RATIONALIST INTERNATIONAL

Bulletin # 102 (19 September 2002)

http://www.rationalistinternational.net

IN THIS ISSUE

Nigeria: Flogging, amputations and more death-by-stoning sentences

India: The truth about the Face-Scratcher - — By Sanal Edamaruku

Bangladesh: Taslima Nasreen’s new novel banned

Iran: New divorce law - a step towards legal gender equality

Vatican: Women priests challenge the all-male hierarchy

 

Nigeria: Flogging, amputations and more death-by-stoning sentences

Amina Lawal Kurami could become the first person to be executed by stoning since the northern states of Nigeria have implemented Sharia (Islamic law).

The long awaited decision of the Islamic high court in Funtuas, Katsina state, shocked Nigeria’s growing human rights movement and people around the world. The court confirmed the barbarian judgment imposed upon the unwed mother by a Sharia court in Bakori in March 2002 on charges of adultery.

This is the second judgment of its kind. The first woman sentenced to death by stoning was Safiyatu Husseini Tunga-Tuda, condemned in October 2001. Under the pressure of worldwide protest, the Islamic appeal court in Sokoto acquitted Safiyatu in March 2002 [we reported in Bulletin # 88 and Bulletin # 93]. There had been the expectation that the appeal court, too, would acquit Amina Lawal.

The cases are very similar. Both Safiyatu (35) and Amina (30) were divorced by their former husbands and got pregnant out of wedlock. Both did not understand the implications of the drastic change of the legal system, which had taken place, and had no lawyer, when they admitted intimate relations outside marriage to the authorities. In both cases their confession was reason enough for the Sharia courts to impose the highest possible punishment on them, while the fathers of their babies escaped for lack of evidence. Under Sharia rules of proof, a man can only be convicted of adultery if there are four male witnesses for the act, while an unmarried woman can be condemned simply for becoming pregnant.

The acquittal by the appeal court in Safiyatu Husseini’s case was based on three reasons. First, the child had been conceived before Sharia was implemented in Sokoto state and therefore Islamic law was not applicable. Second, the accused had not been aware of the dire consequences of her confession, and third, she did not have a lawyer. Safiyatu was given opportunity by the appeal court to modify her statement and presented the astonishing – though under Islamic law officially acceptable – explanation that the baby was the child of her former husband only, which had been “sleeping” in her for two years after divorce.

Amina Lawal’s team of lawyers from the capital Abuja, who have meantime been organized by the Women’s Rights Advance and Protection Alternative, presented the same arguments, however without success. Amina had told the authorities in January that her then new-born daughter Wasilia was an offspring of her 11-moths-lasting intimate relation with her boy friend Yahaya Mahmud, who wanted to marry her. This confession remained the base of her conviction. The court was unimpressed by any protest. “Based on proofs derived through our investigations and through Islamic books I, Aliyu Abdullahi, and my three assistants hereby uphold your conviction of death by stoning as prescribed by the Sharia. This judgment will be carried out as soon as your baby is weaned”, declared the presiding judge. The ruling was answered with cheering and cries of “God is great!” from the public gallery of the packed courtroom.

Meantime an appeal has lodged with the higher court, informed the lawyers.

*

Nigeria is the most populous state of Africa. Half of its 120 million people are Muslims, half Christians. In 2000, the states of the predominantly Muslim north of the country started to implement Sharia. This triggered violent communal clashes, in which during the past three years more than 3000 people were killed. There are 12 Sharia states now, whose Muslim population is forced under the jurisdiction of religious penal courts, imposing barbarian punishments on them. Several men and young boys have been convicted to amputation of limbs for petty thefts. Some amputations have been already executed. A teenage girl, who became pregnant after being raped by three men, was punished for her “crime” with hundred public lashes last year. The list of alleged “adulterers”, being sentenced to death by stoning, is growing. So far, no execution by stoning has taken place.

Yunusa Ratin Chiyawa in Bauchi state, convicted to death by stoning in June for having a relation with a married woman, is the first man to face this punishment. The judgment was based on his confession; he had no lawyer. The woman was let free, as she claimed Yunusa had cast a spell on her. Amnesty International reported that the Bauchi state representative of the federal justice ministry tried to get the case transferred from the Sharia court to the high court of state, where there is no death penalty for adultery, but the Sharia court refused the transfer. It is not known if and how the dispute about competence between religious and state court has been solved and what is the further fate of the convicted.

Fatima Usman, divorced mother of 2 children, together with her boy friend Ahmadu Ibrahim, have been sentenced to death by stoning by an upper Sharia court in Niger state in August. The couple had been convicted for extra marital relations to 5 years jail in May. The upper court imposed the death sentence, after Fatima’s father lodged a complaint that the jail term was too mild a punishment. Their lawyer has filed an appeal.

