The rioting in the Northern, predominantly Muslim city of Kaduna that forced the organisers to withdraw the Miss World competition has brought into question once again the viability of the project called Nigeria. The riots themselves were triggered by a newspaper article suggesting that the Prophet Muhammad would have approved of the presence of the beauty queens, and perhaps chosen a wife or two from among them, but that was just an excuse. Anything can – and does – ignite a riot in Kaduna, and there were Muslims who’d been itching for a showdown ever since Nigeria was chosen to host the event. It was an irresistible opportunity to show the world the kind of religious intolerance that led the deputy governor of Zamfara to issue a fatwa against Isioma Daniel, the journalist who’d written the offending article, days after the riots, as though enough blood hadn’t already been shed: the death toll was more than two hundred at the last count.
I saw this intolerance for myself when I travelled around the Sharia states last March. I took to asking the (invariably male) Muslim journalists I met how death by stoning – the prescribed punishment for adultery – would actually be carried out. Two women, Safiya Husseini and Amina Lawal, had become pregnant in the absence of their estranged husbands and received the prescribed sentence (though the former was soon to be acquitted on a technicality). Most of the journalists ducked the question and I didn’t blame them. They would have automatically assumed that, as a Christian and a Southerner, I was hostile to this latest manifestation of Islamic fundamentalism, even if my manner hadn’t given me away. At the same time, in keeping with Islamic injunction, they were reluctant to be rude to a visitor. Only one, a tall, ascetic man in his fifties employed by one of the publicly funded state radio stations to ‘enlighten the people on the ethics and tenets of Islam’, came right out and said that the person to be executed would be buried in a pit up to their neck, whereupon the faithful would gather round and throw stones. I asked whether the stones would be of a particular size and weight but he couldn’t say, although he supposed that they would have to be heavy enough to do the job reasonably quickly and avoid any ‘unnecessary suffering’. I asked whether he would take part and he said yes, he would, but quickly added that he doubted whether the sentence would actually be carried out, that even in Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam, the practice had either been abolished or was in the process of being abolished – which was as maybe but hardly the point.
That the imposition of Sharia discriminates against women has been a source of international outrage, notably in Italy, where the condemned Husseini was adopted by the national football team in the run-up to the World Cup. The alleged father of her baby didn’t have to do anything more than protest his innocence, because, as the judge put it, ‘a man is not a woman, whereby she will have a protruding stomach to show.’ For a man to be found guilty in this sort of case, four male witnesses are required to have seen ‘the penis inside the woman’s vagina’. Needless to say, there were no such witnesses. The 40-year-old local government worker accused of fathering Lawal’s child was known by everyone in the village to be sweet on her, though the prospect of being stoned to death was enough to make him deny that they had done anything more than hold hands: ‘Yes, I agree that she was my girlfriend but I never had any sexual intimacy with her.’ He was even willing to cast the first stone: ‘I cannot plead for her pardon because I will be going against the law of Allah . . . Since she was found guilty and already a death sentence has been passed, it should be executed as directed.’ Perhaps to show that he wasn’t a complete rat, he added that she was ‘a nice woman’ who was merely ‘unfortunate that this thing has happened to her’ – cold comfort to her younger brother, who never doubted the guilt of the government worker. ‘The man was declared innocent because he swore on the Holy Koran,’ the brother remarked. ‘There is no truth in it. Now there is a death sentence hanging on the neck of my sister, while the man who impregnated her has gone scot-free.’