Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Nigeria's Sharia Law

Human Rights Watch has published a report criticizing the effects of the introduction of sharia as the law in northern Nigeria:

The adoption of strict Islamic law in 12 predominantly Muslim states in northern Nigeria was mainly done for cheap political gain, but it has resulted in the systematic violation of citizens' fundamental human rights, subjecting women to unfair discrimination, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday.

The New York-based group said in a 111-page report titled 'Political Sharia'h: Human Rights and Islamic Law in Northern Nigeria' that some of the religious zeal that came with the adoption of the legal code from 2000 onwards has waned. But it said that the human rights abuses that came with the introduction of Sharia'h have remained.

Its findings were swiftly rejected by Nigerian supporters of Sharia'h law as western propaganda against Islam.

Yakubu Ali, a judicial official in Sokoto State, the first state to order a convict to be stoned to death for adultery in 2001, said: "Westerners have never liked Islam and we don't expect them to praise sharia'h."

This is the problem in a nutshell: How to discuss the oppression of women that has a religious basis without seeming to criticize that religion or all religions? The literalist interpretations would argue that this cannot be done. If the text states that women are unequal to men, then this is the truth.

All the holy books of the major religions contain snippets that can be used to argue such a case. At the same time, they also contain opposing snippets which appear to assume that the sexes are equal. Maybe we should point this out to the literalists who imply that debate on these questions is not allowed?

In any case, the current application of sharia in Nigeria is not equal across the sexes. Women are more likely to be found guilty of adultery than men:

Women have faced particular discrimination under sharia'h, especially in adultery cases where mere pregnancy is considered adequate evidence of guilt and allegations of rape are hardly ever investigated by judges, the report said.

This situation left male defendants with undue advantages, since Sharia'h rules of evidence require that four witnesses must have seen the man committing adultery or rape.

It is unlikely that most rapes would have four witnesses (do they have to be male witnesses?), and this rule alone will make women much more likely to be found guilty of adultery.

The effects of sharia are different on women and men even in less serious cases:

The report cites restrictions that have been placed on women's daily lives reminiscent of Taliban restrictions on Afghan women including their freedoms of movement, dress, and right to associate with others. According to HRW, some state governments have introduced measures not codified in law to limit women's freedom of movement and association. For example, in some states measures were implemented preventing men and women from being seen together in public. The hisbah, a group given responsibility to make sure Sharia law has been enforced, were found to pull women out of taxis if the driver is male. There were even cases of drivers being flogged for carrying female passengers. By 2003, HRW reports that these measures have been enforced less stringently, however, there are still cases of taxi drivers refusing to carry females in the Zamfara State.

The inequality here applies to other aspects of life than just being punished for crimes; in fact, to all of life.

I wish the major religions were more interested in the actual meaning of their holy texts, not the literal interpretation of rules written for a very different society.