The federal government of Nigeria under President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian, did not appreciate the implementation of Sharia in the northern states, but did not stop it either. In March 2002, alarmed by an international outcry against the death sentence for Satiyatu Husseini, the government made a half-hearted move to ban Islamic law. Justice Minister Kanu Agabi informed the 12 states concerned that Sharia was inhuman and violated the Nigerian constitution, but no further steps were taken. In fact, Sharia violates not only the Nigerian constitution, but also several international human rights legal instruments, signed and ratified by Nigeria. The federal government has therefore nothing less than the duty to ban Sharia in order to uphold the values and principles enshrined in the constitution as well as to guarantee the implementation of international human rights acts. But it seems to prefer a comfortable policy of non-interference. A speaker of the governor of Katsina state made it clear to the media that there would be no interference whatsoever in the case of Amina Lawall. President Obasanjo is quoted as saying: “I don’t think what is going on will lead to her death. Indeed, if it does, which I very much doubt, I will weep for myself, I will weep for Amina and I will weep for Nigeria.”

President Obasanjo has to be politely told that the civilized world expects more from him than tears: We expect him to uphold law and order and the constitution of his country and to respect international human rights standards. We expect him therefore to ban Sharia and stop the execution of cruel and inhuman punishments like flogging and amputations with immediate effect. We expect him to guarantee for the life of Amina Lawal and all others currently sentenced to death under the Islamic law. We expect him to prevent that Nigeria goes Taliban!

Please write to President Obasanjo:

His Excellency Olusegun Obasanjo, President of the Republic Nigeria

e-mail: webmaster@nigeria.gov.ng

Postal address: The Presidency, Federal Secretariat, Phase II, Shehu Shagari Way, Abuja, Nigeria

And please send a copy of your letter to Rationalist International at the following address:

HQ@rationalistinternational.net

 

India: The truth about the Face-Scratcher

by Sanal Edamaruku

Another dreadful creature has been terrifying North India this summer. In May last year, it had been the Monkey Man, who harassed the villages around New Delhi and was exposed by the Indian Rationalist Association as the collective product of a mass hysteria. (Please see reports in Rationalist International Bulletin # 72 MAY 23, 2001 and TIME Magazine MAY 28, 2001, VOL.157 NO.21 www.time.com/time/asia/news/magazine/0,9754,127298,00.html ). Recently, a new, though very similar monster appeared and stalked like Monkey Man’s reincarnation the neighboring state Uttar Pradesh. People called it Muhnochwa, the Face-Scratcher. It would reportedly dash down through the air in the dark of the night like a small UFO, emitting red and green beams, and hit people's faces with steel claws, leaving deep scratches, bleeding and burning with pain. Panic spread like wild fire and so did rumors and theories. Activists of the Indian Rationalist Association visited Sitapur, Varanasi, Mirzapur and other places in the affected area and tried to find out what was going on.

Like the old Monkey Man, the creature seemed to have as many different shapes as there were witnesses. Talking to villagers, we got descriptions of a flying cushion, a flying cat, an airplane, a giant insect, a flying saucer and much more. As different as his shapes were the theories about the monster’s origin. Some of the most popular suspects behind the spook were furious ghosts, asocial elements, the Mafia, Pakistan's intelligence agency and a "chemically engineered" insect. It turned out to be very difficult to find actual witnesses, though there were many people everywhere, who knew somebody, who had encountered the creature. None of our volunteers could manage to cast a glance at the flying horror. It simply did not show up in their presence. The only objective view available was a 2-minutes video spot recorded in Mizrapur. It showed a beam of light moving in circles and vanishing in the dark again, while people were screaming in fear. This did actually not reveal much of the secret and could well have been a simple torchlight also.

People employed very different strategies to protect themselves from the Face-Scratcher. In Sitapur, temples started hectically to perform special pujas to keep the harasser away, as local tantriks claimed to know that he was sent by angry ghosts and restless souls, who had to be pacified with prayer ceremonies and sacrifices. In other places, the miraculous attacker was object of emergency meetings of village security committees. People stayed awake all night, sitting alert together in front of their houses, armed with oil lamps, rods, spades and even guns. A little noise or an unexpected flash of light sometimes triggered gunshots. The simple mentioning of the word “Muhnochwa” could cause panic.

There were, however, three things, which would safely keep the monster away: water, light and rationalists. All reported attacks happened during the drought in places without water storage depots and preferably during the long hours of power cut. And wherever a rationalist volunteer would join the vigil, engaging the villagers in constructive discussions about their situation and showing concern for their daily problems and sorrows, the night would surely pass without disturbance.

