Again:understanding a sister’s struggle - the plight of Nigerian women under Islamic law

Since the introduction of Sharia law in the northern states of Nigeria the plight of Nigerian women has come to the attention of the world. In particular young women have been condemned to being stoned to death after being charged of the "crime" of adultery. This is a particularly barbaric aspect of class society and will only really be eradicated together with the system that spawns it, when the workers of Nigeria overthrow capitalism. Below we are publishing a comment on this situation by a Nigerian Marxist.

“And if there is no proof of virginity, she must be stoned to death. 
For she had done a sinful thing: having sex outside wedlock” (Deuteronomy, 22: 20)

Introduction

Since the introduction of Sharia law in the northern states of Nigeria the plight of Nigerian women has come to the attention of the world. In particular young women have been condemned to being stoned to death after being charged of the "crime" of adultery. This is a particularly barbaric aspect of class society and will only really be eradicated together with the system that spawns it, when the workers of Nigeria overthrow capitalism. Below we are publishing a comment on this situation by a Nigerian Marxist.

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Events in the lives of two women in Nigeria once more focus our attention on the position of women in class society. Safiya Huseini's face tells a life story - a woman oppressed by her religion, her womanhood, her society. For daring to challenge the dictates of a patriarchal society she was condemned to death. Amina Lawal is herself a no less "perfect" specimen of a Muslim woman. Neither was her crime any different from that of Safiya’s. They both had sex outside wedlock. But, while Safiya has escaped punishment Amina’s fate still hangs in the balance.

Both women have more in common than a shared crime - and they share this with millions of women, particularly under the rule of Islamic law. To be sure the position of women in "Christian" society is not a paradise and much still has to be done to achieve genuine emancipation, but compared to her Muslim counterpart she has conquered more rights.

For Safiya and Amina, and certainly for countless others, their girlhood under Islamic traditions was a prison. From the day they were born, they were trapped. They were never treated as equal human beings, as persons with pride and dignity.

The Muslim girl is never allowed to draw a free breath. Her mind, her desires are locked inside a prison. She must not sing or laugh when a male is nearby, not even her own brothers. She is not allowed to touch a boy - even slightly. She must not argue or disobey - even when she is right. She can only do what men permit her to do. 'Obey, work, submit'. She must not smile at a boy, play with a boy, speak to a boy.

The honour of the family depended on her keeping herself a virgin, the honour of her womanhood depended on her having her virginity on the wedding night: she was made to understand this. On the contrary, adultery as a concept does not exist for the men who are permitted as many wives as they desire. Not so for a Muslim woman. She was molded into a blob who was not supposed to have feelings or a mind of her own. From girlhood to womanhood she was controlled and enslaved. Even her body was not hers to use for pleasure: it existed to defend a man's honour, her father’s. And when she was sold into marriage it belonged to her husband - to use as he desires. She had no say in the matter - nothing but a receptacle, a bird in a cage.

This was the path that both women walked to their criminal status. Given in marriage - in their teens to men whom they never knew, never loved and who were old enough to be their fathers - they were divorced with the simple pronouncement "I divorce you", repeated three times. Night after night, taken against their will - and discarded at will.

Sexuality and Civilization

Class society displays a tendency to repress sexuality - to behave towards sexuality as a class does towards another it oppresses. And fear of revolt increases repression.

As we consider the calendar of events we confront a seeming paradox. In the same society where a woman stands condemned for engaging in sex outside wedlock there were plans for the Miss World pageant to be staged.

Actually there is no contradiction in this once we have an understanding of the social function of the pageant: the girl who emerges winner symbolizes the values and aspirations of a social system - hawking and endless trivia on TV, in magazines, on Billboards, etc.

There are sexual taboos surrounding this young girl, the latest Miss World as well. This young girl with carefully prescribed anatomical features and "personality", makes a statement about Safiya and Amina - who are themselves equally victims of sexual taboos. They all mirror the ethos of commodity production in which genuine individualism conflicts with mass production and its standardization. It goes back to the myths of the Immaculate Conception and Original Sin. Both women are victims of a social system that crowd and cower men and women into fixed patterns of behaviour. The Miss World Beauty Pageant is an illustration of such despotic power.

Patriarchy

It was the original production of a surplus that created patriarchal society, i.e. class society. Before this time whatever gender differentiation that existed was not associated with male or female domination. However, the production of a surplus led to private appropriation, classes, exploitation, patriarchy, etc.

Out of this arose male domination through the so-called 'head of the family', with patrilineal and patrilocal marriages with crucial distinctions between wife, mistress, prostitute: and legal systems that legitimizes patriarchal control of men over their wives and children - backed by the organized violence of the state.

Only when aspects of this control break through our religion and cultural rationalizations, as in the twin cases of Safiya and Amina, do the media suddenly start looking for answers. However, they conveniently ignore the fact that the same social system that legitimizes subjugation of one class by another also legitimizes men's need to control women's sexuality.

The justice system of the bourgeoisie is wracked with a brutal class spirit. The victims of this obnoxious practice are all working class women, who suffer not just class oppression but also gender oppression. This fact is underlined by the circumstances of the crime. Where are the co-respondents? Both were discharged for the guilty women's inability to produce four witnesses of impeccable character. What this actually means is that the testimony of a woman - a peasant one at that - does not equal that of a man.

For us Marxists the women's question is a social question. Women must have the freedom to control their own bodies, minds, desires, and self-image. Only genuine Socialism will give women their freedom by overthrowing the rule of Capital. The struggle for the emancipation of women is an inevitable aspect of the Nigerian Revolution and we, as Marxists, must take it up.

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