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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Legal and Religious Status of Women in Nigerian Society

Event Recap

What are the challenges of protecting women’s rights under sharia law in Northern Nigeria? On March 23, Hauwa Ibrahim, a Nigerian attorney and visiting lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, detailed her experiences defending women in a number of precedent-setting cases to a riveted audience at the Boisi Center. As senior partner at her firm in the capital city Abuja, Ibrahim has challenged the “new sharia” launched in Nigeria in October 1999. The new laws, deriving from the Maliki School of Islam, incorporate severe punishments including amputation of limbs, stonings and floggings, and are based on what Ibrahim refers to as the “eye for an eye concept.”

Ibrahim argued that the tensions between the secular rule of law and the new sharia in Nigeria are best reconciled within the social system, rather than through international interventions that might undermine important cultural institutions. For example, Nigerian women’s literacy rates are much lower than men’s, but it would be counterproductive to pose the issue as one of human rights, Ibrahim said, since the idea of gender equality simply doesn’t fit the predominant understanding of gender roles. Recognizing that Nigerian men want their sons to have better lives than they had, she persuaded community leaders that educated mothers could better help their sons with homework and therefore improve the boys’ prospects of succeeding in the future. This approach was well-received by conservatives in the community, who were otherwise known to be opponents of women’s education.

Ibrahim explained that sharia itself was not the problem, but rather interpretations of sharia that emphasize only bits and pieces of text without looking at its broad message of justice. Her strategy does not stop at winning cases, but extends to winning the hearts and minds of villagers as well, so that her clients may go back to their community and live with them in peace. Through a well-informed approach of knowing the law inside and out, staying focused amidst media pressure, and appealing to deep emotions when necessary, Ibrahim has achieved undeniable success in her efforts for the justice of her clients as well as Nigerian society as a whole.