It was very fast clear for us that the Face-Scratcher, like the Monkey Man, existed only in people’s fantasy. He had as many different faces as there were fearful hallucinators. But wouldn’t there be somebody or something that triggered the hallucinations? And caused the wounds?

There were allegedly more than 70 victims of the fantastic attacker, but it was hard to get some of the much spoken about wounds to see. What we were finally shown was quite disappointing: some harmless and unspecific skin-deep scratches. Physicians, called in to investigate them, found them superficial and could not see any cause for the burning, which many victims claimed to suffer. They looked quite like those wounds which the infamous Monkey Man had “produced” and which the rationalists had been able to identify in all known cases as self-inflicted with fingernails, forks and other instruments. Most of the victims had been completely unaware what they had done – a well-known psychological phenomenon.

Upon a proposal of the Indian Rationalist Association, the government asked the Air Force to search the flying creature with the radar system of a nearby base - without any result. Some scientists, called in to investigate the case, came up with different theories about the monster’s origin. Most convincing – though finally not proven – was a hypothesis from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kanpur. IIT-scientists proposed that the fast moving light, which people would observe before an attack, was caused by a rare meteorological phenomenon known as ball lightening. This can occur during drought, when earth particles, taken up by the wind, get electrically charged and appear in darkness as fast moving luminous balls. Hitting human skin, they would cause pain and irritation because of their acidic content. This was fitting very well to the descriptions, and under the given weather conditions during the long drought in the region quite possible. Though it seemed unlikely that the phenomenon occurred so frequently as attacks were reported, there could have been one initial event of ball lightening, which kicked off the chain of rumors, fantasies and reactions, or several events, here and there re-fuelling the mass hysteria. Possibly there have been also some other unusual phenomena, which contributed locally to the myth. In Lakhimpur, an unknown three-inches long insect with six claws was caught and declared the culprit. It was sent in a bottle to the zoological garden for investigation. Another face-scratcher was confiscated and publicly exhibited by the police in Lucknow. It was a flying object, constructed with a balloon, a kite and a small torch, which had been sent out by pranksters, who wanted to use the general fear for a joke.

Ball lightening, strange insects and kite-riding torches alone don’t make dreadful monsters. There was another very real factor incensing the horror fantasies. The Face-Scratcher raged during the peek of the drought in rural Uttar Pradesh, when many farmers feared for their future and desperation tuned into anger against a government, which did not offer any help and did not even provide regular power supply. Anxiety, tension and fury suddenly found a lightening-rod in the mysterious monster that appeared from nowhere. Emotions were running high. Irate mobs attacked several police stations, vandalized, burned vehicles and threw stones at policemen. In Sitapur, they vandalized a power station, when their demand for round-the-clock power supply was not met. People go berserk because the authorities don’t protect them from the Face-Scratcher, said a section of the press. Farmers revolt because the government ignores their existential needs, said others. It seemed to be difficult to find out what had there been first: the fantastic monster or the very real existential crisis and the government failure. The authorities had anyway some reason to welcome the flying scapegoat.

May be to wipe out any suspect, they tried their level best to escape rationalist criticism this time. During the Monkey Man affair, the rationalists’ had been the lone sane voice in a sea of confusion. While the Indian Rationalist Association firmly insisted in the media that there was no monster, only an explainable mass hysteria, noisy police patrols tried to catch the phantom in narrow village lanes. Motorcycle brigades and high tech equipped police troops of up to 5000 men hunted the fantasy creature across the capital. An award was promised for its capture. The authorities had earned harsh criticism from rationalists and media for provoking a dramatic escalation of the situation.

Now they seemed to have studied their lesson. There was no hectic monster hunt and no sensationalism. It was even reported that policemen distributed leaflets, informing that the monster was nothing but a rumor, caused by some unusual weather phenomenon. Such reports about laudable efforts to enlighten the furious villagers could, however, never be confirmed. The police leaflet remained as elusive as the monster itself.

Slowly panic came down, but the horrible Face-Scratcher was reluctant to leave the drought stricken villages completely. Only when the first showers of the long awaited monsoon watered the stone-dry fields, he disappeared as swift as he had emerged.

 

Bangladesh: Taslima Nasreen’s new novel banned

The government of Bangladesh has banned publication, sale, distribution and collection of Taslima Nasreen’s latest novel Utal Hawa Pol (Wild Wind), written in Bengali language. The police have been asked to confiscate all available copies. The novel “contains anti-Islam sentiments and statements that could destroy the religious harmony of Bangladesh”, declared the Home Ministry in a statement.

Wild Wind, published in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, is the second part of an autobiographical novel. The first part Amar Meyebela (My Girlhood) was published in Kolkata in 1999 and also immediately banned in her homeland.

