Amina Lawal was not smiling. She didn’t even meet my gaze when we finally met, after more than a month of planning, on the footpath outside the mud-hewn home in rural Nigeria she shares with her parents. Lawal’s patrolling eyes were animated with vigilance, not welcome, and certainly not the overwhelming relief which I’d expected to find in the face of a woman whose scheduled execution sparked outrage around the globe and was eventually overturned – live, on CNN. As the world now knows, this quiet and beautiful 31-year-old had an affair out of wedlock, leading a religious court to sentence her to an ancient punishment: she was to be buried up to her neck in sand and pummeled with stones until she was dead. Her execution date had been stayed until the baby girl she conceived in that tryst was weaned, upon her second birthday early this year.
But despite her high-profile legal victory, Lawal has little to celebrate. Her appeal did not overturn the archaic laws recently adopted throughout her country based on Sharia, a centuries-old interpretation of Islam. Adultery is still a capital offense. Perhaps a dozen other women (and at least one man) await execution for similar infractions. No one has yet been stoned in Nigeria, but throughout the Islamic world – in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere, where Sharia codes are being swept into laws – a growing number of women accused of sexual sins have been killed and perhaps as many as several dozen await execution, caning, whipping, or other ancient punishments.
Muslim scholars see the trend toward Sharia as the latest front in the battle between modern Western secularism and a hardening desire in developing countries to defend the old ways. “Amina Lawal’s case and others like it have become a metaphor for traditional societies, which are feeling a sense of being under siege by the process of globalization,” says Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. In reaction, some Islamic leaders have turned back the clocks to the seventh century, embracing strict mores from a bygone era, he says. “That’s a cop out. They have to move ahead and adapt the Sharia to the 21st century. Because at the heart of the Sharia is the notion of compassion and justice. To me, a case like Amina Lawal shows precisely the opposite – a lack of compassion, and a lack of justice.”
For Lawal, the cruel ramifications continue today. Some zealous members of Lawal’s community have refused to recognize the court’s turnaround, and still call for her death by stoning. As a result, her life remains imperiled. “If enough of the conservatives can wind up public opinion, they then take law into their own hands,” one of her advocates from the Nigerian women’s rights group Baobab, a woman named Ayesha Imam, told me. “That is what worries us.”
She has spent only a few days in her home since winning her freedom. Rather she and her young daughter pass their days in a safe house in Abuja, the country’s capital city five hours away on a pitted and dangerous highway, as the guests of a feminist group called Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative. She may have to leave her village for good, a prospect that has aggravated a burning ulcer which demands constant attention with medication and frequent sips of milk.
She was only back in Kurami now on a brief two-day visit because her oldest daughter had contracted malaria and had been hospitalized. Her arrival had not gone unnoticed. As she exchanged words with her attorney in her native tribal language, Hausa, a small crowd of young men had begun to form, their curiosity heightened by the rare presence of two westerners, myself and the photographer Susan Meiselas, both white. “We can not talk here,” the lawyer then told me, taking my arm. “It is not advisable to draw too much attention.” Looking around I saw that throughout the village, from behind mud doorways and the shadows of mango trees, scores of suspicious eyes were focused on us. The attorney, Aliyu Musa Yawuri, steered us toward a car. Amina slid in, clutching her 2-year-old daughter to her side. “Let us find a quiet place,” he said. “Amina does not feel comfortable discussing her case, especially with others listening. It is not good to draw too much attention.”
We drove past the edge of the village and huddled in the shade of an abandoned gas station. Even there, she did not feel free to say too much about her past, and only addressed her future wistfully. “I would like to get married again,” she half-whispered through an interpreter, “to get a good husband for my family, my children.” That seemed unlikely now, with her notoriety, she admitted. But she tried to cling to hope. As a devout Muslim, she believes her life’s course was set in stone on the day she was conceived; her fate, she believes, is entirely in the hands of Allah. Whatever happens to her next, good or bad, will please him, she believes; this thought gives her some comfort. “All I need in this ordeal is patience,” she said. “Everything that has a beginning will certainly have an end.”
The beginning, for Lawal, dates to the hot African day thirty-one years ago when she was born in her family’s dirt-floor home, somewhere near the end of a line of thirteen children. She is forgivably weak on her specific birth order – high infant mortality rates and short life spans have left her with just three surviving siblings. Though her early years were not easy ones, she remembers being a happy child. Lawal’s father, a farmer from the Housa tribe which dominates this part of West African, died when she was still very young. She can’t recall playing games with other children. She found enjoyment by making games out of her household chores and the market errands her mother had her run. “It was a normal childhood,” she says, smiling.
