Amina Lawal is free: are we?

Date: January 1, 1970
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We heaved a collective sigh of relief when the Shariah Appeal Court in Nigeria gave Amina Lawal ?her life back? removing the spectre of death by stoning that had stalked her for over a year and led to an international outcry.

We heaved a collective sigh of relief when the Shariah Appeal Court in Nigeria gave Amina Lawal “her life back” removing the spectre of death by stoning that had stalked her for over a year and led to an international outcry.

Africa is in the process of reinventing itself. No matter what the political intricacies of Nigeria’s federal system where twelve states follow strict Islamic law, this naked act of barbarism did not sit comfortably with any of our leaders.

President Thabo Mbeki, who with Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo is a driving force behind the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) added his weight to the voices that pulsated across the Internet and the airwaves pleading for clemency.

In so doing, where did our leaders, the media, and we the public place women’s rights? There are several worrying aspects of this case and the way it has been portrayed. They are especially pertinent as we prepare to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Vienna Declaration on Human Rights that stated for the first time that women’s rights are human rights.

This celebration is a central theme of the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence that will run from 25 November, International Day of No Violence Against Women , to 10 December, International Human Rights Day.

The facts of the case are that a 31 year old woman from Katsina, Nigeria, gave birth to her fourth child “out of wedlock”, two years after she divorced her husband.It is alleged that she committed adultery, which can only mean that the father of the child is a married man.

However, the man she named as the father, who according to her had promised to marry her, was acquitted for lack of evidence. This means that we still do not know who the father of the child is; whoever he is, he got off scotfree.

This also means that there were no grounds to convict Lawal of “adultery” which is defined as “voluntary sexual intercourse of married person other than with spouse”.Yet the media persisted in referring to her case as one of “adultery.”

Later on some newspapers began to refer to the “offence” as having a child out of wedlock. A South African woman columnist refe rred to Lawal’s “ bastard child”. Another, responding to a male colleague who argued that Lawal is “filth” for having a child out of wedlock, pleaded with the public to “forgive Lawal.”

The hypocrisy of it all is frightening. Does this mean we in South Africa subscribe to the view that it is a crime to have a child out of wedlock,and that this crime pertains only to mothers and not to fathers? Yes, we are all mesmerised by the myth of the nuclear family: the happily married monogamous father, mother and children.Yet statistics show that there are almost more children born out of such family settings than in such family settings. The Zanzibar author and intellectual Ali Mazrui had a point when he said “there are no illegitimate children in Africa:only illegitimate parents from time to time!” Notice he talked about parents, not mothers.

Who are we to pass judgement on Amina Lawal and her daughter Wasila? The sad fact is that no matter what the courts said,they have already been branded outcasts by society. All of us have contributed to that branding.We could not bear the idea of Amina Lawal being stoned. But in our minds she has been “spared” not acquitted; “forgiven” not absolved.

Dare we imagine what growing up will be like for Wasila, the child paraded in front of cameras as the “living proof” of Lawal’s transgressions? Can we begin to count the extent of the secondary violence inflicted on this child through the media and our own insatiable curiosity?

Then there is Amina Lawal herself . One columnist said she would just like to “see Lawal smile” because every picture has shown her looking “extremely sad.” It’s time for the woman persistently referred to in the news as the “village housewife” to smile and we cannot imagine why she is not! Hands up anyone who after a year of following this story can say they know Amina Lawal.We are stumped because she has never been portrayed as anything more to us than, at worst, a victim and, at best, a symbol. She, the person, has never been introduced to us.

We embraced the news of her reprieve so avidly, just so we could get her off our conscience, without reading the fine print: the fact that the judges found nothing wrong with the law but with some procedures that helped them cave in to international pressure without losing face. Some papers did point out that Shariah law is alive and well with the simultaneous announcement that a man is to be stoned to death for sodomy, or more accurately raping under age boys. No form of stoning to death can be condoned . Yet the fact that we equate a case of rape with a woman having a child out of wedlock must again raise the question of what we have really taken to heart out of this case.

Are we any further along the road to understanding that women’s rights are human rights when in the same breath we pleaded for Lawal’s reprieve we ran headlines like “dog-sex girl missing” in reference to the sordid local case in which an employer forced a young woman to have sex with a dog? Or when in editorials we cautioned Obasanjo to balance carefully the position he took on Lawal with the powerful ethnic and religious forces at play in Nigeria?

In short, have we come out of this understanding that women are born free, that they are as free to exercise reproductive and sexual choices as men are, and that they have a right to privacy and dignity? Or are we just relieved that Africa won’t suffer a public relations disgrace because of the commuting of a barbaric sentence? What have we won? Whom have we freed?

Mbuyiselo Botha is Secretary General of the Men’s Forum and Colleen Lowe Morna is Director of Gender Links.

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events.

Contact Jan Moolman at for more information.

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