Nigeria: Ayesha Imam wins the John Humphrey Freedom Award

Ayesha Imam
A Nigerian woman and co-ordinator of BAOBAB for Women's Human Rights, Ayesha Imam has been selected as this year's John Humphrey Freedom Award recipient for her work in support of women's rights whether under Muslim, secular, or customary laws.
The award, which is given each year by Rights & Democracy (International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development), includes a $25,000 grant and a speaking tour of Canada, and is named in honour of John Peters Humphrey, the Canadian who prepared the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It will be presented in Montreal on Tuesday, December 10, 2002, International Human Rights Day.
20 June 2002

Dear friends,

Thank you so much for your messages congratulating BAOBAB for Women's Human Rights and me for the joint conferment of the Humphrey Freedom Award.  I was especially pleased that you recognised the years of work generally on women's rights, human rights and democracy issues - and not just the media-popular work on women's rights in Muslim laws (Sharia).
However, for all of those who got their information from the following newspaper article, which I understand was carried in ThisDay, I really want to clarify that the original headline is inaccurate.  Rather the headline should have been what I put as header above - "Nigerian Woman Wins Award for Work Against Abuse of Sharia".

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).

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 ijtihad (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. Furthermore, very often patriarchal practices are continued (or invented) and attributed in retrospect - quite inaccurately - to Islam.

For those who would like to pursue this further, please see an article I wrote a few years ago on women's rights and sharia laws entitled, "Of laws, religion and women's rights: women's rights in Muslim laws (Sharia)."

The original headline is not just lazy journalism, unfortunately.  It also runs counter to the work we have been doing by lending completely erroneous support to the notion that we are anti-Islam, rather than pro-just Muslim laws.  Furthermore, it leaves us at further risk from religious extremists and zealots - who are already threatening us with physical and other harm. More serious yet, it risks the aid that BAOBAB and others have been providing to victims of human rights abuses.  If any of you have media contacts, I do ask you to please use your influence to rectify the harm that the original headline article may have done (for instance by getting this response published, or writing yourself on the issues).

Ayesha Imam