I’ve written this column before. I really don’t know why I’m writing it again.
After all, there’s little that you or I can do to change things. No letter to a congressman or threat of boycott that’s likely to do any good. So I guess I’m writing just because it would feel wrong not to, immoral to walk past in silence.
Two Nigerian women were recently sentenced to death by stoning for the crime of adultery. They were convicted under Sharia, a harsh form of Islamic law. The men they committed adultery with were both acquitted.
If the news gives you a sense of deja vu, well ... as I said, we’ve been down this road before. The first time, it was Amina Lawal, a Nigerian peasant who was sentenced to die in a similar way for a similar “crime.” Her sentence was overturned last year.
After which, Helon Habila, a Nigerian novelist, wrote an essay in the New York Times reassuring horrified observers that Lawal was never in any real danger of being buried up to her neck and having stones heaved at her head. Had the Sharia courts upheld the sentence, he said, she would ultimately have been freed by Nigeria’s federal courts, which are superior to the Sharia courts and do not recognize adultery as a crime.
Habila will have to forgive me if I take limited comfort from his reassurances. I’m too stupefied by the thought that a society exists where such a barbaric sentence can be so selectively imposed. Stupefied, but not truly surprised.
“Woman,” John Lennon once sang, “is the N-word of the world.” His choice of words was regrettable but the sentiment is unassailable.
How can you feel otherwise when you consider the court’s sentence in Nigeria? Or when rape is a weapon of war in Serbia. Or when genital mutilation – so called “female circumcision” – is common in Mali. Or when girls and women are kidnapped into sex slavery in Russia. Or when a gang’s sexual assault of a woman in Swaziland is called justified because the victim was wearing a miniskirt.
There’s always an excuse, isn’t there? Always a rationalization. The judges in Nigeria employed arguably the most common: God. He wants these women stoned for adultery. He wants the men they laid with to go free.
This is the implicit message of the sentence. And God’s mercy? God’s compassion? God’s love? Somehow, they always get lost in translation.
I’m reminded of a minister friend who likes to say Christianity is wonderful, except for some of the Christians in it. I tend to think the same is true of Islam and, indeed, faith in general. All, it seems to me, are overpopulated with narrow-minded literalists, hypocritical fundamentalists and frothing extremists eager to act as God’s understudies for purposes of judgment and punishment, yet conspicuously absent when it comes time to turn the other cheek, feed my sheep and love ye one another.
Or stand ye up for women who, after all, represent half the human population of the planet.
W.E.B. DuBois famously predicted that race would be the defining issue of the 1900s. “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” he said.
I would not be shocked if the same were true with regard to gender in this century. Not just here, but around the world. Sooner or later, we have to realize that the issue is not women’s rights, but human rights and it ought to be framed as such.
As I said coming in, there is a certain sense of futility in writing this. What can we do? Nigeria is a sovereign nation far away. So are Swaziland, Serbia, Mali and Russia.
But I figure that, at the very least, we can know these things are happening and refuse to let them happen in silence.
Sometimes, you’ve got to scream, even if you don’t have words.
Leonard Pitts can be reached at One Herald Plaza, Miami, FL 33132 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.