Battle Between the Stone & the Tree: Sharia & Women in Nigeria

From Women’s E News, an excerpt from  “Your Fatwa Doesn’t Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism by Karima Bennoune.  In this excerpt Bennoune explains how externally imposed economic policies  have fueled fundamentalism and the use of Sharia law which is often applied selectively in gendered and class inequalities.

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.

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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.”

Mixed Response

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.”

Continue reading “Fighting Back” on Women’s E News