In Nigeria, a Muslim woman, Amina
Lawal, awaits death by stoning for adultery. Her plight is suddenly
spotlighted when the 2002 Miss World beauty pageant, an annual
event watched by some 2 billion people around the globe, gets
under way in Nigeria. The pageant is being held there because
Miss Nigeria had won the contest the previous year, a victory
of considerable pride to many Nigerians.
But from the beginning, controversy surrounds the event. Some
contestants threaten to boycott the pageant to protest Amina
Lawal's death sentence, and Muslims in Nigeria denounce it as
"a parade of nudity."
As 92 beauty queens descend upon Nigeria, FRONTLINE/World
reporter and producer Alexis Bloom and co-producer and cinematographer
Cassandra Herrman set out to find and interview Amina Lawal.
They head north on the road to Kaduna. Suddenly, traffic grinds
to a halt. Their driver is confused and afraid. No one knows
what is happening. But word spreads quickly: There is fighting
in Kaduna. Fires are burning. It is not safe to enter the city.
Placing leaves under their windshield wiper -- a sign of peace
-- they join a procession of vehicles creeping north.
That night, watching television news in their hotel, Bloom
and Herrman learn what has happened. A local fashion writer,
a Christian woman, had written in her newspaper column that
"the Prophet Muhammed would surely have picked one of the Miss
World contestants as his wife." To Muslims, this was blasphemy.
Rioting had broken out in Kaduna between Muslims and Christians.
Churches, mosques, shops and homes were burned. At least 200
Hearing that the Miss World pageant is about to be cancelled,
Bloom and Herrman rush back to the capital, Abuja, where the
pageant was to be held. At the Hilton Hotel, they find the contest
in disarray. No one is allowed to speak with the contestants.
Organizer Julia Morley blames everything on the press. In the
middle of the night, the contestants flee to London on a charter
The next day, a local organizer of the pageant, Stella Din,
is devastated and embarrassed, telling Bloom that the rioting
and the collapse of the event have "sent strong signals out
to the international community that Nigeria is not a country
to be taken seriously." Nigeria's newly democratic, pro-Western
government had hoped that hosting Miss World would be an opportunity
to showcase the country as it emerged from decades of military
rule. Says Din, "We have blown our chances."
A Christian from southern Nigeria, Din also expresses outrage
that Muslims in the North plan to execute Amina Lawal. "Where
I come from -- I mean, any civilized nation -- you don't stone
a woman ... let alone a woman who has a little baby."
Amina Lawal's case is splitting the country. While the North
holds fast to its intent to carry out her sentence, the government
in the South insists that she will never be stoned. Bloom and
Herrman restart their journey to the North to find Lawal and
to explore the Islamic regions of the country where sharia,
the Islamic code of law based on the Koran, has been embraced.
Nigeria, a country of 120 million people, is one of the world's
largest exporters of oil and the fifth-largest supplier to the
United States. "But money from Nigeria's black gold doesn't
trickle down here," observes Bloom as she passes through the
alienated and impoverished North. Entering Kaduna, she witnesses
the grim aftermath of the rioting. A local Muslim woman, Amina
Ladan-Baki, who is a banker and a women's rights activist, tells
Bloom that poverty is the root cause of the violence and blames
politicians for exploiting religious differences.
Pressing further north, Bloom and Herrman enter the ancient
city of Kano, where Islam arrived more than 700 years ago. "Sharia
has long been a way of life here," comments Bloom, "a code of
conduct that encourages social welfare." But sharia as the foundation
of the legal system returned -- with its harsh penalties --
just three years ago, after Nigeria's military dictatorship
fell. Thousands of supporters celebrated in the streets. "People
saw the sharia as coming in to save the situation," says legal
scholar Naiya Sada, explaining that the old secular legal system
had become hopelessly corrupt and inefficient in practice. "The
hope is that 'this ideal will come and solve my problems.' People
believed so much that something will happen. Whether it is happening
now or not, this is a different thing entirely."
Bloom asks Sada how he can justify stoning a woman to death.
"Once you can prove adultery under Islamic law, the punishment
has to follow, stoning to death," Sada replies. "Nobody can
change that punishment."
But Mairo Bello, who advises women on their rights, tells
Bloom that sharia law is being applied unfairly to women. "As
a Muslim, what I'm saying is that if it's good for the goose,
let it be good for the gander. So if you punish the female,
get the man that is responsible for that pregnancy and punish
Sharia law has now spread to one-third of Nigeria. In the
state of Katsina, where Amina Lawal was born, Bloom and Herrman
see the courtroom where Lawal's appeal was rejected, a decision
that brought shouts of praise from male spectators.
Bloom interviews the man in charge of Lawal's case, Attorney-General
Ibrahim Shema. He defends Lawal's sentencing. "Remember, we
are talking about a Muslim woman, who has accepted by her religious
belief that she will not be involved (in adultery). There's
a belief-based system here. The woman has accepted that."
As they continue their quest for Lawal, Bloom and Herrman
decide to film the streets of Katsina. They are promptly hauled
off to the Ministry of Religious Affairs and ordered to stop.
When they finally reach Amina Lawal's village, elders of the
village send them away, but not before they find out that Amina
has fled and taken refuge in the capital.
Back in the urban metropolis, where they can tune in to hip-hop
on the radio, Bloom and Herrman watch the Miss World contest
on television as it plays out in London without a hitch. Miss
Nigeria passes her crown to the 2002 winner, Miss Turkey.
In a safe house, they finally meet Amina Lawal and her child.
She receives them graciously but seems worn down and worried.
She suffers from stomach ulcers. Her faith in Islam remains
strong. "I leave everything to God. He is the Creator. He gives
life and he carries out judgments. May Allah let me die a Muslim,
declaring my faith in him," Lawal says.
Lawal's lawyer, Hauwa Ibrahim, is a woman also from a poor
family in the North. She represents several women sentenced
to death for adultery. Ibrahim tells Bloom, "We are afraid that
when it comes to the issue of death the moment you stone the
first woman, there may be no stopping of it. And I cannot live
If Lawal's additional appeals are denied, she will be killed
as soon as she weans her baby. She tells Bloom that her greatest
concern is what will happen to her child.
As Bloom prepares to leave, Lawal suddenly smiles radiantly
and imparts her own blessing: "May Allah give you your own child."
Produced and Reported By
UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism
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