Women is...

In September 2003, I met Amina Lawal, an illiterate villager from northern Nigeria who was made famous in 2001 when an Islamic Shari’a court sentenced her to death by stoning for having a baby out of wedlock. At the time of our meeting, she was appealing the sentence and in a matter of weeks would be sitting before an appeals court to receive the judges’ ruling.

I first met Amina at the house of her lawyer, Hauwa Ibrahim. The following day, she and her lawyer came to my fiancé’s house for the interview. Amina brought her baby, who was then one year old.

Talking with Amina was difficult. We spoke different Nigerian languages, and she didn’t speak English. She had gone to Koranic School, where she had memorized parts of the Koran and learned how to pray, but she hadn’t had a secular education. Questions had to be simple; subordinate clauses confused her.

However, from our first meeting, I was struck by the air of peace and calm that surrounded Amina. She seemed gentle, self-effacing, and docile. During the interview, she spoke briefly and sometimes would not speak at all, preferring to let her lawyer, who had become like a second mother to her, speak for her. Below is the interview, followed by my reflections on the experience.

Could you talk about your background, childhood, parents, and family?
[Amina’s lawyer answers for her.] Amina is from a village called Kurami, in Katsina state. Her father, a farmer, died when she was young, and she grew up with her mother and stepfather. She has no formal education but went to Koranic School. She got married when she was thirteen or fourteen years old. She has three kids with her husband and was divorced a couple of days ago. Her oldest child is twelve years old.

What are your expectations for your life?
I leave my life to God.

What were your dreams when you were growing up?
We had no dreams. We were not brought up to think that we could dream.

Since the Shari’a case, how has your life changed?
My situation is not one that is accepted. People look at me when I go out. Even before the incident, I liked to stay at home and rarely went out. Now, with this, I go out even less.

What are your expectations now?
There are different types of expectations in life. Given my situation, I keep wondering, will I be killed?

What key things have you learned because of your recent experiences?
There is no space for me anywhere. At my age, I am not meant to be in my father’s house but in my husband’s house. When I stay with my parents, after a few days, they become fed up with me. It is not their fault, as their house is small. [Her lawyer uses her hands to show how small.]

What are your plans for after the case?
I just want to get married.

To whom?
God will provide.

Where will you live with him?
Wherever God sends him from.

Has any man shown interest in you recently?
Yes. There was a man who showed interest. My mother said he had to meet with my senior mother [the term by which her lawyer is known]. She [the lawyer] interviewed him and quickly found that the man thought I was receiving money from people outside. He was interested in the money.

Are you interested in going to school?
No. I prefer to get married.

How has your view of justice, religion, and others in your village changed?
I just want to leave others to God. Whoever thinks he is dispensing justice, I leave to God.

What would she say to other young women or girls in her community about what she has learned about how to live your life?
Who would I talk to? If I talked to the girls in my village, they would turn around and insult me.


We had no dreams.
We were not brought up to think we could have dreams.

Amina said, when I asked her what were her dreams growing up? It seemed the logical question to ask, as she, her lawyer, and I, sat together in my fiancé’s house. As I wondered, are we not so far off from where we had intended?

She was clear about one thing: if her appeal were successful, she wanted to get married.

Without conducting a survey, I think it’s safe to say that getting married is the most popular dream among young women in my generation in Nigeria. It’s difficult to have it be otherwise. Parents and friends of your parents pray for you to be married, in your presence, so as to reduce the chances of your not being clear about their priorities for you.

In another life, I offer leadership programs for young women in Nigeria. One of the women in the inaugural class, Zainab, is perhaps remarkable because she rejected her family’s arranged marriage. Zainab wants to be a doctor. Failing to convince her to get married instead, her parents concluded the wedding arrangements with her betrothed in Saudi Arabia and forced her to Niger, the country north of Nigeria, to begin her long journey across the Sahara to cross the red sea, to a husband. Zainab escaped and returned to Nigeria, where she found KIND, and is working on her university entrance exams, still intent on becoming a doctor.

Zainab’s aunt just had a baby a week ago. She delivered the baby by herself. It isn’t clear if this is the practice among her people or if the baby came too quickly and at a time when her family couldn’t get her to the hospital. In any case, the baby girl was born feet first. It was a difficult delivery. The baby died. I am looking to a time when Zainab will hold health seminars for women in her community so they can take care of themselves and their babies.

In the work I am doing I realize that many women are still waiting for permission to be present, to make different choices, and to still be accepted by their community. When Amina said we were not told we could have dreams, she was speaking for herself, a poor, illiterate village woman. And she was speaking for so many other women who are educated, seemingly accomplished but still expressing another’s thoughts through their voice, seeing another’s vision through their eyes.

Ultimately, imagining ourselves must be imagining ourselves authorized.