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Nigerian lawyer defends human rights of women in West Africa

Published: Friday, Dec. 13 2013 4:00 a.m. MST

Hauwa Ibrahim, a lawyer from Nigeria and an expert in Sharia law, discusses its influence on legal practice during an interview at the KSL studio in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Hauwa Ibrahim was enjoying a snack of a fried bean cake in the public square of her village in northern Nigeria when she noticed a picture on the newspaper used to wrap her food.

The photograph of a person dressed in a graduation cap and gown captivated her.

"I wasn't looking at who the person was, whether it was a man or a woman, but what confidence the person had," Ibrahim recalled some 40 years later. "There was something about the confidence that person had, and I wanted to have that confidence when I grew up."

Today, Ibrahim exudes a calm confidence as she describes her remarkable journey from an 11-year-old girl who ran away from home to pursue her education to a lawyer recognized internationally for defending people, particularly women, facing flogging, amputation or even death for violating local interpretations of Islamic law, also known as Sharia.

An observant Muslim, Ibrahim has patiently and persistently worked within the religious and cultural systems of her native land to persuade local leaders to look beyond local customs and apply what she believes is the just and equal treatment required by the Quran, Islam's holy book.

"For us, winning is not going into the courtroom with a wig and gown and arguing all day long," she said. "You may win there, but if you come back and you don’t have the village behind you it won't matter. We don’t want that to happen."

Ibrahim has spent the past three years at Harvard Divinity School's Women’s Studies in Religion program articulating her strategy of "walking from within" in her new book "Practicing Law in Shariah Courts: Seven Strategies for Achieving Justice in Sharia Court" (American Bar Association, $49.95).

"I explain Sharia and how we practice it, what are the strategies that can be adopted in any given society," she said. "So, I hope it can be a teaching tool to help people see justice from another angle."

In Utah recently to deliver a lecture at the Christian Center of Park City, Ibrahim took time to sit down with the Deseret News and express her views about Sharia and human rights.

Deseret News: Explain how you apply your theory of "walking from within" to ensure your clients are treated fairly.

Hauwa Ibrahim: My team would have a local leader, a (Muslim) imam of the village, and a local lawyer to give us local input because Sharia is not always the same in every village or town. Having a son or daughter of the soil enhances our ability. In some of the cultures, if you go there and they offer you water and you don't drink it, you lose them before you even start. Even if the water looks like mud, you drink it if you want their confidence and trust. These are things that are subtle, and if you don’t know them you lose out.

DN: In the first Sharia case you took on in 2001, you made a public statement that stoning was not in the Quran and the local imams accused you through the local media of being anti-Muslim and anti-Sharia. How did you win their trust?

HI: (Their accusation) meant I was an apostate and should be stoned to death. I could either go into hiding or come out and face it. I decided to face it, so I called the (BBC) reporter asked him to introduce me to the imams. They accepted to see me in a mosque. So, I covered myself from my head to my toes and went into meet with them. ... There were eight of them sitting on chairs, and there was a chair for me, but I walked toward them and knelt down on the floor. I was looking at the floor because you are not allowed to look at them. They asked me to sit on the chair but I said, "How can I, your daughter, sit on a chair when you my fathers sit on a chair." By that act of humility, I captured their ears just to listen.

I told them I was a silly lawyer and came to visit with them because they had a knowledge I did not have. We had a long conversation about Sharia and about Islam, about obedience, about morality. ... After we finished they said my (copy) of the Quran was too small, so they gave me a bigger Quran. But most importantly they said to me, "We, publicly, will not support what you are doing, also, publicly, we will not be against you." That was a huge security statement. They toned down their rhetoric and that really helped us. (Our client) was discharged and acquitted.

DN: Most religious traditions have some sort of internal legal system to enforce their moral codes of conduct. But why are some of the punishments in Sharia so extreme — even death?

HI: The strict punishments come from interpretations or translations of the Quran. Maliki is the only school of thought that mentions these harsh punishments. He got his ideas from where he was from ... Mecca and Medina. He never left that area. For example, in Egypt, they have Sharia but they don’t have stoning. The largest Islamic country in the world is Indonesia and they don’t have Sharia. The countries that have stoning are those that have decided to interpret their own systems and cultures and Islam together.

DN: Can an Islamic community in the United States effectively implement Sharia?

HI: They cannot, especially the criminal aspects. The civil aspects they should have the opportunity to practice if it has no conflict with national, civil laws. That would be marriage and custody issues. ... I think people should be allowed to settle those disputes in ways that enhance society and families. But in criminal matters there are certain prohibitions that are in conflict with accepted standards of human rights and dignity.

DN: How do you respond to people who want to ban Sharia in state or federal statutes?

HI: It is redundant. Your constitution has already laid out issues of crime and for that reason the foreign law doesn’t fit into your lifestyle. And the members of a (state) House and Senate have already sworn to uphold their constitutions.

DN: How can you be an advocate for women’s rights and also uphold Islam and Sharia law, which seem at odds with women’s rights?

HI: Because Islam is peace and the bedrock of Islam is justice and fairness. That is why I stand with that aspect of the Quran, for Sharia and for women. Standing up for women is just what Sharia is all about — it’s about justice and fairness.

Email: mbrown@deseretnews.com

Twitter: deseretbrown

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