Little was expected of rural girls then. Her parents never enrolled her in school, though her brothers enjoyed public education in the state-run schools in the mornings, and religious study in the parallel schools in the afternoons. She never learned to read or write. But her favorite pastime was leafing through her brother’s copy of the Koran – or Qur’an, to use the more proper transliteration – and contemplating the mysteries it contained. Like all young girls in her village, she followed the Islamic rite called “hijab” in which Muslim women “draw their outer garments around them,” as the Qur’an commands. This was interpreted in Kurami as calling for little more than a scarf to cover their hair. (Hijab in Arab countries like Afghanistan generally requires women to cover every inch of flesh, even their faces. But in Nigeria, where tribal tradition coexists with religious mandate, it is not uncommon to stumble on the incongruous sight of a woman wearing such headdresses but nothing to cover her breasts.)
In keeping with her faith, Lawal was forced to take her first husband, a man selected by her father, when she was just 14. Under Sharia, she “ought not to reject her father’s choice,” her lawyer explained, and few young women do. Lawal accepted the inevitability of this arrangement. She says she remembers little about that time, not even the date or duration of the marriage, which produced three children, except that it began during one military dictatorship and ended during another. The marriage was polygamous – Muslim men in Nigerian may have four wives at any given time. Divorce, common in Nigeria, is usually occasioned when the husband wishes to make room in his harem to add another bride, as was the case when Amina’s unhappy marriage came to an end.
Remarkably, she does not seem bitter. Instead she had adopted a stoicism that is both admirable and perplexing. Her life, she believes, is an inexorable march of events she can not change. “I have always believed that God will do what is best for me,” Amina told me. “Even before a person is conceived in the mother’s womb, Allah has already written on a tablet the events that will happen in her life.”
She subsequently remarried, temporarily joining a man in his 60s and his various other spouses in Kuna, the largest city in Nigeria’s northern states and one of the oldest metropolises in Africa. This marriage ended three years ago when she took ill and he divorced her to save the cost of medical care, she said. She returned with her children to stay in the home her mother shares with her stepfather, stepbrother, and his family. Their mud-walled compound has three rooms, an outdoor kitchen, and a sun-baked garden – but no running water or electricity.
Shortly after arriving home, Amina Lawal caught the eye of an earnest young man named Yahaya Mahmud, employed by day to collect taxes from commercial buses as they enter the main street. In the evenings, he cultivated a plot of land. He was in an unhappy marriage himself – after eight years, his wife had given birth three times, but none of the progeny had lived. He wanted a child. But Lawal’s grace, more than her apparent fertility, won him over.
“I fell in love with her immediately. It was just love from the heart,” he once told a reporter.
During their courtship, which lasted eleven months, Muhmud paid Lawal visits in the compound outside her family’s home. He gave her small amounts of money, and promised to take her as his second wife. But without fanfare or explanation, Mahmud suddenly called off the wedding. He has since moved and could not be located, but more than a year ago he told the New York Times his decision was largely financial. “I just didn’t have the means to sustain the relationship. I knew I could not feed her if I married her.”
“Amina believed he was sincere,” her attorney, Aliyu Musa Yawuri, told me. “She was brokenhearted when he went back on his promise.”
Her grief turned to fear when she found herself pregnant, a fact that soon became evident to her family. In her village, a child born out of wedlock was viewed more as a financial problem than a moral one – her relatives were loathe to support another baby. A brother confronted her. She admitted the obvious, but said the child belonged to her former husband. This explanation did not win much credence since the two had been separated by many miles for almost a year, and the fact that he had never fathered a child despite many marriages further undermined her explanation.
Ultimately, Lawal acknowledged her affair with Yahaya Mahmud.
On her behalf, relatives had Mahmud arraigned before the village chief, seeking financial support for the expected baby. “The young man agreed,” Yawuri, the lawyer, explained. “He even gave some money for the traditional naming rituals,” a ceremony which takes place a week after the baby’s birth. “It was a small amount, enough to buy firewood to enable the woman and the child to take a hot-water bath.”
Lawal delivered a delicate little girl in January 2002, and seven days later named her Wasila, which in Arabic means a vehicle for getting close to Allah. Her dream for Wasila was that her life would be easier than her own, hopefully including a chance to study in secular as well as religious schools. “Amina is somebody who loves education,” said her friend and advocate, Mariam Imhanobe, a WRAPA lawyer. “She always says, ‘If you are educated, you are armed.’ She appreciates that there are women like her who are powerful.”
