Friday, 19 July 2013

In the name of religion

There was a story recently about a 20 year-old man who allegedly raped a nine-year-old girl to death.  According to him, he was walking her home when he was suddenly overcome with lustful thoughts. ‘I discussed with her and she accepted so I took her to one of the abandoned buildings that has [sic] been overtaken by weeds, where I told her to remove her underwear and she complied.’ Because the place was filthy – ‘The uncompleted building is now used as a toilet’ – he turned her around and told her to bend over so they could do it standing up. When she started to cry out in pain he thought she was ‘pretending’. The next thing he knew she had slumped.
This case was unusual only because the victim died. According to reports, the rape of underage girls has been on the increase over the last few years although, as with all statistics in Nigeria, nobody really knows.  What is certain, in any case, is that there must be many, many more than we read about in the pages of the newspapers for obvious enough reasons. The sole consolation, such as it is, is that the culprits can be charged to court under the country’s criminal laws, although given the state of the criminal justice system – corruption everywhere you look, as we recently saw in the case of the last chief justice of the FCT – this isn’t necessarily saying much. But now even this recourse of ‘the common man’, as the saying has it, is about to change by making such rapes legal.
To Nigeria’s great shame, the Senate recently amended the 1999 Constitution – an illegal document to begin with but we must work with what we have – to allow for underage marriage. According to Ahmed Yerima, who caused nationwide uproar in 2009 by marrying a 13-year-old Egyptian in contravention of the Child Rights Act, such a provision was un-Islamic because ‘any woman that is married is of age and if you say 18 years you are going against Islamic law’, and, further, that a woman or girl who is married shall be considered ‘of age’ by virtue of her marital status. In other words, even an infant can be considered ‘of age’ once she has been taken in wedlock. The vote was passed by 65 votes to 30, which gives an idea of the moral bankruptcy – to say nothing of the darker desires - of those charged with making laws for the good governance of the country.
By all accounts, the session was rowdy. David Mark, the Senate president and one of the dissenters, tried to deflect the discussion by pointing out that the relevant clauses had already been put to the vote in the ongoing constitution amendment exercise and that standing policy was not to revisit them. Yerima promptly accused him of ‘double standards’ by citing two previous exceptions, whereupon Mark conceded that ‘it could be revisited another time after Islamic scholars can argue it’ before finally capitulating ‘[b]ecause of the sensitivity of issues on religion’. It is a measure of how distorted our politics has become that the ‘issue’ of religion should come up at all given the secular provisions of this same Constitution which is forced to recognise – albeit with certain provisos – the multiplicity of faiths attempting to rub along in what is already a delicate balancing act foisted on an unwilling populace.
That Yerima himself should invoke Islam in order to justify a degenerate lifestyle is hardly surprising. During the controversy over his Egyptian bride he had claimed his allegiance to the Koran ahead of the Constitution he had otherwise sworn to uphold, but perhaps he was merely obfuscating in order to deflect attention from the constitutional provisions he was intent on not upholding - but which he nevertheless now wants to amend. Islam may indeed permit the paedophilia he assiduously practices - in 2006 he married a 15-year-old he plucked from school before going for an even younger model – but if so surely not in such specious terms: a girl is of age once she is married and so doesn’t have to be 18 in order to be of age. Why not just say that you want to violate little girls?
In fact the ‘issue’ is less about Islam than the excuse to indulge the irresponsible antics of a power-drunk ruling class for whom religion –and not only Islam – is a convenient cover. But to accuse those who make up this class of simple hypocrisy would be to miss the point. It is telling how often we are exhorted to respect ‘duly constituted authority’ in order that the likes of Yerima might continue as they do, being themselves bound by a higher authority which itself cannot be questioned, a sort of divinely appointed chain of command with God – or Allah – in His Heaven and all’s right with the world. It was for this reason that the Senate president was quick to trample on the Constitution he had also sworn to uphold by seeking the opinion of Islamic scholars on one of its provisions, as if what they thought mattered any more than would those of your local pastor. Both have a role to play, no doubt, but not when it involves the fundamental human rights of Nigerian citizens, which alone are sacrosanct.
For Yerima, of course, the girls he would violate – does violate – are no more real than pets he might want to acquire as playthings, to be discarded when no longer needed. The only question is: how much? For the Egyptian girl it was $100,000, but then she was a more exotic creature than the 15-year-old he promptly divorced in order not to violate – so many violations – the Islamic injunction on the number of such pets you may keep under your roof at any one time. Before long Boko Haram will be telling us that murder is also sanctioned from above.
© Adewale Maja-Pearce

Adewale Maja-Pearce is the author of several books, including Loyalties
and Other Stories, In My Father's Country, How many miles to Babylon?, A
Mask Dancing, Who's Afraid of Wole Soyinka?, From Khaki to Agbada,
Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and Other Essays, A Peculiar Tragedy, and
Counting the Cost, as well as the 1998 and 1999 annual reports on human
rights violations in Nigeria. He also edited The Heinemann Book of African
Poetry in English, Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal, Christopher Okigbo:
Collected Poems, The New Gong Book of New Nigerian Short Stories,

and Dream Chasers.

Click here to see Maja-Pearce's page:

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