How to fight Sharia law? Use Sharia, Muslim lawyer says

How to fight Sharia law? Use Sharia, Muslim lawyer says

Nigerian human rights lawyer Hauwa Ibrahim says Western critics of Sharia law often make it harder for her to defend those who face harsh sentences under the strict interpretation of Islamic law.
Religion News Service photo by Omar Sacirbey.

To many Americans, Sharia, or Islamic law, conjures up images of a vengeful legal system that punishes thievery with amputation and promises death by stoning for alleged adultery.

But as an attorney for those unfortunate enough to be sentenced to these punishments in the Sharia courts of northern Nigeria, Hauwa Ibrahim sees Sharia not as a sword, but a shield.

Ibrahim caught the world's attention in 2002 as the human rights lawyer who rescued Amina Lawal, a poor and illiterate rural woman who bore a child out of wedlock, from a sentence of death by stoning. What's less well known is that she did it using Sharia precepts.

It may seem like an unorthodox legal strategy, but Ibrahim has emerged from her courtroom battles victorious often enough to know that it works. She only wishes supporters, especially those in the West, wouldn't make her job more difficult with what she calls well-meaning but ill-informed attacks against Sharia.

"If you look at the content and context, there is so much good in Sharia," said Ibrahim, from her office at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute, where she has spent the last year researching Sharia defense strategies.

Ibrahim hopes her writings will be used by lawyers tasked with defending clients in a Sharia system, as well as read by Westerners whose preconceptions about Sharia only antagonize the judges and public whom Ibrahim must convince.

Ibrahim, a 42-year-old observant Muslim, knows her clients well. In many ways, she was one of them, raised in a small rural village in Nigeria's Muslim north, where patriarchy and poverty run rampant. She also understands how overwhelmed and powerless they can feel. Ibrahim's father was a mullah, and she was supposed to be married at age 12. But determined to stay in school, Ibrahim financed her own education by hawking roots and vegetables she picked on a nearby mountain.

As one of the few female lawyers in northern Nigeria, Ibrahim is admired by her colleagues but resented by the conservative religious establishment. Her most important work began in 2000 when 12 of Nigeria's 19 provinces instituted Sharia law. Since then, she has defended more then 100 Sharia cases.

Inside the male-dominated Sharia courts, Ibrahim and her team often face a hostile environment, including accusations that she is trying to undermine Islam.

"The common accusation against us is that we are anti-Islam, anti-Sharia, and anti our culture and values," said Ibrahim. "We are not anti-Islam. If anything, we are just trying to insure that there is justice, and that there is fairness in the administration of that justice."

While Ibrahim appreciates the international outcry that such cases arouse - Oprah Winfrey's advocacy on Lawal's behalf generated 1.2 million e-mails sent to the Nigerian embassy in Washington - she also worries that some Western supporters may politicize the Sharia issue. Statements that offend the judges or anger the public, she said, can in turn jeopardize her clients.

"They don't know how the system works," Ibrahim said of Sharia's critics. "I know the system."

In Lawal's case, rather than confronting the mullahs who were criticizing her, Ibrahim sought them out, wearing a headscarf, and asked their advice on how she could win her client's freedom. While the mullahs did not take her side, her show of respect persuaded them to at least stay on the sidelines.

"She knows there are social forces in her community that she has to take into account, and she was willing to try anything to get the right result," said Asifa Qureshi, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School who specializes in Islamic law.

In 2003, some 16 months after the case began, a Sharia appeals court overturned Lawal's conviction. The court ruled that - contrary to Sharia law - Lawal's confession was improperly obtained, that not enough judges were present at the original trial, and that she was not caught in the act of sex out of wedlock.

The harsh penalties that have been attributed to Sharia, such as the stoning death last November of a 13-year-old Somali girl accused of adultery, occur because court officials are often uneducated about Sharia law, or do not properly follow it.

For example, Ibrahim said, those judging adultery cases are supposed to be "pure" themselves, yet some judges are known philanderers. For Sharia law to properly function, Ibrahim said, its practitioners must return to the compassion and fairness that are at the roots of Islam.

"Sharia can work, but we must ensure that all those norms of respect for the rights of life, for dignity, for Islam, are all incorporated," she said.

In late July, Ibrahim is scheduled to return to Nigeria to defend a couple facing death by stoning for alleged adultery. She plans to come back to Harvard this fall as a visiting scholar at the law school.

In the meantime, Ibrahim is exploring new strategies that she says give greater emphasis to the Quran and less to the Hadith, the collected sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. For example, while some Hadith may vaguely suggest stoning for adultery, the Quran clearly proscribes flogging.

"If the Quran is clear about whether you flog an adulterer," she said, "don't complicate the matter. Don't introduce a Hadith to interpret what that section of the Quran says."

Despite her faith in justice, Ibrahim acknowledges that the situation for women in northern Nigeria will only improve if and when men change their attitudes. Ibrahim has tried to foster that change at home, requiring her two young sons to cook, clean and wash their socks by hand, even though their Massachusetts home has a washing machine.

"I have tried as a mother," she said, "to help them see the world from a realistic point of view." 

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