Women are special and precious to be cherished by all and sundry. Therefore, it suffices to say that all human beings everywhere in the world are entitled to the enjoyment of all the recognized human rights. To deny them to any human being, wherever he or she may be on the face of the earth, is to make life meaningless to him or her. Here in Africa, women are cherished and value, bride price are paid (some family accept bride price and re-give it back to the man that paid but it must be paid and accepted as a sign of honour and dignity of the African woman) and we live with it and sing with it “My Woman My Everything’.
Non-compliance with the internationally-recognized human rights norms is therefore perpetrated under the justification on the ground of religion and culture. The most flagrant of such infractions can be found in Muslim countries, particularly those states that have been formally declared Islamic. Gambia, etc
I want to briefly examine the human rights of women in such countries as an illustration of the sort of psychological scars and socio economic harm that is, and can be done, in the name of religion and culture.
Sharia law is the body of Islamic rules and teachings that governs Muslims’ relationships with their families, society, and nation. Sharia law derives from eleven Islamic references, primarily the Quran, the Muslim scripture revealed to the Prophet Mohamed, and the prophetic tradition, i.e., the recorded words and actions of Prophet Muhammad that mainly illustrate and explain the Quran. Sharia law regulates public life, namely interactions between individuals. These interactions can be categorized into three domains: Islamic political governance of the state, the Islamic legal system, and the economic system.
The vast majority of Islamic scholars believed Islam to be a religion and a state, meaning that Islam should regulate government and public life, while also serving as a religion. However, some voices began to argue that Islam serves only as a religion and should not be involved in governing; such ideas were unprecedented in Islamic history. Most prominent in this respect was the 1925 publication of the renowned book Islam and Fundamentals of Political Power by Ali Abdel Razek, a Sharia law judge and graduate of Al-Azhar University, who studied briefly at the University of Oxford
In many Muslim countries the Sharia principles have been replaced by European laws in commercial, criminal and constitutional matters. But a lot of other matters, particularly family and inheritance issues have continued to be regulated by the Sharia. In recent years there have been mounting demands by different countries for the application of alloyed Sharia. Success has been achieved in a few places such as Iran, Sudan and Pakistan
Numerous Sharia principles are rather harsh and discriminatory, particularly against women, and are therefore contrary to human rights norms. A Muslim is guilty of the apostasy if he directly or indirectly renounces his Muslim faith and this carries the death penalty. Non-Muslims are not entitled to full citizenship in an Islamic state and cannot therefore enjoy the rights granted by the Sharia. These are certainly against the freedom of religion and the right to equality of treatment.
Women are however subjected to more telling discriminatory treatment. A man has a right, which is denied to a woman, to marry four wives. He can divorce his wife by will by declaring to her, “You are divorce”, but the wife must go through judicial process in order to divorce the husband. A woman is not a competent witness in serious criminal cases irrespective of her character or her knowledge of the fact in issue. In civil cases where a woman’s testimony is accepted the testimony of two women is equivalent to that of a single man. A woman cannot contract her own marriage. She has to act through a male guardian. She cannot be a guardian to another woman, even if she is her daughter. If she marries against the wish of her guardian the latter can annul the marriage.
According to chapter 4, verse 34 of the Qur’an, men have Qawama over women, because of their physical advantage over women and because men spend their property supporting them. The Sharia interpretation of this verse of the Quran is that, as a group, men are guardians of women and are superior to them as a group. Men of a particular family are the guardians of, and superior to, the women of that family. Corollary women are not qualified to hold public office which would involve the exercise of authority over men.
The notion of Al-hi jab (the veil) requires women to cover their bodies and faces in public. This practice has many implications. It implies that they are supposed to stay at home and not to leave it unless there is an urgent necessity and when they do, they must cover their faces and bodies. But a woman is not allowed to travel alone. She must be accompanied by her husband or a close relation who cannot marry her, for example, her father, brother or uncle.
NIGERIA as a case study: Sometimes in June 2017, a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Senator Bukar Ibrahim of Yobe East was allegedly caught in a sex scandal, video clips in circulation to the general public, and his best response was to flippantly dismiss the incident by acting genuinely surprised that anyone could take him up on his private morals. If a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria does not understand that his alleged sex romp with two girls has to do with public interest, then what does he understand? A whole Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria goes to a seedy “short time” hotel with two women to have allegedly illicit sex. One of the women brought out her smartphone, claiming she wanted to light up the darkened room but was, in fact, recording the senator putting on his trousers. Somehow, through it all, the senator did not have enough wit to suspect she could be filming him (particularly as he is a public official). If he was that clueless and lacking circumspection, then how competent can he be as a senator?
As he has now been reminded, Ibrahim was the governor who introduced Sharia law in Yobe State. His counterpart in Zamfara State, Sani Yerima, had earlier introduced Sharia law in his state and gained a tremendous amount of popularity among the local folks as a result. Yerima, a political opportunist, had exploited the vulnerability, disenchantment, and disillusionment of his state populace to impose Sharia law on them. With Sharia, Yerima racked up a huge amount of political capital that turned him into a modern-day Jihad crusader. His counterparts in other northern states, seeing how popular Yerima had become, quickly joined him in dangling Sharia law before the poor religious-opiated souls of their states. One of them was the then Governor Ibrahim of Yobe State, the senator whose indiscretion has now outed him as a false apostle of the religious law he introduced.
