Fact Check

Safiya Hussaini Petition

Has Safiya Hussaini, a Nigerian woman, been sentenced to death by stoning for committing adultery?

Published Mar 13, 2002


Claim:   Safiya Hussaini, a Nigerian woman, has been sentenced to death by stoning for committing adultery.

Status:   Was true, but isn't any more.

Origins:   In the autumn of 2001, Safiya Hussaini a 35-year-old woman from the northern Nigerian state of Sokoto, was found guilty by a ruling tribunal of the crime of adultery. The sentence handed down was that she be buried up to her neck and stoned to death. As Safiya awaited an appeal of her death sentence, her case became an international cause as human rights organizations and officials from country upon country called upon the Nigerian government to intercede on her behalf and prevent her execution. Safiya was the focus of an uneasy standoff between federal and local authority, between religious and secular law and tradition, in politically unstable Nigeria.

Safiya is from Tungar Tudu, a village of 3,000 people living mud-and-straw homes about 20 miles from Sokoto. Last year, she divorced her husband because he could not support her and moved back into her father's house with her two children. Then, as she told a New York Times reporter:

[A] 60-year-old man named Yakubu Abubakar began to show interest in her. "He used fetish charms to woo me, but he did not succeed," she says. As she goes on to tell the story, she grows more solemn. "One day I was in the bush, and he ambushed me and forced me. That happened four times. I am telling you as I am telling God. I suddenly found myself pregnant. I was embarrassed for what this would do to me and to my family."

Not long after her pregnancy began to show, the police arrived and interrogated her. She says she has no idea who told them. Sufiya, who is illiterate, and Abubakar were then taken to the police station in Sokoto, where they confessed to having sex. At the time, Sufiya did not say that she had been raped. "He said he loved me and he could not suppress his feelings for me," she says of Abubakar. "He promised to take care of the child. My father suggested that he should marry me, and he agreed."

Under the strict Islamic rule of law known as the sharia, recently introduced in ten of Nigeria's twelve largely Muslim northern states (the same code imposed by the Taliban in Afghanistan), the penalty for adultery when one or both of the participants is (or has been) married is death. Moreover, under a traditionally strict interpretation of the Koran adopted in those nothern states, Sufiya's pregnancy alone was considered sufficient evidence of her adultery. The case against Abubakar was dismissed due to a lack of witnesses to the act, but Sufiya was found guilty and sentenced to death. Sufiya appealed the judgment and awaited a hearing scheduled for the middle of March.

According to The New York Times:

Initially, Sufiya said that the law was not justly applied because she had been raped by Abubakar. [In January 2002], however, Sufiya and her lawyers — who are being paid by Baobab, a national women's support group financed by the Ford and MacArthur Foundations — began mounting a different defense, claiming that Adama was not fathered by Abubakar but is in fact the daughter of Sufiya's former husband. When asked to explain the change in her story, one of Sufiya's lawyers, Abdulkadir Imam, said that her original statement had been made under duress and without legal representation. "She did not understand the nature and consequence of the offense she was charged with nor the questions she was asked," he said.

(Custom varies in Nigeria as to whether sexual intercourse with a former spouse is considered adultery. Traditionally, female residents of Sokoto State were allowed to conceive children with their former husbands up to seven years after they had been divorced.)

Unfortunately, northern Nigeria is a region in which police are regarded an ineffective, corrupt institution;
where "politicians compete to exploit public enthusiasm for law and order" by supporting strict sharia law; and where the largely poor, uneducated, and illiterate citizenry unquestioningly accepts the pronouncements of their leaders. Had Sufiya's appeal been rejected by the regional appeals court (also governed by sharia law), it would have gone to Nigeria's supreme court, thereby creating a knotty political situation for Nigeria's federal government: If they denied the appeal, they risked the condemnation of much of the international community (including nearly all of the western world) as well as the discontent of southern Nigerians concerned over the spread of sharia rule; if they upheld the appeal, they would have offended much of Muslim northern Nigeria for daring to overrule Islamic law.

One of the aspects Sufiya found hardest to accept about her situation, as reported in The Scotsman, is that she alone should bear the punishment for her "crime":

One thing I cannot accept is to die alone when I know — and the alkali (Sharia law judge) knows — I could not have made this baby alone. I mean, I am not the Virgin Mary! Brilliant, aren't they, these men? They stick to a law inherited from the seventh century for people having sex in the open Arabian desert or makeshift tents, but in the 21st century they can impregnate us in Hilton Hotel rooms with air conditioning and then deny us.

Had her appeal failed, Safiya would have been buried up to her neck while men threw rocks at her head until she was dead. Fortunately, on 25 March 2002 a Muslim appeals court acquitted her, ruling that the evidence presented was insufficient to warrant a conviction.

Safiya's case parallels another currently in the news, that of Amina Lawal, another Nigerian woman currently under sentence to be stoned to death for having committed adultery.

Additional Information:
    Petition to the leaders of Nigeria   Petition to the leaders of Nigeria

Last updated:   5 January 2008

  Sources Sources:

    Bridgland, Fred.   "'I Insist That My Crime Is Not Adultery.'"

    The Scotsman.   25 January 2002   (p. 6).

    Dowden, Richard.   "Death by Stoning."

    The New York Times.   27 January 2002   (Magazine; p. 28).

    Dowden, Richard.   "Woman Who Was Raped Faces Death by Stoning."

    The [London] Independent.   5 January 2002   (Foreign News; p. 14).

    Egan, Kelly.   "Nigeria to Appeal Death by Stoning."

    The Ottawa Citizen.   24 February 2002   (p. A13).

    Noor, Farish A.   "Tensions Between Tradition, Orthodoxy."

    [Malaysia] New Straits Times.   18 January 2002   (p. 10).

    Younge, Gary.   "Women: Is This Justice?"

    The [London] Guardian.   10 January 2002   (p. 8).

    Associated Press.   "Nigerian Woman Condemned to Death by Stoning Is Acquitted."

    The New York Times.   26 March 2002.

    The Australian.   "MPs Implore Nigeria Not to Stone Woman."

    15 January 2002   (p. 9).

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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