Lagos — A Nigeian woman and co-ordinator of a human rights organisation, BAOBAB for Women's Human Rights, Ms. Ayesha Imam has been selected as this year's John Humphrey Freedom Award recipient for her work against the restrictive and discriminatory forms that the new Sharia criminal laws in Nigeria have taken.
"Ayesha Imam's commitment to the women's rights movement in Nigeria and throughout Africa and the Middle East inspires us all. We hope that this international award will help to highlight the dangers faced by women and girls under this rigid Sharia system," said Kathleen Mahoney, Acting President of Rights & Democracy and Chairperson of the Board of Directors, who yesterday announced the decision of the international jury.
The award, which is given each year by Rights & Democracy (International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development), includes a $25,000 grant and a speaking tour of Canada, and is named in honour of John Peters Humphrey, the Canadian who prepared the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It will be presented in Montreal on Tuesday, December 10, 2002, International Human Rights Day.
Following the award ceremonies in Montreal, Ms. Imam will also travel to other cities in Canada to meet with students, representatives of women's and human rights groups, churches, government and the media.
Ms. Imam has been working in the field of human rights for the past 21 years and has been instrumental in the campaign against the application of a conservative Sharia criminal legal system in the Northern States of Nigeria.
Through and with BAOBAB, which has volunteers in 15 states in Nigeria, she has courageously taken on the risky task of protesting violations of women's rights whether under Muslim, secular (including statutory and common law), or customary laws.
She mobilized civil society organizations across the country to protest the planned adoption of a conservative and discriminatory form of Sharia law and brought the issue to the national discourse showing how too often, conservative religious laws have been used in some Muslim countries to perpetuate violence against women. She has brought international attention to the discriminatory application and conservative nature of Nigerian Sharia law through such notable cases as Bariya Ibrahim Magazu, sentenced to 100 strokes of the cane for having a baby out of wedlock; Hafsatu Abubakar, sentenced to death by stoning (on appeal by BAOBAB, the conviction was quashed); and Safiya Hussein, sentenced to death by stoning for adultery while the alleged partner was set free.
Ms. Imam has risked her life to ensure that women's voices are heard. Her life and the lives of BAOBAB staff have been threatened and she has often been derided and abused. She has been accused of being anti-Muslim or apostate for using her knowledge of Islam to challenge conservative interpretations of Sharia and open the door for individual and creative reasoning to arrive at judicial decisions and legal principles, known in Islamic jurisprudence as Ijtihad.
The international jury for the John Humphrey Freedom Award, which met at the end of May to consider over 70 nominations from around the world, is composed of five members of Rights & Democracy's Board of Directors: Sofia Macher - Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Peru; Kathleen Mahoney - Professor of Law at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Acting President of Rights & Democracy and Chairperson of the Board; David Matas - Lawyer practicing in Winnipeg, Manitoba and former President of the Canadian Council of Refugees; Vitit Muntarbhorn - professor at the Faculty of Law of Chulalongkorn University in Thailand and consultant with UNICEF and other UN agencies on children's rights issues; and Willy Munyoki Mutunga - Lawyer, Executive Director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission and co-chair of the Citizens Coalition for Constitutional Change.
The human rights situation in Nigeria has become pivotal in determining the success or failure of its newly emerging democratic system. Nigeria's secular nature has been challenged in recent times and tensions are rising as Muslims claim a right to implement the Sharia criminal legal code.
For the past two years, in Northern Nigeria, 12 of the 19 states have begun implementing the controversial judicial system, which has led to amputations.
Ms. Imam's work in popularising feminist understandings of the Qu'ran and exposing male dominant interpretations has drawn attention to the rights of women not only in Nigeria but also of women living under Muslim, secular, and customary laws around the globe.
Previous John Humphrey Award winners are Dr. Sima Samar of Afghanistan (2001); Reverend Timothy Njoya of Kenya (2000); Dr. Cynthia Maung and Min Ko Naing of Burma (1999); Palden Gyatso of Tibet (1998); Father Javier Giraldo and the Comision Intercongregacional de Justicia y Paz of Colombia (1997); women's rights activist and lawyer Sultana Kamal of Bangladesh (1996); Bishop Carlos F. X. Belo of East Timor (1995); the Campaign for Democracy of Nigeria and the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (1994), the Plateforme des organismes hatiens de dfense des droits humains (1993); and the Instituto de Defensa Legal of Peru (1992).
Rights & Democracy (Interna-tional Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development) is a Canadian institution with an international mandate. It is an independent organization, which promotes, advocates and defends the democratic and human rights set out in the International Bill of Human Rights.
In cooperation with civil society and governments in Canada and abroad, Rights & Democracy initiates and supports programmes to strengthen laws and democratic institutions, principally in developing countries.