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Bok Visiting Professor Hauwa Ibrahim Addresses Justice for Women Under Islamic Law in Africa

February 23, 2011

The Feb. 22 talk on Shari'a law and women's rights in West Africa launched Penn Law's International Human Rights Law Speaker Series.

By Jenny Chung C’12

Hauwa Ibrahim, Bok Visiting International Professor
Inaugurating Penn Law’s International Human Rights Law Speaker Series, Hauwa Ibrahim, a Bok Visiting International Professor this semester and a senior partner at Aries Law Firm in Nigeria, presented a talk Tuesday in the Berylson Family Classroom (Gittis 1) to an audience of students on the topic of justice under Shari’a--Islamic law--in Africa, focusing particularly on women’s human rights.

Ibrahim opened with some general reflections on her experience thus far as a visiting professor and of the universal nature of the issues she addresses as a lawyer defending women accused of crimes under Shari’a. “They could, by extension, concern all of us,” she said, observing that international human rights advocacy in general is closely tied to the ideal of “global peace and freedom.”

According to Ibrahim, while Shari’a law was officially introduced into northern Nigeria in 1999, the Nigerian constitution had even before then provided for its application. In 1999, however, a new set of punishments for five offenses were introduced. Under these provisions, for example, drinking alcohol was punishable by public flogging, theft by amputation, and marital infidelity by lethal stoning. “If you kill, you will die the way you killed -- it’s the idea of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’” Ibrahim said, adding that despite the harsh penalties it prescribes, Shari’a--like Islam--is grounded in ideas of “human dignity, justice and freedom.” 
During her lecture she recounted the details of her first case, which involved a 13-year-old girl who had become pregnant after allegedly being raped by her father’s three friends. After testifying in court against the men, the girl was sentenced to be flogged 180 times-- the first 100 for pregnancy out of wedlock, and the remaining 80 for falsely accusing the defendants.
By 2008, Ibrahim had participated in 157 cases, all of which she undertook pro bono as her clients were too impoverished to pay legal fees. Describing the majority of her clientele as “powerless, voiceless, poor and illiterate,” Ibrahim said she tries to work within the community to secure her clients’ interests.

For example, when approached with a case, Ibrahim explained her initial response is to form a team comprised of locals. “Our team would include blind people, beggars, and lepers…they’re the most powerful in any given village, as they know what’s happening in the community,” she said, emphasizing the importance of identifying strong allies. In other cases, imams and mullahs - Islamic religious leaders - became part of her team. 

Once her team is complete, Ibrahim will then turn to the issues of fact relevant to the case, specifically those concerning issues of procedure and legal technicalities. “Issues of procedure are very substantial, especially in common law systems-- when the procedure is faulty, the case may be thrown out of court,” she noted.

With regard to the technicality of law, Ibrahim argued in favor of achieving substantial justice rather than a mere technical justice. “Some of us trying to gain technical justice are throwing away the baby with the bathwater,” she said.

While working on behalf of Amina Lawal, a young woman who had been sentenced to death by stoning on adultery charges, Ibrahim faced strong opposition from local mullahs, who began publicly calling for her death after she stated in a radio interview that she did not believe the Koran provided for stoning. She responded by requesting a meeting with the mullahs, eight of whom agreed to see her at a mosque. “I chose not to hide and to make myself visible,” Ibrahim said. “If we don’t fight for this woman, it may be us [in her position] tomorrow, and there will be no one to fight for us.”
During the meeting, Ibrahim solicited insight on Islamic law from the mullahs and explained that she had no intention of challenging their authority or the legitimacy of Shari'a. After the conversation, the mullahs agreed to refrain from publicly denouncing Ibrahim’s efforts.

“That’s the most powerful statement they could have given, to not speak out against what I’m doing,” she said. Ibrahim’s cases tripled over the next six years, suggesting that the resultant reduction in stigma associated with seeking legal counsel in cases involving Shari'a law may have encouraged more women to come forward. 

Over the course of her career, Ibrahim said she has experienced firsthand the value of both working within the system and keeping the larger picture in view, both approaches she advised her audience to pursue. “Within given dynamics, there is a solution,” she asserted. “I’ve learned in my practice that it isn’t about me, it’s about the bigger things—generations yet unborn, freedom, human dignity, the worth of a person…as we do one case, one time, one person at a time, we’ll get there.”

Ibrahim is currently teaching a course at Penn Law addressing the relationship between gender and Islamic law.
Jointly organized by Penn Law’s International Human Rights Advocates (IHRA), a student group which works with human rights organizations around the world on research and advocacy projects, and the International Programs office, the series aims to “give students an opportunity to hear about [speakers’] firsthand experience working with the human rights issues on which we focus our advocacy efforts,” according to Lindsay Michaelson L’12, IHRA Student Group Manager.