How Not to Help Amina Lawal

Editors’ note: We have been forwarded by regular CounterPunch contributor Professor Bruce Jackson of SUNY, Buffalo, this important letter from two leaders of the Nigerian group Baobab for Women’s Human Rights. Some background: Amnesty International and other groups have recently been said to be generating letters and petitions on behalf of Amina Lawal, a Nigerian woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. It turns out that letters and petitions, even the few that aren’t just chain-letter foolishness, may do more harm than good and that the situation in Nigeria is at once far more complex and less dire than it seems from the outside. There are ways to help, starting with understanding what is really going on. This letter from a board member and the executive director of the Nigerian feminist group BAOBAB explains it all.

Dear friends,

There has been a whole host of petitions and letter writing campaigns about Amina Lawal (sentenced to stoning to death for adultery in August 2002). Many of these are inaccurate and ineffective and may even be damaging to her case and those of others in similar situations. BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights, which is responsible for initiating and continuing to support the defences of cases like Ms. Lawal’s, thanks the world for its support and concern, but requests that you please stop the Amina Lawal international protest letter campaigns for now (May 2003). The information currently circulated is inaccurate, and the situation in Nigeria, being volatile, will not be helped by such campaigns. At the end of this letter, we indicate ways in which you can help us and we hope we can count on your continuing support.

Clarification of Facts

First, we would like to pass on some facts that hopefully will clarify the situation somewhat. Contrary to information being widely circulated, Amina Lawal’s conviction has NOT been upheld by Nigeria’s Supreme Court. Ms. Lawal was originally convicted by an Upper Area Court in Katsina State in northern Nigeria. Her appeal is currently before the Katsina State Sharia Court of Appeal. The appeal had been several times postponed. However the next appeal hearing has now been set for June 3, 2003. Should this appeal not succeed, Ms. Lawal would appeal to the (Nigerian Federal) Sharia Court of Appeal. Only if unsuccessful at the federal appeal court also would Ms. Lawal’s case go to the Supreme Court of Nigeria. In other words, the process is a long way from immediate stoning to death. Although the stress on Ms. Lawal is obviously considerable and awful, she is not in immediate danger of a judicial execution.

Furthermore, so far, not one appeal that has been taken up by BAOBAB and supporting local NGOs in Nigeria has been lost. All the completed appeals processes have been successful. Again, so far, all these appeals have been won in local state Sharia courts–none have yet needed to go up to the Federal Sharia Court of Appeal, from whence appeals would go to the Supreme Court. (We do note, however, that there is still work to be done at this level, as sometimes the judges have chosen to quash on technicalities, thus avoiding the substantive grounds of the appeals. However, we note also that historically, the State Sharia Courts of Appeal, and especially the Federal Sharia Court of Appeal, have passed judgements that are more gender-fair–in marked contrast to the lower courts where all of these convictions were passed).

Contrary to the statements in many of the internationally originated appeals for petitions and protest letters, none of the victims received a pardon as a result of international pressure. None of them has received a pardon at all–or needed to, so far.

None of the sentences of stoning to death have been carried out. Either the appeals were successful or those convicted are still in the appeals process.

Dangers of Letter Writing Campaigns?

However, if there is an immediate physical danger to Ms. Lawal and others, it is from vigilante and political further (over)reaction to international attempts at pressure. This has happened already in the case of Bariya Magazu, the unmarried teenager convicted of zina (extra-marital sex) and sentenced to flogging in Zamfara in 1999. Ms. Magazu’s sentence was quite illegally brought forward with no notice, despite the earlier assurances of the trial judge that the sentence would not be carried out for at least a year. She was told the night before that it would be carried out very early the next morning (and thus had no way of contacting anyone for help even if this unschooled and poor rural teenager had access to a telephone or organizing knowledge and experience), whilst the state bureaucracy had been instructed to obstruct and was physically refusing to take the appeal papers from BAOBAB’s lawyers. The extra-legal carrying out of the sentence was not despite national and international pressure; it was deliberately to defy it. The Governor of Zamfara State boasted of his resistance to “these letters from infidels”–even to sniggering over how many letters he had received. Thus, we would like you to recognise that an international protest letter campaign is not necessarily the most productive way to act in every situation. On the contrary, women’s rights defenders should assess potential backlash effects before devising strategies.

Problems with Petitions based on Inaccurate Information

Even when protests are appropriate forms of action, when they are obviously based on inaccuracies of fact they are easier to ignore. Circulating protests and writing letters based on inaccurate information may further damage the situation instead of helping. They certainly damage the credibility of the local activists, who are assumed to have supplied this information. If we remember that it is local activists who most facilitate turning rights principles into everyday reality for people, then reducing the ability and potential of local activists to carry out women’s and human rights promotion and defence is a counter-productive mode of proceeding. Please check the accuracy of the information with local activists, before further circulating petitions or responding to them.

