“How do I walk within a society that is Muslim, use Sharia law in a Sharia court and get positive Sharia judgment in Sharia court?” Hauwa Ibrahim asked.
Ibrahim hails from northern Nigeria; she is a lawyer, specializing in Sharia law. In 2005, she was the first African woman to receive the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Many of her cases involve women oppressed by the Sharia penal system — especially women fated to be stoned to death for committing adultery. She currently teaches at the Harvard Divinity School.
Her lecture at 2 p.m. Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy was the fourth installment in the Week Five Series of Interfaith Lectures on “Women Transcending Boundaries.” During her lecture, “Practicing Law in Sharia Courts: Seven Strategies,” she shared the eponymous strategies and several stories of her time practicing law.
But first, she provided the audience with a brief background of Nigeria. Africa, she emphasized, is a large continent and host to hundreds of different cultures. Nigeria alone is home to 250 languages and four legal systems, and Nigeria has the sixth-largest Muslim population in the world.
Sharia law came to northern Nigeria in 1999, as a result of an elected governor’s campaign promise.
Ibrahim said Sharia law introduced five different offenses and five new punishments. Drinking alcohol in public, for instance, results in a public flogging. The consequence of stealing is amputated limbs. An unmarried person who commits adultery may be stoned to death, and a married person will be flogged.
“The concept of an eye for an eye was brought back, and, silently, the concept of apostasy was brought back,” Ibrahim said.
Ibrahim said she became educated “by accident.” She has practiced law for 21 years.
Between 1999 and 2008, Ibrahim took 157 cases.
“When the Sharia cases started, I had a focus,” she said. “My focus was generally to help people — because I am from them — that are voiceless. People that are powerless. People that are illiterate and are poor; they cannot afford a lawyer.”
Amina Lawal was one such person.
“Amina, like my other victims, cannot read or write,” Ibrahim said. “She is poor, and she is voiceless.”
In 2001, Lawal was convicted in trial court. Ibrahim came to her aid once Lawal lost her case in Sharia court and was sentenced to die by stoning. She had confessed to having a child out of wedlock and to having been pregnant without a husband. With Ibrahim to defend her, Lawal was discharged and acquitted.
Ibrahim shared her seven success strategies as a lawyer in and out of Sharia court.
First, understand the dynamics of Sharia law and how it manifests itself in court and society at large.
Second, pay attention to details.
“Sharia came with so much (detail),” Ibrahim said. “I mentioned to you that maybe 60 percent of the grassroots in Nigeria cannot read or write, so there’s a high rate of illiteracy. Do they understand what is Sharia? … We have to pay attention to every detail of the case.”
Third, stay focused. The court is fraught with distractions.
“There are a lot of sentiments, the likelihood that we walk into court (and) can hear people screaming our names. … How do you stay focused as a lawyer? That is a strategy we learn as we move along,” she said.
Fourth, learn to be firm on issues of law and flexible in term of culture.
“When it comes to the principles of law, we do not budge,” Ibrahim said. “When it comes to flexibility within the society, we are the children of the soil. We understand the soil … we understand the society.”
Fifth, lawyers play to their individual personal strengths.
“I have learned in my practice to eat the law, to chew the law, to think the law, to breathe the law, to live it,” she said. “For me, one of the ways you can succeed in a lot of these difficulties … is when you have (the law) in (you), you can be able to give it out. That is what I have learned in practice — that the strength of a lawyer is law, whichever law we are talking about, and we can use it creatively.”
“We have Plan A; we have Plan B; we have Plan C; and we have Plan D,” she said.
For Ibrahim, a former prosecutor, Plan A is to prepare the case of the prosecution. Plan B is to plan her own defense. Plan C relies on societal and cultural questions of context. Plan D is an exit plan, in case of emergency — lawyers, including Ibrahim, receive threats accusing them of acting in a way that is anti-Islam and anti-Sharia.
The final, seventh plan is to think globally and act locally.
“The point that I want to make here is that we live in a small, small world,” she said, describing the support given by other nations.
Ibrahim concluded with an anecdote to describe how she “walks within” Sharia courts. In 2001, a BBC reporter asked Ibrahim, “Is stoning to death in the Quran?”
“To the best of my knowledge, I do not think so,” Ibrahim replied.
The BBC broadcast was heard by many people, including the mullahs — Muslim men well-versed in theology and religious law — in northern Nigeria.
“They decided to answer me,” Ibrahim said.
The mullahs answered her and told her she was anti-Islam and anti-Sharia.
Ibrahim decided she wanted to visit with the mullahs in person and discuss their answer. She was warned such an action might put her in danger. The eight mullahs had her visit in a mosque. She covered herself head to toe and entered, photocopies of 47 cases in tow. As she drew near to the men, she knelt down and sat on the floor. At once, the men arose, urging her to sit in a provided chair.
Gazing at the floor, Ibrahim asked, “How can I, your daughter, sit on a chair, when you, my fathers, are sitting on a chair?”
The men were quiet. They noticed she hadn’t forgotten her religious or cultural upbringing. She told them she was a foolish lawyer and had come to them for their wisdom. They had a long conversation. The men decided they would not be against her publicly.
“That is a huge security statement to know that if they are not against me, I can keep going with the cases,” she said. “It could have been a bigger issue for me, security-wise.”
Ibrahim said she is inspired by the virtues of steadfastness, sincerity, perseverance, patience and love.
“They have made me to stand on my feet, when it is difficult to stand,” Ibrahim said.
She quoted a verse she loves: “Work while it is yet day; work, because night cometh when no man can work.”
“My day is that I have a little bit of education,” she said. “My day is that I have two good eyes. I can hear — that is my day. My day is that I can smile at somebody who has not seen a smile in months or weeks or days, and that can change their day. My day is that … I can sit. I can ride a bike. That’s my day."
“What is your day?”
Hauwa Ibrahim, founder of Aries Law Firm, in 2005 joined the ranks of Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan as the only female recipient of the Sakharov Prize hailing from Africa. Escaping her village's tradition of marriage at a young age to continue her schooling, she overcame incredible obstacles to reach her current accomplishments. As an attorney dedicated to protecting human rights within the Shariah courts of Northern Nigeria, most of her work involves defending women sentenced to death by stoning for the crime of adultery.
After receiving international acclaim for her role in the defense of Amina Lawal, she traveled to the United States and has held prestigious fellowship positions at Yale University and Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She has also been a visiting professor at various institutions such as St. Louis University School of Law and Harvard Divinity School, where she is currently teaching.