On January 19, Bariya Ibrahima Magazu, of Zamfara state in northern Nigeria, received 100 lashes for being pregnant and unmarried. Magazu, who doesn’t know if she is 13 or 14, says she was raped by three married men. But she could not prove her case under the state’s recent adoption of Sha’ria, traditional Islamic law based on an interpretation of the Koran. Sha’ria requires any woman alleging rape to produce four upstanding Muslim men who witnessed the violation. But while “upstanding men” are unlikely to sit back and watch, the real problem is that most rapes aren’t committed in public.
The state court sentenced Magazu to 100 lashes for unlawful fornication (zina) and ordered another 80 lashes for her “false” accusations. Numerous appeals from human rights organizations resulted in the reduction of the sentence to 100 lashes.
In January 2000, Zamfara, an arid, semi-desert enclave in this oil-rich country, became the first of ten of Nigeria’s 19 northern states to extend Sha’ria from the civil to the criminal arena. This has resulted in the expansion of Islamic law from the personal realm of marriage, guardianship of children, and inheritance to so-called criminal matters like fornication and false accusation as well as theft and assault.
Versions of Sha’ria vary by state. In ultra-conservative Zamfara, the law is much more restrictive than in cosmopolitan Kano. In the Zamfara state capital of Gusau, a local official gave all unmarried women three months to either get married or lose their jobs. Though this dictate was never implemented, the incident is telling.
“The implication was that all non-married women are promiscuous at best, and prostitutes at worst,” says Ayesha Imam, head of BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights, an activist group based in Lagos that fights for the rights of Nigerian women living under Muslim laws.
Chinonye Obiagwu admits that he and other activists are not expecting to abolish Sha’ria, only to ensure that it doesn’t violate the constitution’s equal rights provisions. “We are trying to sanitize Sha’ria,” he says. “We have no hopes of abolishing it—that’s up to the politicians.” So far, the politicians aren’t budging. Partially because they have the support of many, including the reputed Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations of Nigeria, which essentially supports Sha’ria.
For Nigerian women living under these laws, there are few options, especially if they are married. “Because of women’s economic disempowerment, many women fully rely on their husbands,” says Obiagwu. “The majority of Muslim women simply have to live with these laws. If they protest, they will be detained or killed.” Some unmarried women have been fleeing to the Christian South, but this migration has only been a trickle. “It’s really the poor Nigerian Muslim women who have been most affected by the passage of Sha’ria,” says Annie Brisibe, president of Niger Delta Women for Justice, a rural women’s empowerment organization based in the South. “They have nowhere to turn. Wealthy women don’t understand their concerns, and the government refuses to act because of the country’s Christian/Muslim divide.”
Meanwhile, President Obasanjo has been unwilling to speak out against Sha’ria or propose that its constitutionality be resolved in the courts. A born-again Christian and the first southerner to be elected president in 40 years, the president does not want to incite violence by taking a stand that some may see as anti-Muslim.
But for activists like Ayesha Imam of BAOBAB, discouragement is not in the cards. Imam was once shouted down at a seminar by male Muslims, who stormed the event in droves. But nothing prepared her
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