Re-Presenting negative stereotypes of Islam and Muslims

Dominant colonialist discourses and the mainstream international media have presented Islam (and Africa) as the barbaric and savage Other. Please do not buy into this. Accepting stereotypes that present Islam as incompatible with human rights not only perpetuates racism but also confirms the claims of right-wing politico-religious extremists in all of our contexts. We appreciate that many who join letter writing campaigns are motivated by the same sense of international solidarity and feminist outrage that leads us at BAOBAB to participate in international actions. But when protest letters re-present negative stereotypes of Islam and Muslims, they inflame sentiments rather than encouraging reflection and strengthening local progressive movements. They may result in behaviour such as that of the Zamfara State governor over Bariya Magazu, or even more threatening, hostile and violent behaviour by vigilantes (in extra-legal acts by non-state actors like the hordes of young unemployed men who are the bulk of the vigilantes). Consequently, such letters can put in further danger both the victims who are easily reachable in their home communities, and, the activists and lawyers supporting them (who are particularly vulnerable when they have to walk through hostile crowds on their way to court, for instance).

Muslim discourses and the invocation of Islam have been used both to vindicate and protect women s rights in some places and times, and to violate and restrict them in other places and times–as in the present case. The same can be said of many, many other religions and discourses (for example, Christianity, capitalism, socialism, modernization to name but a few). The point is for us to question who is invoking Islam (or whatever belief/discourse) for what purposes, and also to acknowledge and support internal dissent within the community involved, rather than engaging in a wholesale condemnation of peoples’ beliefs and cultures, which is seldom accurate or effective in changing views within the affected community. Please be sensitive to these concerns in any protest letters you may write.

Supporting Local Pressures

There is a place for international pressure and campaigns. We would not risk anyone’s life by insisting on never having an international campaign. However, using international protest appeals as the automatic response reduces its usefulness as an advocacy tool. We feel that this is not the time for an international letter writing campaign, but we are concerned that should the situation change, and we then need international pressure and ask for international support, the moral energy and indignation of the world may already have been spent–resulting in campaign fatigue (been there, done that already).

International letter writing campaigns have specific potential that can be spectacularly successful (as in the case of Fatima Yacoub in Tchad in the mid-1990s). However, they are not appropriate in this campaign at this time. This is not one individual case. Not all the cases of conviction have made the international headlines or even the national media. They cannot all become international causes céélèèbres and subjects for letter-writing protests. (Very few people know the name of Hafsatu Abubakar, the first woman to be acquitted after appealing a stoning to death sentence, nor any of the other 8 women and 10 youths whose current cases BAOBAB is also dealing with, for instance).

Using local structures and mechanisms (as a means of resisting retrogressive laws or interpretations of laws and the forces behind them) is the priority. It strengthens local counter-discourses and often carries greater legitimacy than ‘outside’ pressure. Further, it can really address the local political power struggles that are behind the political use of religions and ethnicities in Nigeria. The political Islamists and vigilantes threaten (and carry out) acts of violence against those who criticise them, in order to intimidate people. But they have also been promoting the view that any criticism or appeal of conviction is anti-Islam and tantamount to apostasy, and thereby trying to get people to submit quietly and voluntarily. One of the means of countering this was our choice to pursue the appeals in the Sharia system, and thereby demonstrate that people have a right to appeal and to challenge injustices, including those made in the name of Islam.

Every appeal in the local sharia courts strengthens this process. Since the first cases, that of Bariya Magazu, (where BAOBAB had to convince her family and various opinion-leaders in the village to agree to an appeal) and the Jangedi case (where a man convicted of theft refused to appeal and had his hand amputated), many victims have no longer acquiesced to injustices, but actively sought help. Furthermore, in both Safiya Husseini Tungar-Tudu’s and Amina Lawal’s cases, members of their community have spoken about the abuse of Sharia and taken actions to protect them from local vigilantes. These are actions that would not have happened when BAOBAB first started this work in 1999. At that time, even finding a lawyer from the Muslim community willing to represent the victim was not easy.

Winning appeals in the Sharia courts, as we and others have done, establishes that convictions should not have been made. A pardon means that people are guilty but the state is forgiving them for it. It does not have the same moral and political resonance. A pardon that is perceived as occurring as a result of outside pressure is even less likely to convince the community of its rightness. If we don’t want such abuses to go on and on, then we have to convince the community not to accept injustices even when perpetrated in the name of strongly held beliefs.

