Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Low Gudgeon in High Dudgeon

One of the great things about being of the right is the franchise it grants on misrepresentation. If you want an example, consider Stanley Gudgeon's recent piece on Pamela Bone. In Monday's Age, under the unfortunate headline "When support for a cause smacks of a new imperialism", Bone wrote:

An email going around contains a petition to the Government of Nigeria, asking it to rescind the death sentence imposed on a young woman, Amina Lawal, for adultery. The email says Lawal (whose baby is proof of her crime under the Sharia law of her state) is to be buried up to her neck and stoned to death this week, the execution having been postponed until her baby was weaned.

There are reasons not to sign it. Another email from Nigerian human rights group Baobab respectfully asks international "friends" to stop the letter campaign. It advises that the information contained in the petition is not only inaccurate but may be damaging this case and others like it.

In bunyip-speak, this translates to:

... Pamela Bone's most recent piece in the Age, in which she pleads for people to stop writing letters in support of Amina Lawal, the Nigerian woman sentenced to death by stoning for the "crime" of adultery.

Too many annoying letters, Bone explains, and the likely result will be that the savages get even more upset, their resolve will stiffen and, if the pleas really get their goat, authorities may even bring forward the date of the execution in order to grind a thumb in the eye of civilised sensibilities. We must be cultural attuned, the columnist preaches, allow Sharia law to have its way and hope for the best. No women have yet been stoned, so Bone reckons Lawal has an excellent chance of winning her appeal and escaping unscathed. The problem isn't Lawal's persecutors, its those yapping Westerners raising such a fuss. To support her point - at least that is what the Professor thinks she's trying to do, because the column is even more illogical than it is disjointed - she cites the $15 billion the United States is making available to combat AIDS in Africa. Apparently this could be a bad thing - quite possibly "cultural imperialism", which may be even worse in Bone's eyes than burying women up to their necks and whacking them with big rocks.

As paraphrases go, this is one of Stanley's more accurate: he at least manages to cover most of the major points in Bone's article, even though he is viewing it through crap coloured glasses. To show how well the Professor has captured Bone's argument, here's the section of Bone's article dealing with Ms Lawal's current situation:

"Although the stress on Ms Lawal is obviously considerable and awful, she is not in immediate danger of being stoned," Baobab says. Her legal process is still several steps away from the final option of appeal to Nigeria's Supreme Court. So far, not one such appeal taken up by Baobab, with the support of women's groups in Nigeria, has been lost.

If there is an immediate danger to the women under sentence of stoning or flogging, says Baobab, it is that local politicians or vigilante groups will carry out the sentences to defy international opinion. In one case in which a woman was flogged, despite an appeal pending and despite an international letter-writing campaign, the local governor boasted of his resistance to "these letters from infidels".

Besides, the human rights groups do not want pardons for the women; they want the convictions and sentences imposed by local religious courts to be overturned by higher courts, to show they are wrong in law.

Bone's position, the Professor assures us, represents a complete back flip from the position she took in this article, published in The Age on November 16, 2002. Here Bone says:

Islamic fundamentalist groups are angry about having the Miss World pageant in Nigeria, branding it a "parade of nudity". Well, let them be, because however ideologically unsound beauty contests might be to some (they don't bother this feminist), this represents a great victory by women over religious fundamentalism.

Yet on Monday, according to the Professor's precis, she's taking a typical lefty post-colonialist, post-modernist, post-macchiato position on the same issue. Perhaps he overlooked this paragraph:

Culture is not sacred. And as Doris Lessing observed recently, customs are never as strongly valued as when they are about the subjection of women. There are many progressive men and women in Africa who know that cultural practices have largely been dreamed up by men to suit men, and must be changed, not only to stop the AIDS pandemic but because justice demands it.

And Bone's muddled position on the US funding to combat AIDS? Here it is, more or less:

Yet the difference between support and cultural imperialism can be difficult to judge. The US Senate recently passed a $US15 billion($A23 billion) bill to stop the spread of AIDS in Africa, which included funding to teach "feminism" to African men. The money will be used, in part, to fund programs to reduce sexual violence and coercion, child marriage and polygamy.


The Bush Administration's commitment to the empowerment of women would have more credibility, however, had it not been cutting funding to any programs that might give information about abortion as part of their service. The fact that a large part of the new money is to be used to promote sexual abstinence also gives rise to suspicions that its main interest is in pursuing its own conservative social agenda globally.

