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Women, Islam and Human Rights in Africa

Speakers: Ayesha Imam, Coordinator, Baobab, Nigeria; Sondra Hale, Professor of Anthropology and Women's Studies, UCLA; Mounira Charrad, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Center for Middle East Studies, University of Texas at Austin; and moderated by Mary Osirim, Professor of Sociology and Co-Director, Center for Ethnicities, Communities and Social Policy, Bryn Mawr College. This event is co-sponsored with the Woodrow Wilson Center's Africa Project.

Date & Time

Sep. 17, 2003
9:00am – 12:00pm

Women, Islam and Human Rights in Africa

In discussing some of the major issues concerning women’s position under Islamic law in Nigeria, Ayesha Imam, as keynote speaker, stated that Shari’a law is neither divine nor unchangeable. Although many Muslims and non-Muslims believe that Shari’a law is found in the Koran, she argued that this is not the case. Islamic law as noted in 12 of the 36 Nigerian states today, as well as the four oldest schools of Muslim legal thought more generally, are all mediated through human reasoning. Thus, Shari’a law and Islam itself are very diverse and depend on the particular cultural, social, political, economic and historical conditions of the nation in question. Further, Islamic law changes over time, as noted in such examples as the banning of slavery in Muslim states in the modern period despite the fact that the Koran recognizes its existence.

Shari’a law is not new to Nigeria – it existed there since at least the 14th century. What is new is the enforcement of such law in 12 of the 36 states of Nigeria since 1999 and what this suggests about identity politics in that nation today. Although there was mass support among the poor for the acknowledgement and enforcement of Shari’a law in the northern states with the return to democracy in the late 1990’s, Imam indicated that such support has waned since these states have not delivered on their promises, such as ending government corruption and using charity tithes for public ends. Rather, the interests of women and the poor have been ignored or sacrificed under the enforcement of Shari’a law, as noted in such cases where pregnancy outside of marriage has been taken as sufficient evidence for adultery and resulted in death sentences for women. Imam discussed some of the major effects of the enforcement of Islamic law in the 12 states of Nigeria: 1. Women have no protection from rape or sexual assault; 2. There has been a reversal of the progressive court decisions in family law that occurred over the last 3-4 decades in Nigeria that especially upheld women’s rights to land inheritance, their legal rights to divorce and their general rights to refuse early marriage and 3. There has been a marked increase in vigilante activities as a means of enforcing Shari’a law, which have been particularly discriminatory against women.

Imam remarked that the federal government of Nigeria has at best been ambivalent about Shari’a law. The national government made promises to the outside world regarding the strict enforcement of the law particularly with respect to such punishments as stoning, which it has not made within Nigeria. While Nigeria has been a nation with a diverse set of laws – customary, secular and religious - in which a citizen could choose under which legal system one wished to be judged, Imam argued that it has now become very difficult for Muslims to have such a choice.

While she clearly acknowledged the major problems that the implementation of Shari’a law has had on women and the poor, Imam also explored some positive outcomes of this process. First, the enforcement of Shari’a law has led to the emergence of a dynamic civil society in Northern Nigeria. Many citizens have now become disillusioned with what they believed were religious motives (which were actually political) for implementing these policies and they have now become involved with NGO’s that are challenging these states. Moreover, individuals charged with crimes against Islamic law are currently far more willing to fight for appeals. Second, the 12 Shari’a states have invested more in women’s education and health care centers.

At the conclusion of her remarks, Imam advised the audience to work to change U.S. foreign policy and to consider the effects of current policies on nations in the Global South, such as Nigeria. It was the imposition of structural adjustment policies by the IMF and the World Bank, for example, that were partly responsible for the rise of religious fundamentalism in Nigeria. Thus, Imam called for national and international policies that advance development and social justice while demonstrating respect for cultural and religious diversity in nations such as Nigeria.

In the panel discussion, Sondra Hale stated that she planned to “unsettle our ideas about women’s rights and human rights as antithetical to Islam.” Based on several decades of fieldwork in Sudan, Hale noted that it is essential to differentiate Islam as religious doctrine from Islam as lived experience. In this regard, she emphasized women’s agency, their changing attitudes and their ambivalence towards men and the Islamist state in Sudan established in 1989. Women are involved in negotiating behaviors around these issues which involve collaboration, complicity, complimentarity and acquiescence at various times; sometimes engaging in these behaviors separately and at other times simultaneously.

For Hale, the Sudanese state has violated women’s rights in many areas including limiting their freedom of movement, regulating their dress, encouraging female circumcision and limiting their right to work and fields of study. Southern Sudanese women have been more adversely affected than their Northern counterparts, particularly with respect to their disproportionate rates of imprisonment.

On the other hand, however, Hale commented that there are many contradictions in this situation for women. At no other time in Sudanese women’s history have women been as active as they are now. Although they face restrictions in the positions they can hold, women’s labor force participation has significantly increased. Further, the Islamist movement is considered a modernist movement for women. Women participate in the state’s agenda – they want Islam to be at the center of their lives. At the same time, they argue that it is Arab patriarchy and not Islam that is responsible for the problems that they experience in the society. In this regard, Islamist women are demanding the respect of men. Hale indicated that while women experience ambivalence in their lives, they respond to state policies and they negotiate their roles.

The second panelist, Mounira Charrad, argued that to understand the debates and the struggles over Islamic law and women’s rights, we need to consider the relationship between the state and kin groups/patriarchal communities that shaped the structure of the state and gender policy. She advised us to move away from the focus on texts in studies of Islam and shift our attention to the development of the state and national legislation. Based on her book, States and Women’s Rights: The Making of Postcolonial Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, Charrad suggested that the set of family laws focused on marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance were the major issues concerning the status of women that were common throughout the Islamic world.

Of her three cases, Tunisia was the most successful in expanding women’s rights in the post-independence period as particularly noted in the Code of Personal Status established in 1956 and frequently amended since then. This document abolished polygyny and repudiation, recognized women’s and men’s rights to equal access to divorce and enabled daughters to inherit more from their fathers in the absence of sons in a family. In 1993, legislation in Tunisia enabled women to transmit citizenship to their children even if their fathers were not Tunisian citizens or Muslims. Charrad characterized both Algeria and Morocco as nations where conservative family laws were established after independence, which did not advance the position of women. In accounting for the differences in these outcomes for women, Charrad explained that where kin-based social factions remained central elements in social structure and as anchors for political power, the individual rights of women suffered, as was the case in Algeria and Morocco.

Charrad remarked that we need to find new ways of theorizing about non-Western societies. In cases such as the North African societies she studied, a new vocabulary and new modes of conceptualizing communities and processes that differ from the North are required. Societies such as those in the Maghreb have different forms of social organization where communities are not only structured along class lines, but more importantly around ties of kinship. If we hope to assist in the advancement of women, we must first understand the role of kin-based patriarchy in such societies.

This summary was drafted by Mary J. Osirim, former Wilson Center fellow and Professor of Sociology and Co-Director, Center for Ethnicities, Communities and Social Policy, Bryn Mawr College. Ms. Osirim moderated the panel.


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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.–Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, including our blog Africa Up Close, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more


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