Radcliffe Fellow Defends Nigerian Women Using Sharia Law

Radcliffe fellow uses principles of Sharia Law in women’s rights cases

Unnamed photo
Natasha Kovacs

Radcliffe fellow Hauwa Ibrahim delivers the Rama S. Mehta lecture on the defense of a woman sentenced to death by stoning. See story

Hauwa Ibrahim, a Nigerian human-rights attorney, described her efforts to defend Nigerian women under Sharia Law, Islam’s legal system, to a rapt audience at the Radcliffe Gymnasium last night.

By utilizing the “sleeping embryo” theory, the concept that the female gestation period can range anywhere from six months to five years—an idea contained in the Hadiths, or sayings of the prophet Muhammad—women accused of adultery and facing death by stoning can be defended within the context of Sharia, said Ibrahim, the Hauser Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute.

Ibrahim pioneered this defense strategy, trying over 150 cases within the Sharia system and gaining international acclaim in the process.

Ibrahim vaulted onto the international stage in 2003 after defending and ultimately winning an acquittal for Amina Lawal, a Nigerian woman sentenced to death for committing adultery, said History Professor Caroline Elkins during her introductory remarks.

“This lecture tries to sponsor women from the developing world,” said Peter W. Galbraith, whose father endowed the annual lecture.

Ibrahim described her strategy as “thinking globally and acting locally.”

Recognizing that women were being denied the right to a fair trial, she said she looked to international human rights standards as a model for her legal strategy and then scoured Nigerian and Islamic law for similar statues in order to secure due process and avoid execution by stoning for women accused of adultery.

By working within the existing Sharia framework, a system common in northern Nigeria, Ibrahim’s work has set important precedent for Sharia law, Elkins said.

But Ibrahim cautioned that radical change is still a distant goal.

“My clients, they are the illiterate, they are the poor, they are the powerless,” she said.

Nigeria remains divided along class lines and it is largely the illiterate poor who are victims of Sharia prosecutions, according to Sarah Eltantawi, an Islamic studies Ph.D. candidate.

She said that major strides are required in education and development in the country. Ibrahim said that until then she would continue to defend women who are marginalized in Nigerian society.

“Whatever is good, whatever is true, whatever is just, whatever is gracious, whatever is worthy of praise, that I’ll commit myself to do,” Ibrahim said. “Even if that is one person, one issue, I will do that.”