Deciding on Strategies to Fight Injustices

We are asking for international solidarity strategies that respect the analyses and agency of those activists most closely involved and in touch with the issues on the ground and the wishes of the women and men directly suffering rights violations. The local groups in Nigeria directly representing victims (in the lead of whom are BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights and WRAPA–Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Agency) have specifically asked that there NOT be international letter writing campaigns. When victims of human rights abuses are held incommunicado, then clearly all anyone can do is act on our own beliefs to try and help them. This is not such a situation. The victims are not in detention (and indeed give press interviews). They have chosen to appeal and accepted the assistance of NGOs like BAOBAB, WRAPA and the networks of Nigerian women’s and human rights NGOs that support them. There is an unbecoming arrogance in assuming that international human rights organisations or others always know better than those directly involved, and therefore can take actions that fly in the face of their express wishes. Of course, there is always the possibility that those directly involved are wrong but surely the course of action is to persuade them of the correctness of one’s analysis and strategies, rather than ignore their wishes. They at least have to live directly with the consequences of any wrong decisions that they take. Please do liaise with those whose rights have been violated and/or local groups directly involved to discuss strategies of solidarity and support before launching campaigns.

So how can people and other organisations help? In the immediate, resources (money but not only money) are needed to support both the victims directly and the appeal processes. The victims–almost all of them poor, and most also rural dwellers–have found that their lives and work and those of their families are disrupted. They are economically hard hit, as well as under considerable social pressure. Often their health (physical and psychological) suffers as a result of stress. Sometimes a safe house is needed in the face of threats from vigilantes–there are no institutional ones in northern Nigeria. It may be necessary to consider safe asylum (bearing in mind issues like travel documents, visas, costs and how government bureaucracies will react). Resources are needed for living expenses for victims, their dependents and families, and to deal with stress-related consequences (counselling support, medical treatments and drugs amongst them), and to deal with safety and security. Experience and strategy-sharing with other groups who have dealt with similar situations supporting victims through an appeals process and campaign would also be most welcome.

Then there are the costs of fighting the appeals. Obviously there are legal costs. These include court fees and lawyers’ fees. (Not all lawyers are willing or financially able to work completely pro bono. Even when they donate their expertise, they may have to be paid for court appearances, travel and subsistence expenses). They also include costs in document preparation especially in multiple copies and so on. There are also a whole series of associated costs. Fighting appeals is person and time-intensive. Activists have to; check media and local networks to find victims; travel to offer support to victims; draw on networks to find lawyers willing to represent victims; convene and participate in strategy sessions (yet more travel as these are often national); prepare the arguments and documentation; travel to the court with the victims; engage in victim support (discuss their situations and the possible options and ramifications, deal with consequential issues like loss of land, or ill-health, provide emotional support); liaise with and service the local and international networks supporting such work; not to mention write the reports and analyses constantly required.


Resources to support all this work is needed.

Women’s rights activists working on these issues very early on received support from progressive lawyers, Islamic scholars and rights activists from throughout Nigeria, the Muslim world and elsewhere, in the form of legal and religious argumentation (fiqh), case law examples and strategies which were generously shared. We would like to acknowledge this help and support–it has been extremely useful and we can probably never have enough of it.

For the long-term, there are two needs to work on: constructing the cultures of recognizing rights and fighting violations at the local and national levels; and, to develop argumentation and advocacy to change the laws, evidence requirements and procedures.

In sum, funding for credible organizations doing both immediate and long-term work is urgently needed.

Exchanges of information, experiences and knowledge in similar situations would also be helpful.

Practical offer of safe havens–outside the community but within Nigeria, and, outside of Nigeria may also be needed.

Finally, do please circulate this message widely–including to all the list-servs and networks where petitions based on inaccurate information have been circulated. If you would share and discuss this message with other activists and organisations who have demonstrated their solidarity on these cases, that would be helpful.


Ayesha Imam (Board Member)

Sindi Medar-Gould (Executive Director)

BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights

BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights has been closely involved with defending the rights of women, men and children in Muslim, customary and secular laws–and in particular of those convicted under the new Sharia Criminal legislation acts passed in Nigeria since 2000. In fact, BAOBAB was the first (and for several months the only) NGO with members from the Muslim community, who were willing to speak publicly against retrogressive versions of Muslim laws and to work on changing the dominant conservative understanding of the rights of women in enacted Sharia (Muslim religious laws), as well as in customary and secular laws. BOABAB was also the first, and again for some time the only NGO to actually find the victims and support their appeals, raising funds for the costs and putting together a strategy team of women’s and human rights activists, lawyers and Islamic scholars contributing their expertise and time voluntarily. BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights was the 2002 recipient of the John Humphrey Freedom Award for this work. BAOBAB’s work was also recently cited by the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women as an example of best practice.

If you would like to support BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights work, please send a check/cheque or international money order made out to:

a) BAOBAB / WLUML-AME Legal Defence Fund (supports the immediate costs victims and appeals process); and/or

b) BAOBAB / WLUML-AME Rights Advocacy Fund (supports the long-term work in enabling the critique of the rights in Muslim laws, as in customary and secular laws, and to work on the reconstruction of rights in law and practice); and/or

c) BAOBAB / WLUML-AME Core Funding (enables flexibility in usage–it must still be accounted for and reported on)

These should be sent to: BAOBAB for Women’s Human Rights P O Box 73630 or Victoria Island Lagos, Nigeria PMB 134, or 1333A North Avenue New Rochelle NY 10804, USA