Women and the sharia law in northern Nigeria

Many feminist thinkers have accused religion of defending class society and patriarchy[1]. This has become increasingly emphasized in relation to women, especially in this age when the right of the woman is very much emphasized. It is such that religion is now seen as one of the instruments of oppression rather than redemption. The introduction of the sharia law in Northern Nigeria in the perspective of Titi Salaam does not in any way advance the interests of women; this is because it gives central place to paternalistic interpretation to women’s appropriate roles and socio-political arrangement of the society[2]. In the contention of Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi,

The implementation of Sharia Penal Codes in northern Nigeria is flawed in several respects. Firstly, it does not adequately protect the rights of women. Therefore abuse, violence and discrimination against women go unpunished as they are wrongly considered to be socially acceptable. In addition, the testimony of women is devalued and treated as that of a minor or person without necessary legal capacity. Often, these biases and attitudes also affect judges and therefore the judgment of the Sharia Courts.
As a result the implementation of sharia in Nigeria has placed some restrictions on the rights of women in Northern Nigeria[3].

The sharia law considers sex out of wedlock a crime punishable by death, and under this law, pregnancy is a sufficient evidence to convict an unmarried woman of the crime. However, if a man takes an oath denying having sex with a woman out of wedlock, it is often considered sufficient proof of “innocence” unless four independent and reputable witnesses testify to seeing him take part in the act. Unfortunately, most of the culprits of the sharia law have been women[4]. It is from this perspective that Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi further observes that,

These … suggest that the thinking of the court and supporters of sharia is that only women can be guilty of the ‘offences’ of adultery or fornication. What happens then, in the case of seduction of minors, or rape? This suggests that men living under sharia have been given a license to rape women and seduce or assault minors, or even impregnate them in the course of a relationship and then deny responsibility and watch them face a death sentence[5].

Below are a number of cases legislated by the sharia court:

  •  In August 2000, Amina Abdullahi was sentenced to 100 lashes in Zamfara state for engaging in premarital sex.
  •  In November of the same year Attine Tanko, who was 18-years-old was found guilty of having sex out of wedlock after she was discovered to be pregnant. Tanko’s 23-year-old boyfriend, the father of the child, was also flogged 100 times and sentenced to jail. The court ruled that it would allow her to wean the baby for up to two years, that is, after giving birth before she would receive the punishment of 100 lashes.
  •  In January 2001, Bariya Ibrahim Magazu, 17-year-old, was given 100 strokes for the cane conceiving a child out of wedlock the previous year. At the time she received the lashes, she was already breast-feeding the baby. At the court, she had no representation, but she revealed that she was impregnated by one of three middle-aged men with whom her father pressured her to have intercourse.
  • In October 2001, a court in Sokoto state convicted Safiya Hussaini of adultery, she was sentenced to death by stoning, because she became pregnant out of wedlock, even though the 35-year-old mother cried out that her daughter was raped by a neighbor.  In the case of Safiya, Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, raises questions of gender bias on the following grounds:
  1.  “Her pregnancy constituted the main evidence against her, but no scientific efforts were made to establish or disprove the paternity of the child.
  2. The onus or proof of adultery was just pregnancy.
  3.  The man named in the case was allowed to go free after denying responsibility for the pregnancy”[6].

  •  In Katsina, during the month of March, in 2002, Amina Lawal Kurami was sentenced to death by stoning for bearing a child out of wedlock. The man she identified as the child’s father denied the accusation and was acquitted for lack of evidence.
  •  In Zamfara, there was a time women were prevented from travelling in public transport, the reason being that women are not supposed to be seen in the public spheres of life, it is worst when found in the company of a man not related to them. This led to a protest from women, and the law was amended, however in practice it is evident that women are still discriminated against[7].

In an attempt to express the fact of women oppression under the Sharia law, Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, cites an instance in Tarata Mafara local government, where single women were given a three month ultimatum to get married or face being sacked from jobs in the civil service. Some financial inducements were provided to encourage women to become married. These examples, argues Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, constitute rights violations under Nigerian law. These and other similar policies also mask a greater problem of growing unemployment, lack of amenities and recreational facilities etc. The criminalization of women and their rights diverts attention from the real causes of crime[8].

Following the Islamic culture, Alamveabee, Idyorough observes that in many parts of Northern Nigeria, women are secluded and are prevented from moving about in the day time. Thus they are excluded from economic activities of the day time. They have to depend entirely on their husbands for supply of their daily needs. In time of loss of husband through death, they are not able to survive and take proper care of their children due to social and economic deprivation; consequently, their children are more likely to develop delinquent habits[9].

Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, further contends that the Nigeria constitution is supreme by virtue of the provision of Section 1 (1). Section 3 states that any other law which is inconsistent with the provisions of the constitution, shall be null and void. Chapter 4 of the 1999 constitution dwells on fundamental human rights, which include rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Section 38, 1999). However, federal legislation does not specifically uphold the rights of women in areas where custom or religion violates their constitutional rights[10].

In December 2008, Thisday Newspaper reported that the Kwara State Sharia Council faulted the purported plan by some members of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the state to present a woman as the 2011 governorship candidate. It said that such a plan was contrary to the Sharia Law which forbids leadership by women. According to the statement signed by the vice chairman of the council in the state, Sheikh Moshood Ibrahim, “We therefore vehemently oppose this plan in Kwara State where over 80% are muslims come 2011 as being contemplated and bandied about by some members of the ruling party in the state”[11].

From the foregoing, Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi advises that rights campaigners, women’s organizations in Nigeria and elsewhere need to work towards law reform, and the domestic enforcement of international norms and standard for the observance of women’s human rights such as the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Democracy is not all about elections. The true test of democracy is a nation’s capacity to uphold the constitutional, democratic and human rights of all its citizens regardless of ethnicity, race, age, economic and social status, and of course gender[12].

[1] Cf, Rose Uchem, “Violence Against Women in Marriage Rituals, a Prelude to Domestic Violence”, in The Proceedings of the 22nd Conference of the Catholic Theological association of Nigeria, ed Cyril Obanure, Abuja: Aboki Publishers, 2008,p. 124; cf Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Hearing is Knowing: Theological Reflections on Christianity in Africa,New York: Orbis Books, 1986; cf Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1968; Rosemary R. Ruether, “Feminism and Patriarchal Religion: Principles of Ideological Critique of the Bible.” Journal study of the Old Testament, 22 (1982). Rose Uchem, Overcoming Women subordination: An Igbo African and Christian Perspective, Enugu: SNAAP Press, 2001; Titi Salaam, “A Brief Analysis on the Situation of women in Nigeria Today”,, March 1, 2003.

[2] Titi Salaam,  Op.Cit

[3] Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, Democracy and Women’s Rights in Northern Nigeira,

[4] Fact Sheet: Women’s Rights Under Sharia in Northern Nigeria, August 22, 2002,

[5] Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, Op.Cit.

[6] Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, Op.Cit

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Alamveabee, Idyorough, Op.Cit, p.54.

[10] Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, Op.Cit

[11] Thisday Newspaper, Vol.13, No.4979, Monday, December 8, 2008, p.10.

[12] ibid

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