Casting the first stone
The ruling to stone a Nigerian woman for adultery is terrible. So is our rush to judge Nigeria.
Human rights organisations, including London-based Amnesty International, have expressed outrage at the case of the Nigerian mother Amina Lawal, who has been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery.
But after the initial shock reaction at such a horrible punishment for an act I’m not used to considering criminal, I have started wondering which humans and what rights these organisations mean.
When a story like this hits the papers, complete with photographs of the convicted woman breastfeeding her illegitimate offspring, the desire to ‘parent the savages’ swells in ‘more moral and well-behaved nations’.
It is hard not to sit back and wave your all-knowing human rights hands in the air. But if I had been brought up in an Islamic nation, I’d probably feel differently about this case. Indeed, Lawal herself was quietly accepting of the situation. ‘God is in control. I believe he will vindicate me’, she said (1).
In the Bible, there is a passage that reads: ‘Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print and marks upon you.’ (2) So debates rage on Christian websites among teenagers in Western nations trying to decide whether tattoos and body piercings are sinful.
In Jewish law, any act of ha-sh’cha’tat zerah – destruction of the seed, or ejaculation outside of the vagina – is forbidden. The Talmud also states that ‘in the case of a man, the hand that reaches below the navel should be chopped off’ (3).
Here in the UK and the USA, we also read about pro-life campaigners who wage violent campaigns against doctors who perform abortions, and animal rights activists who plant bombs for their cause.
Yet human rights organisations and the media always seem more focused on mad belief systems ‘over there’.
There is an immense imbalance of power between Western and African nations. In the Western world, we still believe ourselves to have a superior paternal relationship to undeveloped countries. Human rights is just a nice way of putting it.
It is ironic that at a time when people are keen to celebrate cultural difference, when young people wear ethnic clothing and Henna tattoos and we’re encouraged to bring exotic cuisine to staff meetings, that we’re still so keen to look down our noses at strange practices from the ‘dark continent’.
It’s lovely to travel the world buying sari material and wooden models of African elephants to bring home for your friends – until somebody mentions female circumcision. After that, celebrating cultural practices quickly becomes less of a priority.
There is nothing to be achieved by intervening in or condemning the laws and practices of other countries. It will simply reinforce the already skewed power balance between the developed and developing worlds. Saying ‘We know better, we’ll tell you how to do things right’ isn’t that different from saying: ‘We are better.’
There is conflict in Nigeria itself over the introduction of the strict Islamic sharia law that imposes the death penalty for adultery. There is debate over what is right and wrong. People aren’t just running around beating drums and bumping off women left, right and centre. So why do we here in Europe and the USA feel the need to get involved?
There is an expression about casting the first stone that human rights activists would do well to remember. After all, isn’t there a case to be made for the rights of the Nigerian people to be treated as an equal nation, capable of enforcing, or acting to change, the law in Nigeria as they – and not all-knowing foreign activists – see fit?
The ruling to stone Amina Lawal to death is not pleasant. But the judgement of Nigeria by other nations is just as unpleasant.
The rise and rise of human rights, by Jon Holbrook
Tusk, tusk, by Ray Crowley
(1) Woman loses stoning death appeal, Reuters, 20 August 2002
(2) Levictus 19.28, King James Bible
(3) Niddah 13a, Talmud
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