Taslima Nasreen had to flee Bangladesh in 1994, when fundamentalists pronounced a fatwa against her and put a price on her head, while the government (also under Prime Minister Khaleda Zia at that time) hunted her for blasphemy. Since her escape, the author has been living in exile in Sweden, Germany and France. In Bangladesh there are still court cases pending against her, which had been filed by fundamentalists, when her novel Lajja (Shame) appeared, which has meantime been translated into English and all major European languages.

Taslima Nasreen is an Honorary Associate of Rationalist International.

 

Iran: New divorce law – a step towards gender equality

The Majlis, Iran’s reformist dominated 290-seat parliament, has approved an amendment to the civil code, which could be the first step on the long way to gender equality. The bill grants women the right to file for divorce, which was previously reserved for men only. It also rules claims to alimony, housing and health allowances. On its way to come into effect, the bill will, however, have to pass another serious hurdle: it needs, like all laws approved by the parliament, the final nod of the Islamic hardliners in the Guardian Council.

Equal rights for women have up to now been a distant dream in Iran. Under Islamic law, women need their husband’s permission to work or to travel abroad. In court, a woman’s testimony has only half the weight of that of a man. And while men are allowed to have four wives, nothing similar is permitted for women.

Up to now, the majority of the women are prisoners of marriages, in which they have been forced as children and in which society expects them to bear silently and obediently whatever humiliations and hardships may be in stock for them. Because of social constraints and rigid divorce laws, there is no escape from unbearable marriages.

During the recent months, a new phenomenon has sent out shock waves: husband killings. Since February 2002, more than 20 clear cases have occurred in Teheran alone. Middle-aged women murdered their husbands after 20 or 30 years of frustration, humiliation, beating and rape, suffered in social isolation. They tried to break out from the hell, they said. Sociologists warn to take these signs of social stress seriously and act, before the social crisis reaches a breaking point. These husband-killings may have opened many eyes and contributed to a noticeable change in public approach.

Many reformists, among the especially the 12 female lawmakers in the Majlis, are fighting for “comprehensive changes” to improve women’s rights in Iran. The passing of the new divorce bill is a first fruit of their efforts. The climate for social and legal changes towards gender equality has become more favorable, after President Mohammad Khatami appointed a woman as vice-president.

 

Vatican: Women priests challenge the all-male hierarchy

It is still vehemently disputed, what really happened on a certain boat on the Danube on 29 June, 2002. Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger and her six colleagues from Germany, Austria and USA insist they have been ordained as Catholic priests. The invited media witnessed an immaculate ordination ceremony. But the Vatican is far from accepting this. Its all-male hierarchy hates the idea of a female invasion into their terrain like Satan hates holy water. Pope John Paul II has repeatedly and strictly ruled out any discussion on the Catholic Church’s ban on women in the priesthood. Neither the dramatic lack of priesthood candidates nor the recent bombshell of priestly child abuse could make him consider thinking again.

The unspeakable event on the Danube was handled the radical way: the seven women priests were excommunicated for attacking the fundamental structure of the Catholic Church. It could not be described as a private sin that the women considered themselves priests, said top Vatican official Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone in his tight-lipped comment on the affair in Radio Vaticano. Rather it was “a public act” that “attacks the fundamental structure of the church as it was wanted by its founder”. The seven women priests call their excommunication “a further act of discrimination against women in the Catholic Church”.

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Honorary Associates: Dr. Pieter Admiraal (The Netherlands), Prof. Mike Archer (Australia), Katsuaki Asai (Japan), Prof. Colin Blakemore (UK), Sir Hermann Bondi (UK), Prof. Vern Bullough (UK), Dr. Bill Cooke (New Zealand), Dr. Helena Cronin (UK), Prof. Richard Dawkins (UK), Joseph Edamaruku (India), Prof. Antony Flew (UK), Prof. Jim Herrick (UK), Christopher Hitchens (USA), Ellen Johnson (USA), Prof. Paul Kurtz (USA), Lavanam (India), Dr. Richard Leakey (Kenya), Iain Middleton (New Zealand), Henry Morgentaler (Canada), Taslima Nasreen (Bangladesh), Steinar Nilsen (Norway), Prof. Jean-Claude Pecker (France), James Randi (USA), Prof. Ajoy Roy (Bangladesh), Dr. G N Jyoti Shankar (deceased, USA), Barbara Smoker (UK), Prof. Harry Stopes-Roe (UK), Prof. Rob Tielman (The Netherlands), David Tribe (Australia), Barry Williams (Australia), Richard Wiseman (UK) and Prof. Lewis Wolpert (UK)

Sanal Edamaruku, President of Rationalist International, can be contacted at Edamaruku@rationalistinternational.net