Western feminists are often challenged by gendered cultural practices such as female circumcision, arranged marriage and sentences like public lashing or stoning for women. This often leads to a situation where defenders of women’s rights feel like they have to choose “between colonial interference and callous indifference.”
BAOBAB, a Nigerian non-governmental organisation (NGO), uses Sharia law to assist Nigerian women and is a wonderful example of how women’s rights can be actualised by drawing on the local culture itself, without appealing to external Western human rights norms.
In 1993 the Women Living under Muslim Laws (WLUML) network began a three year research project in Nigeria, in which various aspects of Muslim law and women’s rights in Nigeria were examined. In 1996 the project came to an end after it produced an abundance of research. This research indicated that many women in Northern Nigeria experience human rights restrictions and are unable to defend their rights because of a lack of resources, both in terms of knowledge about their rights and in terms of access to legal resources, such as lawyers. BAOBAB was consequently established to raise awareness about women’s rights in Nigeria, to conduct research and to provide information to women about their rights.
In 2000, BAOBAB extended their activities to provide legal defense and support to women who were unfairly charged under Sharia penal codes in Nigeria, and they have since extended these services to minors of both sexes.
Most of the women’s cases BAOBAB takes on are appeals against sentences of lashing or stoning for charges of ‘zina’ (unlawful sexual activity). The most well-known case has been that of Amina Lawal, who was charged with zina on 15 January 2002 and was sentenced to death by public stoning. BAOBAB provided the resources to appeal the case and she was acquitted in September 2003. What is significant about BAOBAB’s appeal of Amina Lawal’s and other similar cases, is that this NGO lodges appeals within the Sharia legal system and does not resort to external, non-Muslim, non-Sharia or outright Western human rights standards.
Laws and the human rights approach
BAOBAB’s use of Sharia law in appeal cases is not the NGO’s only option. They could also appeal to general Nigerian law or to the numerous international human rights agreements that Nigeria is a signatory of.
Despite having alternative legal routes by which to make appeals, BAOBAB has pursued this process through Sharia law – a route less popular with the international community, who perceive this system of law to be frozen in time and closed to debate. S.V. Barrow, for instance, wrote that: “In Islam, these punishments are the will of God as expressed in the Qur’an. As such, no human being can question this authority without risking social ostracism or a possible death sentence for heresy. Thus, violations continue unfettered.”
BAOBAB chooses to work with Sharia law in order to work directly with Muslim communities in Northern Nigeria. In 2000, the case of Bariya Ibrahim Magazuu, a 13 year old girl who was sentenced to 180 lashes in public for zina and for providing false testimony received substantial support from NGOs in the global North. The local governor dismissed the international groups and their opinions because they were not Muslim and their opinions were not based in Sharia law. He however agreed to entertain appeals from BAOBAB that originated within Sharia law.
Through this approach, BAOBAB was able to convince the trial judge to drop the sentence to only 100 lashes and to postpone the sentencing until after she had finished breast feeding, which would give BAOBAB an extra year to continue the appeal process. Unfortunately, her sentence was brought forward, with only one day’s notice and she received the 100 lashes. It is suspected that the sudden imposition of the sentence was a response to the pressure from international human rights groups and that the local authority was reasserting power over the community.
Although many of their cases are still pending and appeal processes remain lengthy, BAOBAB has experienced impressive success by making appeals through Sharia law and they have had charges reversed on all the appeal cases they have handled to completion. If nothing else, let this NGO’s achievements inspire us and show that ‘culture’ is not an impenetrable static force, but rather a very fluid, dynamic asset available to utilise for the improvement of women’s lives.
By Katherine Furman
Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI)
Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI) is a South African-based research and strategy firm with a focus on social, health, political and economic trends and developments in Africa. CAI releases a wide range of African-focused discussion papers on a regular basis, produces various fortnightly and monthly subscription-based reports, and offers clients cutting-edge tailored research services to meet all African-related intelligence needs. For more information, see http://www.consultancyafrica.com.