In 2000, while the controversy over the introduction of Sharia raged and Christian minorities in northern Nigeria were genuinely worried that Sharia, with its draconian and medieval dictates, would lead to religious oppression and harassment, the Sharia proponents, on the other hand, argued that Sharia was the only solution to the various economic and social problems confronting northern states. They claimed Sharia would regulate morality, improve accountability of public officials to the citizenry (thereby reducing corruption), and guarantee an equitable distribution of resources in the society. Almost two decades later, that promised utopia has yet to come. In truth, Sharia was never supposed to bring social reforms. Instead, it was a means for the northern political elite to appeal to the lowest common denominator among their rustic rural base.
While it lasted, however, Sharia generated a lot of ruckuses both locally and internationally. Long before the Chibok girls’ abduction brought global attention to Nigeria and shone the torchlight on the ineptitude of the previous administration, Sharia was the bane of Nigeria in international circles. In 2001, a Sharia court sentenced a woman in Sokoto, Safiya Hussaini Tungar Tudu, to death for adultery after having a child while not being married. She was arrested by the Sharia police and taken through a sham trial that already pronounced her guilty before she was even tried. A year later, another Sharia court in Katsina State also sentenced another woman, Amina Lawal, to death for adultery. The case of the two women became an international sensation and a dilemma for Nigeria, a country that harboured a tolerance of medieval barbarism in the 21st century.
A decade and a half later, one of the front-line actors in the Sharia drama was now caught (and shortly after Ramadan too!) in a sex scandal and what does he say? “This is a personal, private matter. What does my having been with a girl have to do with the public?… Is it because I am a public official, then I am not supposed to be entitled to private life?” If there is anything more jarring than this senator’s hypocrisy, it is the seeming unawareness of the irony of his unreflected statement of self-justification. Did it ever occur to the senator that the two women Hussaini and Lawal – who were sentenced to death under Sharia law were private citizens who were far more entitled to a private sexual affair than he, as a public official, does? The women had their privacy grossly invaded by misogynists who peddle a fake religious morality, but he thinks he is entitled to a private life?
Has the arrogant and indiscreet senator ever stopped to ask himself why those who were convicted of sex-based crimes under the Sharia law he helped introduce have been mostly women, and the economically and socially disprivileged class? Why are men like him – those with class and status – never paraded in public for their private sins? It cannot be that they are sinless, can it? Senator Ibrahim’s partner in shame, Senator Yerima, mixes and matches both the Nigerian Constitution and Sharia whenever he needs to give vent to his basal desires, but somehow, he has never been subjected to trial under Sharia law. Why? He never sins?
Both Yerima and Ibrahim are political predators who understand at least one thing: nothing can suspend class war and momentarily bridge class differences in Nigeria than a public spectacle of religious rituals. That is why former President Goodluck Jonathan suspended governance and ran from church to church to kneel before pastors for prayer. That is why, while in the throes of his corruption battle, Senate President Bukola Saraki shared photos of himself in a religious garb in Saudi Arabia. That is why ailing President Muhammadu Buhari who could not make the Federal Executive Council meeting would appear at the National Mosque for Jumat. That is why the Daddy pastors who run elite private schools for the children of the privileged, and who have never raised their voices to protest the falling standards in public schools (where the children of the poor are only able to attend) are now the most strident voices in the campaign against Arabic Studies. They suddenly remember that the minds of those poor children are a battleground that must be claimed, not to prepare the children for a competitive life in the 21st century but to guarantee their docility enough to be continuously shepherded by the “men of God.” Religion is never about private convictions; it is a weapon of manipulation of the simple-minded folks who are beseeching an indifferent God to change their existential realities. The political elite who wield Sharia and religious facade know the people may as well be waiting for Godot. In the meantime, however, they keep them distracted with religiosity.
On Senator Ibrahim, the end is quite predictable. We know that despite his casual admission that he was the one in the video with the two women, his Sharia trial will never take off. It is not because Sharia is dead in Nigeria (in 2016 and 2015, they still sentenced people to death in Kano for the sin of blasphemy) but because class and status afford men like Ibrahim immunity against their hypocrisy. The senator can afford to buy scholars who will dig into religious books to find clauses that vindicate him.
Most people, when accused of adultery, tend to deny it and deflect the accusation with counter-accusations. The almost casual way Senator Ibrahim admitted he was guilty as charged says everything one needs to know about the thinking of those who make laws – religious and political – for the rest of us. The senator knows he will not be taken up on his sins and no Sharia court will bother to subject him to either trial or subsequent stoning. He knows that laws in Nigeria, whether based on Sharia or the constitution, are for the poor and the voiceless. They are the ones who are compelled to obey and obedience, mind you, does not guarantee they will still not be ensnared by the law. The real crime under Sharia is not sin and immorality; it is poverty and the many disadvantages it brings.
Account should be taken of the current social, economic and political circumstances. In that connection, there should be adaptations of some verses and rejection of some obsolete ones having regard to the demands of the present age. It should be possible to abolish the guardianship over women and remove every feature of inequality of women or discrimination against them as a matter of Islamic law.
It is therefore my submission that the universal nature of human rights standards cannot honestly and validly be assailed on the ground of culture. If cultural practices are so immoral or oppressive that they debase the humanity and dignity of the individuals, they must be overridden by the human rights norms. No rational individual can now, on the ground of culture, religion support, for example, human trafficking, modern slavery-child labour or discrimination merely on the ground of sex, race, religion or ethnic origin.