Lawal objected to the inequity, but the judge snapped at her to be quiet; the baby she carried in her arms, he declared, was proof of her own guilt. He sentenced Lawal to the only punishment contemplated in the Sharia code, saying: “Take her from here and stone her to death.” He stayed the execution, however, until she weaned her child, traditionally on her second birthday.
She wept as men from her village rose up their voices to chant Allahu Akbar, God is Greatest. Certain that she was destined to leave Wasila an orphan, she made her way home to await her execution.
“Why? Why?” she lamented, according to an interview she gave to the British Guardian shortly afterward. “Why is it they hate like this? What have I done which makes me the sinner? Where is the man who made my baby?”
Every major human rights organization has condemned such sentences as violating international law. Amnesty International, which opposes all death penalty laws, considers Sharia’s adultery provisions not just outrageous, but discriminatory – women, not men, carry its burdens. “There is no protection whatsoever for women the way Sharia is being applied,” says Stephane Mikala, the lead campaigner on all the Nigeria cases from Amnesty International’s London office. “The fact is, it is predominantly women from impoverished backgrounds that are being targeted. How many rich people have you seen being dragged before a Sharia court of justice? None.”
This wasn’t always the case. Sharia – an Arabic work that loosely translates as The Islamic Path or Islamic Way – is a collection of Qur’anic edicts compiled alongside the sayings and examples attributed to the Prophet Mohammad, mostly governing family life, according to Isobel Coleman, director of the U.S. Foreign Policy and Women program at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “These aren’t laws exactly, they’re a series of pronouncements over the ages on how to dress, respectable behavior, and what some of the punishments should be when you go outside the line. It has been interpreted very differently in different countries,” she said.
For many centuries, the principals of Sharia have been observed in more than 50 countries as a moral guide, like the Ten Commandments, rather than as a strict code of law. In Nigeria, a parallel Sharia court system has long existed as a place to resolve domestic disputes – often to the advantage of women. “The big, problematic issues for women in Nigeria are all protected in the Sharia – inheritance, child custody, the right to contract and terminate marriage, even reproductive rights,” said Saudatu Mahdi, the secretary of WRAPA, an acronym for Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative, a national agency based in Abuja. On sexual matters, it is in some ways less restrictive than Christianity. A man has a right to sexual relations with his wife, but not without foreplay, which is enshrined in Sharia – ugly children, it says, are the penalty of un-tender intercourse. Sharia allows for abortions in certain medical situations, encourages some forms of family planning, and gives women the right to seek divorce (though unlike men, they must have cause). “If Sharia were accurately enforced, women would have a field day, because no religion has more rights for women than Islam,” Mahdi argued.
Muslim scholars tend to agree that the ancient criminal penalties were never intended to be applied in modern secular societies rich enough to afford prisons and rehabilitation – no different than if modern laws were to enshrine draconian aspects of the Bible, which calls for executing men who sleep with their sisters, daughters-in-law, step-mothers, or pets. But in recent years, as global passions for all varieties of fundamentalist religion have grown, Islamic lawmakers in Africa and the Middle East have been moving Sharia’s influence out of the moral realm into law. Since 1999, twelve northern Nigerian states have adopted Sharia as its formal penal code, effectively putting religious judges rather than magisterial justices in charge of the judiciary. To most of the world, the new measures seem spectacularly cruel and backward. Now, thieves in Nigeria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere are sentenced to fines – and amputations of their hands – even if their pillage is food for the family. The punishment for public drunkenness is 80 lashes with a whip or cane, and those found guilty of practicing witchcraft or renouncing Islam are sentenced to death.
Of special concern have been the stiff Sharia prohibitions on ordinary sexual expression. A married woman caught flirting faces flogging and divorce. Lesbians are handed 60 strokes with a cane, while male homosexual activity is punishable by death (some executions reportedly have been carried out).
But it is the adultery laws that have generated a sustained outcry around the world. As defined in paragraph 128 of the penal code from Katsina State in Nigeria, where Lawal lives, any woman or man who has sex with someone “over whom he has no sexual rights” is guilty of adultery. This is the case whether the suspects are married or divorced. For some reason, people who have never been married who have extramarital sex are considered “fornicators,” not adulterers, and are subject only to 100 lashes.
The verdict came as a total shock. “I was angry and scared when they told me,” she said one hot morning, sitting among a family of small chickens in her father’s yard. Her voice was faint and tentative. An execution date has been stayed, pending an appeal, she explained. In the meantime, she tries to put the whole ordeal out of mind. “When I think about it now, I get nervous. But mostly I feel nothing. I surrender everything to God.”
