The National Catholic Review

On Oct. 9, 2001, an Islamic law court in the State of Sokoto in northern Nigeria ordered Safiyatu Huseini Tungar Tudu to be buried up to her head and shoulders and stoned to death. Sufiya had been found guilty of having sexual intercourse outside marriage. Her child, Adama, 8 months old at the time of the trial, was the evidence used to condemn her. Malam Yakubu Abubakar, the man Sufiya claimed was the father of the child, was set free. He could not be convicted without a confession or the testimony of four trustworthy males. And since only two policemen said he had confessed to sexual intercourse with Sufiya, their testimony was insufficient. The confession was also overruled when Yakubu withdrew it in court.

Sufiya alleged at her trial that Yakubu had used charms and magic to overpower her. She is a woman from a very poor economic background, with no education and conditioned all her life to be subservient to men. She had no say about when, with whom or indeed how often she would marry. Sufiya was married for the first time at the age of 12 to a man who later divorced her. Cultural and economic dynamics required that she marry again as soon as possible. But that marriage, too, came to an end. At 19 she was a single mother, with four children, who had been married twice. Sufiya has since said that the conception of her daughter was due also to the use of physical force to rape her. She said this at a time when the claim offered grounds for an appeal to save her. But in Nigerian society it is a great shame for a woman to admit to police and family that she has been raped. Moreover, Sufiya did not have proper legal representation.

Sufiya subsequently succeeded in getting a stay of execution, and an appeal on her behalf was heard on Jan. 14. This appeal was adjourned until March 18.

Her case is made more complex because of the larger context. At stake, besides her own life and the prospect that a baby girl will be deprived of her mother, is a political, religious and gender struggle in Nigeria that has implications for the rest of Africa and, indeed, the world.

Nearly a third of Nigeria’s 36 states have now adopted some form of sharia (Islamic fundamentalist law), which opposes pluralism and rejects Christianity. It decrees, for example, death by stoning for adultery, flogging for fornication and amputation for theft. Those who uphold this law say it is the law of Allah and cannot, therefore, be criticized as barbaric, cruel or unjust. They also hold that the decadence in the West cries out for the kind of moral regeneration that sharia offers. Viewed from the perspective of this law and the religious ideology behind it, movements concerned with gender equality, human rights and a synthetic approach to knowledge and the findings of modern science are not only suspect, but dangerous. (D.N.A. testing, which could at least show if Yakubu is the father of Adama, is not admissible evidence in the case against Sufiya.)

There is danger that Nigeria will break up and cease to be one country. Last year riots between Christians and Muslims in the northern state of Kaduna, where Muslims sought to introduce sharia for the whole population, left around 2,000 dead. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, the president of the Federal Republic, who is neither a Muslim nor a northerner, is skittish about tackling the Muslim fundamentalist rulers of the northern states, where a strict version of Islam is in the ascendancy. He is also nervous about playing a political role in the struggle against the southern states, where Christians are in the majority. Obasanjo’s minister for justice and attorney general, Bola Ige, was assassinated in his home on Dec. 23, 2001, and his chief aide was stabbed to death two weeks later. Ige was an outspoken opponent of what was happening in the north of the country and of sharia. He had stated that the federal government would not allow Sufiya to be stoned and that if she were, he would have those who carried out the stoning arrested for homicide. The case of Sufiya, therefore, is in some ways a struggle about the future of Nigeria.

Grounds for Appeal

At the court of appeal on Jan. 14, Sufiya sat silently as her lawyer announced she was withdrawing the accusation of rape that she had made after the original trial in October. He also stated that she was basing her appeal on the grounds that a previous husband was the father of Adama, and that the pregnancy occurred before the introduction of sharia in her home state of Sokoto.

There is no way of knowing whether Sufiya was raped or not. Her situation as an uneducated woman left her vulnerable to the use of psychological force against her that could affect the quality of her consent. It is also true that because of the allegation of rapewhich was made after her trial, when it became clear that she was now fighting for her lifeshe might not be taken seriously by an appeals court. There is also evidence to suggest that her family pressured her into this line of defensewhich does not, of course, mean that she was not raped.

