In Nigeria ‘s Muslim north, women-only tricycle taxis a symbol of compromise
ICC NOTE: Clash of the Sharia law and the culture of Nigeria . To truly implement the fullest expression of the Sharia is to be extremely brutal, and there is a measure opposition of that in Northern Nigeria .
3/26/07 Nigeria For the full article (International Herald Tribune) New lemon-yellow motorized rickshaws for women, bearing the slogan “Be Pious,” are vying for pole position at traffic-choked intersections in Nigeria’s Muslim-dominated north.
The subsidized rides with pull-around shades to thwart prying male eyes hit the streets of Kano in recent months after women were banned from riding on motorcycle taxis on which they were pressed against male drivers.
The motorized rickshaws embody a struggle across the north to reconcile a strict interpretation of a foreign religion with Nigeria ‘s culture and secular constitution and the quotidian realities of African poverty.
Nigeria is officially secular, with its 140 million people nearly evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. Christians predominant in the coastal south and Muslims in the north.
After more than a decade of brutal, controlling military rule ended with President Olusegun Obasanjo’s election in 1999, many in the north began clamoring for Islamic law in many ways, a reaction to general lawlessness and Nigeria ‘s shattered justice system.
Many northern politicians seized on the issue as a reliable vote-getter. As civilian rule and the new millennium dawned, 12 states across the north declared that they would follow Shariah, the Islamic civil and criminal code.
Riots flared. Christian and Muslim youths did battle in Kano and other cities, leaving hundreds dead.
Obasanjo, a southerner and a Christian, and others in the federal government declared their opposition to Shariah and said they would work to ensure it’s implementation wouldn’t run afoul of the federation, which gives wide powers to the states. When Shariah has clashed with national law, the federal government has won.
Obasanjo, a southern Christian, is barred by term limits from running in April elections in which Muslims are the three main candidates. Even if the next president is Muslim, Nigerians say constitutional checks make it impossible to strengthen Shariah much further, or extend it over the country.
Islamic fervor is stronger in northern Nigeria than in many other parts of Muslim West Africa, and Osama Bin Laden has targeted the country for “liberation.” But signs of the most stringent interpretations of Islam are rare here.
Only one amputation ordered by a Shariah judge is known to have taken place, and no executions.
Unlike many countries in the Middle East , from where Islam was brought to Nigerian hundreds of years ago by Arab slave and spice traders, women drive cars and vote. The have unfettered access to state education, although female literacy lags that of males. Women run for elected office, albeit rarely.
Despite a statewide ban on the sale of alcohol, beer and whiskey is openly sold in the north’s Christian enclaves and the occasional man in Muslim gown and cap can be seen tipping back a green bottle of Star beer.
Many Muslim women cover their hair, but few adopt body-shrouding veils.
Nigerians say the strictest interpretation of Shariah runs counter to their culture. Keeping women behind doors and out of sight, or cloaking them in fabric, is a foreign idea in Nigeria , where women play leading roles in economic life.
“That can be practiced in Saudi, but not here,” says Haruna Bakar, a 29-year old male mill worker. “The religion came from Saudi, but when it came here, it met our culture.”
Shariah has also met Nigeria ‘s poverty, which is among the worst in the world despite billions of dollars in government revenue generated by the country’s oil industry, the biggest in Africa .
A fact of life in Nigeria is that all able hands are put to use, male or female, at whatever jobs can be found.
For Aisha Ahmed Hassan, the head of the country’s Muslim Sisters’ Association, strict Shariah would be the natural state of being if not for poverty.
She supported the 2005 ban on women riding motorcycle taxis, but says women chose the motorbikes because that’s all they could afford, not out of impiety.
“For me, what’s un-Islamic is the situation that made them do that. Their knees and legs are out, but they were just doing it because they have no other option,” she said. “It’s not ladylike.”