Luckily, Usman has not encountered the kinds of community hostilities that have hounded Lawal. But life has not been easy since her conviction. Balaraba, the baby girl who was the chief piece of evidence against her and Ibrahim, has died, following a brief and sudden illness. And life in her father’s house is extremely awkward. Acquaintances describe him as excessively controlling and perhaps a little short of sane. Just moments into our interview his difficult personality became apparent when he cut our conversation short and instigated what became a two-hour negotiation for a bribe to allow her to talk and be photographed. Glamour does not usually pay sources for interviews. In this instance, however, we agreed to a sum equal to about $45, a fortune in a country where the average yearly salary is $300. One of Usman’s advocates later said it was unlikely any of that money went to her. The discomfort showed on her face. But with such serious charges hanging over her, she had little choice but to tolerate his ministrations.
When news of Lawal’s sentence was first broadcast over the radio, she too had few options. However, Saudatu Mahdi was in another northern Nigerian village overseeing the case of the first woman sentenced to die under Sharia when she turned on her radio. She immediately headed to Amina Lawal’s village. There, she undertook what she called “an advocacy visit to the key people.” She paid a visit to the local chief, and though he was away from his palace, she announced her presence to his staff, explaining she had come to seek Lawal’s consent for WRAPA’s assistance. Next, Mahdi went to the police headquarters, then to see the offices of the parallel Islamic police force, called Hisbah, each time seeking to forestall suspicions of her mission. “I needed to allay the fear – we are not going to upset the status quo,” she said.
Only then did she make her way to Lawal’s humble home to propose appealing the verdict. She remembers Lawal being immediately eager, but Lawal tells a different story. “I had come to understand that I must leave everything to God. Whatever God did, that was acceptable to me. I had no sense of anxiety – I already knew that I would die on the day Allah decided.”
That may be true, Mahdi allowed, but if WRAPA were to win an appeal, that would mean that Allah had not intended for her to die so quickly. She pointed out the many procedural errors that tainted Lawal’s conviction. Sharia courts are required to have five judges; hers had only one. Defendants are entitled to lawyers; she was not informed of this. Four eye-witnesses are required for an adultery conviction; in this case there were none. Confessions can be withdrawn at any time and recantations are encouraged; again, Lawal did not know this.
Lastly, Sharia offers alternative, sometimes mystical explanations for pregnancies, thus removing the power of the one piece of evidence against Lawal, her frail newborn. One such explanation is called “the sleeping embryo defense.” Under Sharia, a woman who gives birth within five years of a divorce can argue that her child is the product of a delayed gestation.
Lawal thought this over and ultimately allowed WRAPA to file an appeal, fixing her ascent to a formal contract with an inky thumb-print. Nearly two years would pass before her courtroom victory.
Meanwhile, Lawal became an instant international cause celebre. Amnesty International championed her case. Oprah Winfrey called down the power of her millions of viewers in an affecting broadcast that sought to block the execution. Overnight, she came to be seen as the Muslim Rosa Parks, an unprepossessing woman who, in the ordinary course of her life, struck a profound stance for freedom. The government of Brazil offered her political asylum and a group in Spain volunteered to protect her there. The French ambassador’s wife drive nearly six hours to visit her in Kurami, her remote village of perhaps 3,000 people. “Amina was huge – I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Isobel Coleman from the Council on Foreign Relations. “I personally must have received somewhere between five and ten e-mails urging me to try to help save Amina Lawal. That’s got to be a record.”
But far from helping her, these well-meaning interventions galvanized the sentiments of conservative Muslims against her – and may even have put her life in graver danger. “It backfired,” said Dr. Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. “What in effect happened was these elements in Nigeria who want to reject modernity now find it very easy to say, ‘This is coming from the West, which is humiliating us, which is on a warpath against Islam and our culture, so we will reject this, therefore we have to be very strict with our women, because America wants them in bikinis and skimpy clothes.’ And in the middle of this you have Amina Lawal. She is destitute, she already has a child, she has no tribal support, she is under the full pressure of the entire society – she has become a pawn in this great clash.”
Nigerian political leaders began voicing rigorous defenses of Lawal’s sentence. The conservative governor of Zamfara state, Alhaji Ahmad Sani, said he welcomed “constructive criticism” of Sharia, but denounced “pressures and blackmail aimed at stopping the Sharia – there is no stopping the Sharia.” Passions escalated. Crowds of men chanting “Defilers!” and “Betrayers!” massed at Lawal’s various appearances in court as she pursued her appeal. Television crews were muscled back into cars and hustled out of Islamic-dominated villages.
