23 June 2002

Nigeria: I'm Not Anti-Sharia, Says Woman Award Winner

Lagos — Co-ordinator of a human rights organisation, BAOBAB for Women's Human Rights and 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, Ms. Ayesha Imam, has said that she was not an anti-sharia crusader.

In a letter she sent to THISDAY, entitled: "I am Not Anti Sharia", she frowned at the various "wrong viewpoints given her work by newspaper headlines and said: "Not only is the original headline inaccurate, it wholly misrepresents the work that BAOBAB for Women's Human Rights and I do.

"The public conscience work is based on clarifying and improving the current versions of Sharia law, rather than allowing the current and biased versions of Sharia to stand unchallenged.

"Therefore, the appeals were made within the Sharia court system to ensure that women's rights issues would be addressed. They have not been anti-Sharia but towards improving Sharia.

"The issue is not that these laws are religious laws. It is that in the name of religious laws, women's rights are being destroyed and reduced. This should not be accepted and neither should the non-recognition of rights in secular or customary laws should be tolerated - issues on which I and BAOBAB for Women's Human Rights have also worked and continue to work."

Giving more insight into position on the implementation of the Islamic legal system in the country, she said: "In my view, it is the duty of Muslims particularly to ensure that laws which claim to be based on Islam do not violate women's rights or any other people's. "This is why we have helped to popularise the work of the many Muslim scholars and jurists around the world on the importance and legitimacy of istijihad by using reasoning to develop legal principles, and, recognising istihasan (equity) and istisahl (the public good) as important principles in drafting laws.

"Muslim laws do not require the non-recognition of women's rights (any more than do secular or customary laws. That so many (but not all) forms of Sharia and other laws do so is explained by the mindsets and world views and of the men who constructed, drafted, codified and implement these laws.

"Passages specifying and implicitly assuming equality are too often ignored, whilst incidents that do not are taken out of context and then generalised," she concluded.

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