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The silent forest Nigeria

“Let’s try to stop fundamentalism through the Soft Power of mothers”

 Demonstrations in Nigeria for the release of kidnapped high school girls (Ansa)
24 October 2020

Hauwa Ibrahim, the jurist who saves women from stoning using Sharia logic

Hauwa Ibrahim’s is one of the most famous human rights jurists on the planet.  At the centre of her research is the power of mothers to deeply modify the structure of injustices, and repair them.

Originating from Hinnah, a village without electricity or roads in northern Nigeria.  One of  nine children, and like everyone else, she obeyed the cultural rules according to which daughters should not go to school and above all should get married early to stop weighing on the meagre family budget. Ibrahim’s relationship with her mother was unusual: “As a child I was the opposite of what was expected of a daughter in traditional contexts like mine: I was rebellious, lively, and funny. My mother laughed thanks to me, to my cheerfulness. Yet when I was eleven, she told me that I had to forget my books and prepare to be married to an older man. I ran away from home”.

Hauwa Ibrahim’s obstinate character was her good fortune.  She was welcomed in Azare, in the Nigerian state of Bauchi, at the Women Teachers College, where she studied and graduated in law thanks to the support of a maternal uncle. She became the first Muslim lawyer in Nigeria, and henceforth began her career. However, she did not forget the family she had left in the village, and the girls of her age who had to become wives. This is why Hauwa Ibrahim specialized in Sharia law, the legislative code inspired by Islam. The New York Times quoted her with admiration when in 2002 she decided to defend, free of charge, a woman condemned to stoning, and who was the first of many others.  The case: Amina Lawal Kurami was found guilty of having conceived a child out of wedlock: “It was so obvious the difference in weight between Amina’s guilt and the guilt of the man with whom she had committed the act, who was immediately deemed innocent by the judges only for having sworn on the Koran”, she commented. Therefore, together with the board of lawyers of the Baobab for Women’s Human Rights, she elaborated a defensive strategy that was not inspired by the principles of gender equality, but by those within the logic of Sharia law. In court, Hauwa Ibrahim, just over thirty years old, convinced the jurors that Amina’s child was not the result of that extramarital relationship but, according to the precepts of the same religious law that would like to condemn her to death, could be a dormant foetus, a child conceived with her husband and then born two years later. In Nigeria, she has also defended and saved from death another 47 women accused of adultery and children guilty of crimes and for this she received the Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament in 2005.

“It is not possible to bridge the gender gap or fight illiteracy without really knowing the culture of a place,” she explains to me on the phone from her Roman home. For eight years, in fact, after being a visiting professor at universities such as Harvard and Yale, Hauwa Ibrahim has been the holder of the Human Rights and Social Justice course at Tor Vergata University in Rome, as part of the degree course in Global Governance dedicated to the delicate role of the leaders of the future. “I also explain this to my students when we try to find the right tools to stimulate positive change - she continues - When I return to my village in Nigeria I take off my university lecturer’s gown and become one of them. In other words, I become poor and illiterate, as I have been in the past. I realized that I could not arrive in western clothes and start arguing with women to explain from the top of my desk that keeping my daughters away from school was wrong. To change the mentality, it is necessary to show with facts that there is a concrete alternative preferable to tradition. We need to show families that if they send their daughters to school and do not organize early marriages for them, the family will not starve to death; on the contrary, it will benefit them. Hauwa Ibrahim forgave her mother: “She thought that was for my own good. Now she understands that the good of the family is greater thanks to studying and what I have been able to do”.

Mothers. After saving many victims, many of whom are women, from imprisonment or capital punishment, Hauwa Ibrahim founded Mothers without Borders, a project to keep children away from extremism and fundamentalism. In addition, in this field she courageously experiments and finds new paths, as when she was called by the President of Nigeria in 2012 to look for the 276 students kidnapped in Chibox by the terrorist group Boko Haram. Chibox is a small town just a few kilometres from the lawyer’s home village, and her knowledge of the cultural humus is crucial: “I was sitting at the table with soldiers and experts who were talking about deploying planes, drones, and intelligence services, in short, the hard and pure forces. Therefore, I thought that next to this hard power we could use the soft power of the mothers of the fundamentalists who had already been captured, but who were not cooperating. I went to the villages to talk to them, they thought their children were dead. I asked them to come to the town. I remember I let one of these women into a prison. When her son saw her, he started to cry and hugged her, even though he was an adult; in our culture, it is reprehensible for a male child to ask for his mother’s hug after puberty, they have to behave like men. Instead, this boy understood the importance of maternal love and thanks to the mother’s intervention he began to provide details that were very useful in the search for the abductees”. In 2015, she applied the same soft power theory to the mothers in Jordan, against Isis recruiting guerrillas among the desperate boys in the refugee camps.

Hauwa Ibrahim is now also focused on the education of the new generations: “We must abolish the difference between those who teach and those who learn. I learn a lot from my students, although I recognize that they have to fight with a generalized decline in attention and the exponential growth of fake news. New leaders must find new solutions to the world’s problems, but the approach must vary according to people’s latitude and cultural background. We are now grappling with the coronavirus, and we would be wrong to think that this is exclusively a health issue.  Today, in the very poor areas of Africa, the virus affects very few of the inhabitants but is causing food shortages due to the closing of borders. Once again it is women who are suffering the worst consequences, and who are now forced to walk many more kilometers than before to find a market where they can find the necessary food”, she says. Hauwa Ibrahim cultivates flexible thinking to get to the heart of positive change, such as involving Nigerian villagers not through TV or radio, which is almost non-existent in many areas, but through loudspeakers that are used to spread prayers. Her words are logical reversals, but they are direct, and effective. The power of persuasion and conviction is the human capital that is “all we have to work on”.

In the evening, she closes the law books and opens sacred texts, including the Bible or the Talmud, or recites the prayers she learned as a child in Africa. “I find many common teachings, and few differences”, she admits. Then the day ends with a thanksgiving for still being alive, for having received the privilege of a mission as enormous as that of educating young people: “One must always begin with oneself, in concrete terms. I have two sons and daughters and I constantly remind them that they must respect their mother, their girlfriends, their work colleagues. This is my soft power as a mother. We have carried our children and we have the power to change their actions”.

by Laura Eduati