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Cultural rites

Nigeria is described in I, Safiya as being like two separate nations. The rich Christian south, and the poor Muslim north. Tungar Tudu is a village like many in the north, characterised by straw huts and a village well, devout followers of Islam and a penal code called sharia—a punitive system based in part on the Qur’an and the local customary law.

Tungar Tudu is a place where Western journalists are unlikely to venture, particularly when facing more pressing matters of international concern. But there was something unique in the case of Safiya.

I, Safiya is the story of a girl growing up in an observant Muslim family. Her childhood is spent eagerly awaiting the day where she would start Islamic school, fetching water daily from the well, looking after her younger siblings, and anticipating a comfortable future of marriage and children.

In her descriptive story, she discusses cultural norms such as circumcision—both male and female—and how at 13, she is married for the first time to a man of 50.

After the death of two children, including that of her son from a mystery fever, her first marriage ends in repudiation; a custom which allows a man to divorce his wife for little or no reason.

Safiya returns to her family, broken hearted and with her honour extinguished in line with their tradition. In a cruel turn of events, Safiya is married then repudiated three more times, making it unlikely that any man would ask for her hand again.

Yet, another man does pursue her but refuses to ask her father for permission to court and marry her.

Eventually, she succumbs to him, believing his promise that he intends to speak with her father. As it becomes evident that this is not the case, Safiya realises with initial joy that she is pregnant with his child. He again refuses to marry her and Safiya returns to her parents’ home, shameful and expectant.

As her pregnancy progresses, the local authorities come knocking, and a trial begins under sharia law—the legal system of most northern Nigerian states. Initially, the father of her child comes forward supporting Safiya’s account, but he later retracts his story and is acquitted without further questioning. Safiya is convicted of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning.

Through the efforts of an international campaign, a wave of media attention and a cunning lawyer Safiya is spared.

The book provides a rare view into the tradition, tribal culture, religious fundamentalism, and the interpretation of the Qur’an that ultimately saved Safiya’s life. It highlights the invidious position of many in the West concerned about human rights abuses in cases of those like Safiya. Action to protect the rights of such women is often viewed by local governments as Western interference at best and imperialism at worst.

In the case of Nigerian woman Amina Lawal accused of adultery and facing a sentence of stoning, recipients of an international email campaign were invited to petition the Nigerian government on her behalf. The ill-conceived campaign placed Lawal at increased risk according to local women’s rights agency Baobab. As Anthony Ham reported in Eureka Street in July-August 2003, Baobab had evidence from other cases where sentences were brought forward precisely to defy international pressure.

The sharia legal system has been adopted by various countries, most notably Nigeria, Afghanistan and Iran, where harsh penalties exist for those who breach its strict code.

This book is a timely reminder of the clash between Western notions of human rights and the norms and values of other cultures. Can the two worlds coexist and why does it take such a case to bring such barbaric practices to light?  

I, Safiya, Safiya Hussaini Tungar Tudu. Pan Macmillan, 2004. isbn 1 405 03599 4, rrp $30

Beth Doherty is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.



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