Many African men do need to be taught feminism. But perhaps it is African women, rather than men in Washington, who are best suited to teach them.

In support of his case against Bone, Stanley links to where he found this description of the rioting which forced the Miss World pageant to be moved out of Nigeria: outbreak of violence between Muslims and Christians (triggered in part by opposition to the Miss World content, which has been characterized by fundamentalist Islamic groups as a "parade of nudity" likely to undermine the fight against AIDS) spread to the Nigerian capital of Abuja -- planned site of the beauty pageant -- and left over 100 people dead and several hundred more injured, the Miss World pageant organizers moved the event to London instead, thereby eliminating one of the Nigerian federal government's prime motivations for preventing the execution of Amina's death sentence. Without a reversal of the ruling by the Sharia court ... preventing her execution will require intervention by force, an act that has the potential to plunge Nigeria into civil war.

Don't be bothered by the little dots: Stanley isn't playing silly buggers with elisions this time. On the other hand, it appears that Stanley stopped reading at the end of that paragraph. Here's the next paragraph:

Would sending letters to the Sharia appeals court in Katsina (the one which has already heard her appeal and rejected it) help? This is even more unlikely: Muslim fundamentalists deeply resent Western interference of any sort at any time, so telling them the world will be angry with them unless they reverse themselves isn't going to be the carrot that will inspire this particular donkey. They believe the teachings of the Koran and their interpretations and applications of them are entirely above matters of world opinion -- to them, they are answering to God, and nothing may be placed ahead of that.

And an update from the bottom of the page:

Update: A revised petition circulated in mid-2003 claimed Amina was due to be executed by stoning on 3 June 2003. This information is wrong: 3 June is the date Amina is next scheduled to appear before the state Sharia court of appeal. For now, her death sentence remains suspended until January 2004 to give her time to raise her child until it is old enough to be weaned.

Perhaps in his haste to get to the meaty bits, he also overlooked this while scrolling down the page:

Will signing a petition help the cause? In all likelihood it won't. The person to whom the missive is being addressed, Olusegun Obasanjo, the President of Nigeria, is both opposed to the sentence and almost powerless to do anything about it. He has said that under Nigeria's federal system of government the mainly Muslim northern states have every right to reintroduce the Sharia code into their penal law, and that while he will weep for Amina and for Nigeria itself if her execution is carried out, he will not overturn the finding of that court.

And also the link to this page on why Internet petitions in general are a waste of time.

Finally, let's look at some information from Baobob, the Nigerian human rights group Bone refers to and which the Professor cites, after his enthusiastic discovery that Baobob clearly speaks Bone's language. Here's the Professor's quotation from their web-site:

Dominant colonialist discourses and the mainstream international media have presented Islam (and Africa) as the barbaric and savage Other. Please do not buy into this. Accepting stereotypes that present Islam as incompatible with human rights not only perpetuates racism but also confirms the claims of right-wing politico-religious extremists in all of our contexts.

And here's something he skipped - an example of how an international letter writing campaign led to the flogging of another Nigerian woman under Sharia law:

Dangers of Letter Writing Campaigns?

However, if there is an immediate physical danger to Ms. Lawal and others, it is from vigilante and political further (over)reaction to international attempts at pressure. This has happened already in the case of Bariya Magazu, the unmarried teenager convicted of zina (extra-marital sex) and sentenced to flogging in Zamfara in 1999. Ms. Magazu’s sentence was quite illegally brought forward with no notice, despite the earlier assurances of the trial judge that the sentence would not be carried out for at least a year. She was told the night before that it would be carried out very early the next morning (and thus had no way of contacting anyone for help even if this unschooled and poor rural teenager had access to a telephone or organizing knowledge and experience), whilst the state bureaucracy had been instructed to obstruct and was physically refusing to take the appeal papers from BAOBAB’s lawyers. The extra-legal carrying out of the sentence was not despite national and international pressure; it was deliberately to defy it. The Governor of Zamfara State boasted of his resistance to "these letters from infidels" – even to sniggering over how many letters he had received. Thus, we would like you to recognise that an international protest letter campaign is not necessarily the most productive way to act in every situation. On the contrary, women’s rights defenders should assess potential backlash effects before devising strategies.

I think further comment from me would be superfluous.

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