on the case of a 13-year-old mentally disabled girl, Bariya Magazu, who had been charged with Zina and faced public whipping, Imam’s team had to spend a week in the girl’s village “arguing with her father, her family head and the village head that it was not impious to file an appeal under Sharia law.” This is what law as sacrament does to people.
Though Imam succeeded in convincing Bariya’s family members, while the appeal was being filed the nonliterate teenage villager who had just given birth was whipped publicly for the sex she had been coerced to have. “Afterwards,” Imam wrote in an outraged statement for BAOBAB, “humiliated, bruised, crying and in pain, she was left to make her way home alone.” Imam points out to me: “The dominant ideology is that good women are secluded, so to be whipped in public view is a really horrible disgrace.”
Imam was also involved in efforts to defend Amina Lawal, a Nigerian woman famously sentenced to stoning for adultery in 2002 (and later acquitted). Imam was critical of parts of the Western response to the case, which ignored women’s rights advocates on the ground. Some Western advocates asked for a pardon, which was neither possible nor politically feasible. Local activists instead chose legal appeals that would immediately stay execution.
“If you don’t have an appeal, they can take action and you might win the principle, but it’s a little late for the person involved,” she says. Another reason the local women’s rights defenders opposed pardons is that, “technically, you are saying, ‘Yes, we did wrong, but please forgive us anyway.’ The point we wanted to make was that there hadn’t been any wrongdoing.”
The women of BAOBAB also raised money to support defendants who were unable to earn a living while being prosecuted: “Having to hop off to court all the time, they can’t work in the fields, they can’t go sell their stuff.” Worse still, “the stress of it is horrendous.” So the activists try to offer the psychological support needed to overcome the defendants’ feelings that they are challenging their own religion. BAOBAB’s contribution was “to make it known that you could fight and you could win. The more we did that, the more people were willing to fight against it and the less people felt like, ‘I am a Muslim, I cannot criticize’.”
Every one of the Sharianization stoning sentences has been successfully appealed with the support of women’s human rights defenders, resulting in acquittals (or nonperformance of sentence, as in Usman’s case), and there have reportedly been no new cases since Lawal’s acquittal, though the laws remain on the books. In the battle between stone and tree, it is the BAOBAB that has prevailed.
Excerpted from “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism” by Karima Bennoune. Copyright © 2013 by Karima Bennoune. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.
Karima Bennoune is a professor at the UC Davis School of Law and sits on the board of the network of Women Living Under Muslim Laws. “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism,” her first book, is based on nearly 300 interviews she conducted with people from almost 30 Muslim majority countries, and recounts their stories of resistance to fundamentalism.
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