Her lawyer, however, would have been aware of the weakness of a defense based on rape in a sharia court because of the example of Bariya Ibrahim Magazu. In January 2001, a sharia court found her guilty of adultery and sentenced her to 100 lashes with a cane. (It is unclear if she is 14 or 17.) They added another 80 lashes to her sentence, however, when she said she became pregnant after being raped by three men. After the men were questioned, she was convicted of lying. Her word about having been raped did not count in the face of their denials.

Sufiya’s lawyer decided not to seek to have Yakubu present in court to answer questions about the charge of rape made against him. The lawyer justified himself by saying, [Yakubu] has been acquitted; why should he be made to suffer again? He also said that he had been pressured to drop the case, and that his concern was to show that Sufiya could be spared in a way that complies with sharia. The impression, therefore, is that truth is not a major concern. Rather, his concern is to adopt a strategy that may succeed in both having Sufiya freed and satisfying others who are involved. Sufiya can be acquitted, according to sharia, if it is accepted that a previous husband is Adama’s father, and especially if that is accepted along with the point that the law should not be applied to Sufiya retroactively.

International Response

Thousands of messages have been received by Nigerian embassies in different parts of the world protesting this case. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Campaign Against the Death Penalty, the Sant’ Egidio Community, religious congregations, Unicef, Romano Prodi, as president of the European Commission, and a group of European parliamentarians are just some of those who have taken up Sufiya’s case. The result of these efforts is an impressive international campaign on behalf of a woman who is among the poorest in the world and who, because of different standards of legal evidence for men and women, inadequate legal representation and a culture that is biased against women, faces an appalling death, while the man she said at her trial was the father of her child is allowed to walk away free.

This huge response of the international public to her plight may also, however, be a testimony to more than heartfelt concern for a young mother and her daughter, an angry reaction against the treatment of women, a vigorous defense of the right to life, an assertive protest against authoritarianism and a demand for justice and fairness. It may also indicate concern for safety from a worldview that carries the very real threat of cruelty, and a closed mind under the guise of providing an authoritative morality and religion for people’s own good.

Michael O’Sullivan, S.J., is a lecturer in theology at Milltown Institute and Kimmage Mission Institute, Dublin, Ireland. He is completing a Ph.D. thesis in the area of theology and violence against women, and has also worked in

Comments

Donald Rampolla | 3/22/2002 - 1:35pm
Toward the end of this article Michael O´Sullivan provides a lengthy list of organizations and people who have sent messages to Nigerian embassies protesting this case. No Islamic organizations are mentioned -I hope that this is merely an oversight by Mr. Sullivan. Since Sept 11, Muslim communities in the Western World have been concerned about Islam being viewed by non-Muslims as an intolerant and cruel religion. Surely an outcry from these communities over the arbitrary and cruel treatment of Sufiyatu Huseini would help to strengthen their case for a more benign view of Islam.

Charles Orloski, Jr. | 3/15/2002 - 8:40pm
The case of Sufiyatu Huseini in Nigeria is outrageous to civilized people everywhere. (Mar. 18) However, I am concerned about the case of American sixth-grade girls, described by educator Amy Gibson, as performing "oral sex on boys in bathroom for small change."(Mar.18) Americans accept the latter behavior almost as they accept spiked gasoline prices. Both aforementioned cases are obscene and cruel. Americans don't understand Nigerian Islamic law, just as Nigerians don't understand freedom.

Donald Rampolla | 3/22/2002 - 1:35pm
Toward the end of this article Michael O´Sullivan provides a lengthy list of organizations and people who have sent messages to Nigerian embassies protesting this case. No Islamic organizations are mentioned -I hope that this is merely an oversight by Mr. Sullivan. Since Sept 11, Muslim communities in the Western World have been concerned about Islam being viewed by non-Muslims as an intolerant and cruel religion. Surely an outcry from these communities over the arbitrary and cruel treatment of Sufiyatu Huseini would help to strengthen their case for a more benign view of Islam.

Charles Orloski, Jr. | 3/15/2002 - 8:40pm
The case of Sufiyatu Huseini in Nigeria is outrageous to civilized people everywhere. (Mar. 18) However, I am concerned about the case of American sixth-grade girls, described by educator Amy Gibson, as performing "oral sex on boys in bathroom for small change."(Mar.18) Americans accept the latter behavior almost as they accept spiked gasoline prices. Both aforementioned cases are obscene and cruel. Americans don't understand Nigerian Islamic law, just as Nigerians don't understand freedom.