Wednesday 21 January 2009

Nigeria: Women's democratic rights curtailed by Sharia

Separating the state from religion

When the more established democracies of the world decided to separate religion from the state even though the governed have strong religious inclinations they probably had very good reasons.

Nigeria happens to be a democracy but one where religious diktat not only encroaches on civil society but sometime gains ascendancy over transparent democratic processes.

A group of women had organised a protest for the 29th of January and this has been banned [1] by the Islamic authorities in the Northern city of Kano in Nigeria.

The bane of religious policing

The head of the Sharia police and this is completely different from the state managed and civil law enforcement apparatus opined that the planned protest was both an embarrassment and un-Islamic.

One would generally suggest that the reason why any group of people would join to protest for any cause would be because whatever channels for redress or grievance amelioration fails to serve its purpose fairly, judiciously, justly, satisfactory and expeditiously.

The issue on the mind of the protesters might well be a social and cultural issue which for reasons of modernity or enlightenment was about to find expression through the democratic right to protest. However, when custodians of Islamic norms – they being the Sharia police – interfered with this democratic process they risked bringing Islam into disrepute through their zealotry and their lack of understanding of the social consequences of their actions.

The plight of divorced women

The women protesting are divorced Muslim women who when divorced get thrown out of their homes, lose custody of their children and sometimes end up destitute according to the reports - the mental and psychological damage than can ensue from this kind of treatment cannot be quantified.

One could very well assume that these women are victims of domestic violence and might have been subject to extreme maritodespotism without any recourse for legal or social review of their circumstances with the aim of attaining a favourable outcome.

One would then think that where civil society has failed to address these deep issues of marital discord, religion would play an even better and compassionate role.

However, if religious leaders or those in the position to take presumably infallible religious texts and imperfectly interpret the texts without due regard for humanity and consideration those issues are then not dealt with and the victims are left twice without justice and done an injustice.

Religion failing humanity

Indeed, a demonstration by divorced women who cannot find justice and fairness in their communities would be an embarrassment; but where religious leaders have given up that opportunity for wise counsel for expediency; they allow for this injustice to continue rather than create avenues in which to properly accommodate the concerns of the protesters and advice their communities of adherents of humane ways of handling marriages that have irretrievably broken down and where one partner is of limited means.

In civil law, a divorced party should be able to claim alimony or palimony depending on the circumstances however when religion is allowed to become a legal framework for the policing of morality and social curtailment conflicts might then create tensions and unintended consequences.

In short, religion that does not address social matters of humanity with compassion and consideration with a view to fairness and justice is a bad religion or has bad clerics as religious leaders.

Kano is the more ridiculous now

For instance, the banning of this protest was to prevent Kano from being ridiculed in the eyes of the world – it is debatable if Kano has not now been more ridiculed by the banning of the protests.

Civil law and secular society in a democratic context has checks and balances, even though they may not be as effective as they should be or might be corrupted by all sorts of self-interest and/or selfishness, but the parties involved can be made accountable eventually, if there is a will for ensure it.

Legislating for morality through a parallel religious legal code and adherence of some religious lifestyle stricture can be problematic where the purveyors for religious management are not necessarily accountable to any authority except to some superior being.

Those leaders are NOT perfect

The danger also exists where religious leaders who have acquired religious knowledge and have attained a high status in society might be deluded into an infallibility complex and hence be unable command authority with humility, exercise responsibility with considerable and temper commandment with compassion.

The tendency to take the interpretation of religious texts to a point where they begin to personify the deity they profess to worship is rife and it lends itself to error, mistakes, misjudgements, cruelty, heresy and hypocrisy.

Democracies should be pre-eminent

For those and many other reasons a democracy should by its substance extend to any lawful and enfranchised citizen the right to peaceful protest and these rights should not be subject to the whim of some religious organ.

Where civil law enforcement does express concerns about a protest, they should be able to provide good reasons defensible in a court of law as to why a protest should not take place or provide adequate policing and security to allow for the protest and expression of democratic rights.

To goes without saying that religious law which for those in authority allows for the domination of the citizenry by an unaccountable and unrepresentative lot also deprives the citizenry of their rights to the pursuit of happiness in any way they see fit as responsible adults and considerate members of society.

All means to restore the honour of the women

There is no reason to curtail the rights of anyone in a democracy where the curtailment derives from rulebook other than the constitution of that country and this should not be restricted or subsumed to a quagmire of religious laws.

The whole idea of policing morals in the 21st century is not only ridiculous, it is preposterous and invites opprobrium from well constituted democracies.

In the end, what is at stake is justice for women and the compassionate review of the unacceptable treatment of divorced Muslim women, it is shame that neither civil nor religious law has been properly leveraged to restore the dignity, honour and integrity of these women.

Even in a society where there is no religion our sense of compassion and humanity should not fail to do this as a minimum – the protest should most definitely be allowed to hold for the sake of our democracy and despite the religious misgivings.


BBC NEWS | Africa | Sharia police block women's rally

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