At the peak of tensions a year ago came a bizarre and fraught sideshow. Some contestants for the Miss World Contest refused to attend the pageant in Nigeria’s new stadium in solidarity with Lawal. In the days before the scheduled event, Islamic clerics rallied against those who did show up, causing a female columnist for one of the country’s dailies to scold their fundamentalism, saying that the Prophet Mohammad would have loved the parade of beauties. “In all honesty, he would probably have chosen a wife from among them,” she wrote.
Her words were poorly chosen. Three days of violent riots broke out throughout the country, forcing the cancellation of the contest and sending the beauty contestants scurrying for emergency night-flights to London.
When the dust settled, more than 100 people were dead, most executed summarily by marauding youths, and over 1,000 were badly wounded. Churches and mosques were burned to the ground as the chaos displaced perhaps 30,000 people, most of whom sought refuge in Red Cross camps. Religious leaders in the Nigerian state of Zamfara called for the journalist’s murder, according to international human rights leaders, forcing her to flee the country for the United States, where she now lives in hiding, as imperiled as Salman Rushdie but without his high-powered defenders.
On August 19, 2002, a panel of appellate judges in the Upper Sharia Court upheld Amina Lawal’s conviction, while refusing to address most the substantive matters in her case, according to Ndidi Ekekwe, program director for Baobab. Lawal’s perfect stoicism broke down that day, and she uncharacteristically railed against her predicament. “I never believed it could go on and on like this,” she told a British reporter who visited her in a safe house provided by WRAPA. “I was sure they would see that I do not deserve to be murdered. But they turn their eyes away every time. They want to see a woman die.” She thought about her young daughter and her other children. “God is good, merciful, just. [But] I worry about my parents and the future of Wasila, who may become an orphan.”
On a hot morning last September, in a room packed with television crews from around the world, the judges overturned her conviction based on her technical appeals by a vote of four to one. In a stroke, Lawal won back her life.
Her supporters in the courtroom cheered wildly, as the newsreels attested. Their voices were mostly female. But when the minority opinion was read in support of her execution, the room filled with angry male voices. Their chants called upon Allah to carry out the original sentence. Sensing danger, even Wasila began crying. “It was frightening,” said Ekekwe. “We had to get her out of there.” They rushed Lawal and her baby into a waiting car and raced her to her home so she could collect her few belongings.
What she saw there was heartening. Perhaps 100 of her neighbors gathered around the doorway to her home to deliver their well-wishes. “I have never seen so many people,” she said. “There were so many, I couldn’t recognize them all. I knew the world was watching.” She knew this in part by spinning the dial on her radio to news broadcasts in languages she did not understand, but hearing her own name over and over. “Even people who were from far away were happy, and that made me happy.”
But she also knew she could not stay in her village, at least not now. “I don’t want to talk about this,” she says when I ask about negative sentiments in her community. “We don’t want to go into details,” said her attorney. “We are hoping sentiments calm down, but right now she is not safe.”
Her supporters at Baobab have confronted this scarlet-letter phenomenon in other cases. In one instance, they raised money to buy an exonerated woman two cows, a mud-brick house, and a grain grinding machine, so she could set herself up in business. These sizeable possessions transformed her status within her community from reviled and unmarriageable to financially independent and a woman to be courted. They hope to do the same for Amina Lawal. Meanwhile, with their encouragement, she is charging reporters for interviews (in fact, a cottage industry has grown up around her – her attorney charged $250 to accompany us to find her, and $40 for Lawal plus more for her mother and step-father, in exchange for the interview).
Despite the windfall, on the hot afternoon we finally got to talk, Lawal seemed exhausted and weary. She answered my questions dutifully, in short and guarded sentences, offering no particular insights into what it must feel like to be a poor, illiterate woman torn at by the tide of such enormous global forces. The fact of her global celebrity had not escaped her, though she did not seem to be able to grasp its scope. “Five million people wrote letters on your behalf,” I said. “You are a hero to women across the world. How did that make you feel?”
She laughed and rolled her eyes, then rested her chin thoughtfully on the forehead of Wasila, who wriggled in her lap. She did not speak.
“Has this transformed you?” I wondered.
For a long time she said nothing. She knew what her many supporters didn’t, that the changes in her life were not for the better.
She sipped from a bottle of milk to temper her ulser. “Ikon Allah,” she said finally, “it is the will of God.”
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