Debate rages over women and Sharia

By Jane Little
Religious affairs correspondent

Amina Lawal

Lawal’s case is being watched closely across the world

Stoning for adultery and the introduction of vice and virtue squads were hallmarks of Afghanistan’s Taleban regime. Now the debate over Islamic law is raging globally, among Muslim women’s groups alarmed by cases in Nigeria and Pakistan.

“I believe in the justice of God. So if justice is not done to me here on earth it will be done in the hereafter,” says Amina Lawal.

Ms Lawal, divorced mother-of-three, retains a strong faith in her Islamic religion, even though she has become what many see as a victim of Islamic law.

She was sentenced to death in March 2002 by a Sharia court in northern Nigeria. Her crime was getting pregnant out of wedlock. The man has not been charged. But she is now appealing against being buried up to her neck and stoned to death.

Last week, her second appeal against the sentence was adjourned. It will be heard at a later date. Her case has provoked international outcry and cast the spotlight on what many see as the barbaric and discriminatory penal codes in Islamic law. Or the interpretation of Islamic law.

There are four schools of Islamic law and the one in northern Nigeria – the Maliki one – is particularly strict.

Dawud Noibi, a Nigerian scholar of Islamic law, says: “The provisions of the law are such that rather than being punitive, it is a deterrent, it’s meant to be a deterrent.”

He adds that the law encourages repentance which will attract forgiveness from God.

We do not have in modern times any state which has introduced Sharia and has been able to respect women’s rights
Ziba Mir Hosseini

But human rights groups say that is not how it is being implemented in northern Nigeria. At the same time they fear that the government of North-West Frontier Province in Pakistan, which is implementing Sharia, will violate the rights of women. Are there real grounds for concern?

According to a human rights report in Pakistan, of 1,800 women in jail, 80% are there for so-called “huddud” offences.

Huddud is the part of Islamic law dealing with punishments for crimes such as “illegal sex” – or sex outside marriage. There is no equivalent number of men in jail for the same offences, which raises the question: who are these women having sex with?

But is Islamic law inherently mysogynistic? No, it is the men who interpret it, say a growing number of Islamic women’s networks, which are hitting back at those they say are abusing the law for their own political ends.

The law, which is regarded as sacred, is based on the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet. It does outlaw “zina” or illegal sex, but to prove such sex has taken place is, according to the classical texts, almost impossible.

It requires four witnesses – often interpreted to mean four male witnesses – to the sexual act. So that in practice should mean that few end up in court for such an offence.

A woman waits for her son outside a Taleban vice and virtue office

The Taleban enforced Islamic law with vice and virtue squads

According to Zainah Anwar of Malaysian advocacy group Sisters in Islam, this law was intended originally to protect a woman’s reputation against slander, but it is being distorted.

“What was particularly outrageous in the law was that a woman who reports she has been raped will be charged for slanderous accusation and flogged 80 lashes if she is unable to prove the rape,” she says.

“Under the huddud law you have to produce four pious male Muslim eyewitnesses in order to prove illicit sex has taken place and it’s impossible.”

Perversely, if there were four witnesses to a rape, they would have been accessories to the crime.

Justice and equality

Ziba Mir Hosseini, author of Islam and Gender, says: “We do not have in modern times any state which has introduced Sharia and has been able to respect women’s rights.”

She says nowhere does the punishment of stoning appear in the Koran. She adds that pre-modern interpretations of the Sharia, which often have a heavy overlay of cultural prejudices, are not in keeping with the spirit of Islam, which is about justice and equality.

So what is the answer? For some it is to get rid of patriarchal structures and allow women to act as jurists.

But in the meantime, Amina Lawal in Nigeria has to hope that the non-Islamic appeal court will overturn her conviction. In her culture, the shame will be more difficult to remove.


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