TIME foreign affairs

Too Many of Nigeria’s Women Are Targets—Not Just the Kidnapped Girls

Protest Against Abduction Of Nigerian Schoolgirls In Wellington
People protest against the abduction of Nigerian schoolgirls at the Civic Square on May 14, 2014 in Wellington, New Zealand. Marty Melville—Getty Images

When Nigerian states adopt sharia laws that are in their application blatantly unfavorable to women, it creates an environment in which a terrorist group like Boko Haram believes it has a right to do as it pleases with girls without prosecution.

Boko Haram’s recent kidnappings of schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in Borno state, Nigeria, at least in its explosive aftermath, is reminiscent of the legal cases of two northern Nigerian women, Safiya Hussaini and Amina Lawal, who were sentenced to death by stoning under sharia law in 2002. Though unrelated – the stoning sentences were state-sanctioned punishments that were later overturned, and the kidnappings are a criminal act by a terrorist group – these cases illustrate how the legal climate in northern Nigeria has reached a point where girls can be seen as chattels to be taken, held, sold and, according to the latest video purportedly released by Boko Haram, indoctrinated and bartered.

Before 2000, the scope of sharia law in Nigeria was limited to civil cases. Since then, nine northern Nigerian states have adopted sharia law fully, to include criminal cases as well. A further three northern states have adopted sharia law in populations where Muslims are the majority. Sharia law, a group of Islamic moral codes and laws that determine what is and isn’t allowed for Muslims, exists side by side with civil law in these states.

The case of Hussaini, a divorced mother, was the first of its kind in Nigeria to have an international impact following the adoption of sharia law into the penal code system in some northern Nigerian states. Hussaini’s crime was that she had a child out of wedlock, with a married man. Despite being divorced, she was tried for adultery and sentenced in a sharia court in Sokoto state. In the month her case was dismissed after an appeal, Amina Lawal, another divorced mother, was sentenced for the same crime in a sharia court in Katsina state. Lawal’s case was eventually overturned in 2003 by a sharia court of appeal.

In both cases, the women won their appeals because of the grassroots efforts of activists, such as human rights lawyer Hauwa Ibrahim and Dr. Ayesha Imam of Baobab for Women’s Human Rights, both are highly accomplished women from northern Nigeria. Also in both cases, the fathers of Hussaini and Lawal’s children were not prosecuted. To prosecute men for adultery, four male eyewitnesses are required. Hussaini, after her sentencing, allegedly said that her crime was being a woman. Meanwhile, the attorney general of Sokoto, Aliyu Abubakar Sanyinna, declared the sharia court was merely following Allah’s law.

In 1999, the then governor of Zamfara state, Ahmed Sani Yerima, began a campaign to adopt sharia law in his state, and in 2000 became the first governor to formally adopt sharia when the law took effect. The federal government considers the adoption of sharia law a state right, but has criticized sharia punishments such as stonings, hand amputations and floggings. Despite the objections of members of the judiciary, the adoption of sharia law remains a state right in Nigeria.

Boko Haram’s kidnappings may not have been state-sanctioned, but its leader, Abubakar Shekau, declared that the group was following Allah’s order. Regardless of his fanatical motivation, the kidnappings were a criminal act and should have been handled as such by state authorities. But they failed to address the matter until it became a national and international embarrassment.

The facts surrounding the kidnappings are still unclear: for instance, were state authorities warned about Boko Haram’s plans? What is clear is that for a state that would have been swift to prosecute the girls for adultery and other sharia-related crimes, Borno was incredibly slow to respond when the girls became victims of a crime. Shekau’s response to the national outcry that ensued—that he would sell the girls as slaves in the market—is evidence of Boko Haram’s assumption of ownership of the girls, and it begs the question, “what gave him the right to make such a reprehensible statement?” Shekau has made known his wish to see sharia law imposed throughout Nigeria. I would suggest that when a state adopts sharia laws that are in their application blatantly unfavorable to women, it creates a legal climate in which a terrorist group like Boko Haram believes it has a right to do as it pleases with girls without prosecution.

I doubt that any level of public outrage in Nigeria would change how Boko Haram sees the girls. I say this as a Nigerian woman of Muslim parentage who writes fiction and plays to protest the adoption of sharia law in northern Nigeria, and who has often wondered if there is any value in doing that. Nigerians knew not to bother addressing Boko Haram when they began their campaign to “Bring Back Our Girls”; otherwise, their campaign slogan would have been “Release Our Girls.” If nothing else, the outrage of the rest of the world forced our president, Goodluck Jonathan, to declare his commitment to finding the girls and returning them to their families.

It should also, once again, put a spotlight on the adoption of sharia law in northern Nigeria and its dangerous trajectory. I worry that Boko Haram might confuse the negative attention they’re getting worldwide for acclaim, and trying to shame them as a group of cowardly men scared of girls might only encourage them to toughen their stance. But without the international attention the kidnappings have received, we might still be waiting for the findings of yet another committee on terrorism.

The Nigerian government has yet to catch up with acts of terrorism, and Boko Haram may well be afraid of girls and their potential to develop into educated, accomplished women. But, ultimately, Boko Haram kidnapped the schoolgirls because, in the current legal climate in northern Nigeria, they could.

Sefi Atta is the author of Everything Good Will Come, Swallow, News from Home and A Bit of Difference. Also a playwright, her radio plays have been broadcast by the BBC and her stage plays have been produced internationally. Her play Hagel auf Zamfara, adapted from her short story “Hailstones on Zamfara” and directed by Nick Monu, finished its two-year run in Germany in 2013. In 2006, she was awarded the Wole Soyinka Prize for Publishing in Africa, and in 2009, the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. She divides her time between Nigeria, England and the U.S.

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