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The "Miss World" Riots, A Stoning Sentence, and theConflict Between Religious and Secular Law in Nigeria


Thursday, Dec. 05, 2002

This Saturday, in London, the Miss World Pageant will be held - after a highly publicized last minute change in venue from Abuja, Nigeria's capital. The change followed a spate of violent riots in Nigeria last month, which tragically left over 200 people dead.

An inflammatory newspaper editorial is reported to have sparked the riots. The writer suggested that had Mohammed been alive today, he would probably have selected a wife from among the pageant contestants. Yet the conflict is best understood within a much larger social, political, and legal context.

More broadly, the pageant found itself a flashpoint in an ongoing debate about questions of women's position in the Nigerian social order. Its scantily clad women parading around in swimsuits made a strange - and, to some, offensive - juxtaposition with the modesty of many Muslim women in Nigeria.

And more broadly, the pageant's worldview clashed sharply with the increasingly Muslim fundamentalist worldview that is evolving in northern Nigeria. There, women convicted of adultery have been sentenced to death by stoning.

Religion and Politics: A Christian's Election Causes Violence

This is not a new conflict for Nigeria, though the Miss World Pageant's flight has drawn attention to it.

Nigeria is largely evenly divided between Muslims and non-Muslims, with Muslims residing mostly in the north. In 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo, a progressive Christian from the south, was elected President of Nigeria. Previously, the predominantly Muslim population in northern Nigeria had dominated Nigerian politics.

Obasanjo's election has touched off communal violence among the country's more than 120 million inhabitants. (Nigeria is the most populous African nation.) Since 1999, fighting between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria has taken some 10,000 lives.

In addition, and ironically, the election of the progressive Obasanjo - who has taken pro-human rights and women's rights stances - has coincided with the rise of Muslim religious fundamentalism in northern Nigeria.

Shari'a Law versus Nigerian Civil and Criminal Law

Until 2000, the jurisdiction of the Islamic Shari'a courts was limited to family or personal law cases. But by the end of 2000, 12 northern states had adopted expanded versions of Shari'a law, many including some of the strictest versions of Shari'a criminal law. The laws are troublingly similar to those imposed by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In addition, a number of Nigerian states have now sanctioned private vigilante groups to enforce Shari'a law. Some of these groups have been granted the power to arrest, detain, and prosecute Muslim offenders.

The expansion of Shari'a law, and of the mechanisms for its enforcement, in these states is certainly political. This has been one way for leaders in this region to regain authority and to embarrass President Obasanjo, who has not been able to deal effectively with the expanded Shari'a law.

Indeed, the rise of Shari'a law has led to a legal gray area in which it is not clear whether Nigerian public law, local Shari'a law, or both apply. (Pakistan and Malaysia, which have also seen the expansion of Shari'a law, face similar issues.)

Conduct in the public sphere is clearly governed by Nigerian public law. But what about private conduct - including human rights violations - that is done in the name of religious or customary law?

The Tragic Case of Amina Lawal, Who Faces Stoning For Adultery

Consider the recent spate of pronouncements by Shari'a courts - such as those sentencing people to stoning for adultery and amputation for theft. The most internationally publicized case is that of a 31-year-old woman, Amina Lawal.

Lawal was sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery. Her execution is set by the court to take place as soon as her baby is weaned, or by 2004, whichever is sooner.

Late this summer, her sentence was upheld by a Shari'a court. Now she will become a test case for the question of which law - Shari'a law, or Nigerian public law - trumps. Currently, Lawal is awaiting a date to be set for her next appeal.

Nigeria's Christian President Equivocates on the Status of Shari'a Law

Meanwhile, President Obasanjo has sent conflicting message on the status of Shari'a law.

On one hand, he has made appeals to the international community stating that no one--including Lawal--will be put to death on Nigerian soil under his rule, and suggesting that stoning violates the Nigerian constitution.

On the other hand, he has, at the same time, endorsed the expansion of Shari'a criminal law. Specifically, he has claimed that Shari'a "has always been part of our law" and "is not a new thing in our constitution."

Indeed, the President's response to the pageant riots was that Christians need to be more tolerant and respectful of Muslim religious values. Clearly, Obasanjo knows he must appeal to Muslim voters to stay in power, especially with presidential, general and state elections around the corner in 2003.

In this context, human rights groups fear Obasanjo's promises cannot be taken at face value. They worry that, unless Lawal's appeals succeed, she may indeed be executed in accordance with the lower court's decision. The fact that the national government has not once intervened in, or overturned, a Shari'a court ruling suggests that these fears are not unwarranted.

Why Women Need Equality Within the Private, Religious Sphere Too

The resolution of the conflict between Shari'a law and Nigerian public law will be particularly momentous for women and the poor.

As Farida Shaheed, Asia office coordinator of the transnational human rights network Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) has written, "whenever the coexistence of multiple legal systems provides an option on the same issue, all too frequently the one least favorable to women is the one that is implemented."

The Nigerian constitution is progressive on women's issues. Yet under repressive customary and religious laws, women face discrimination - and such laws are not only tolerated but expressly allowed under the constitution. The upshot is that despite formal progressiveness, discrimination is frequently the norm.

Accordingly, many women's human rights activists in the Muslim world--such as those working with WLUML--have made the recognition of equality and autonomy rights within the private, religious sphere a crucial issue. They recognize that establishing women's rights in the public sphere is only part of the battle.

Rights Within Religion: Why Religion Must Not Be A Law-Free Zone

National and international law should follow their emphasis, and confront the problem of growing religious and customary laws and their increasing threat to the human rights of everyone, especially women.

The key is that whatever the applicable law - be it public or private, religious or customary, or all of these together - that law must meet national and international human rights standards. In Nigeria, national laws require equal rights for women, a right to be free from cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment, and a right to a fair trial. That means stoning for adultery cannot occur - and Lawal's sentence must be reversed.

Similarly, Nigeria is also a state party to several international human rights treaties, including the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ICCPR prescribes that the death penalty may only be imposed for "the most serious crimes," and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has interpreted that to mean "intentional crimes with lethal or extremely grave consequences." The death penalty, it has made clear, is "not to be imposed for non-violent acts." Again, under international, as well as Nigerian national law, Lawal's sentence cannot stand.

Allowing Religious Laws To Continue, But Requiring Them to Honor Human Rights

Simply stated, religious exemptions from human rights norms should not be acceptable. At the same time, religious laws need not always be rejected outright, in favor of secular ones. Such laws can be important, especially in nations with large religious and ethnic minorities.

The important point is that all laws, whatever their source, must conform to national and international human rights standards. Such a rule will help guarantee the rights not only of non-Muslims, but also of those Muslims who object to the current, harsh versions of Shari'a law.

The imposition of the strictest forms of Shari'a law has been most often criticized for imposing Muslim law on Christians living in northern Nigeria. But what is less remarked upon is that it also imposes upon Muslims a particularly oppressive and archaic version of Islamic law with which many likely disagree.

This version of Islamic law, after all, was rejected in Nigeria - as in many parts of the world - prior to its revival in this century. And its harshness is palpable, and must seem excessive, to many. Like post-Taliban Afghanis, many Nigerians would likely rejoice to see the end of punishments like Lawal's.

In the end, we should strive for a law that recognizes the right to equality and autonomy within the religious sphere, as well as within the public sphere. Human rights demand no less.

Madhavi Sunder is Acting Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis. A graduate of Stanford Law School and Harvard College, she specializes in women's international human rights and intellectual property.

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