The Life and Career of Hauwa Ibrahim, Senior and Founding Partner in the ARIES Law Firm in Abuja, Nigeria
by Regan Morris
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If Hauwa Ibrahim had followed tradition, she would have been married off by 15 and spent her life as a housewife in rural Nigeria.
But Ibrahim was never very traditional. She ran away, got an education, and became the first woman attorney in Northern Nigeria. Now Ibrahim is known worldwide as a courageous defender of women's rights, including successfully saving a woman from being publicly stoned to death for committing adultery.
Growing up in the village of Hinnah in Nigeria's Gombe State, Ibrahim once saw a woman with a graduation mortarboard and gown. She says that woman became her ''living dream'' in a culture that does not encourage women to succeed along with men.
Ibrahim fulfilled her living dream.
Amina Lawal would have been the first woman stoned to death in Nigeria since 12 northern states began adopting Shariah, or strict Islamic law, in 1999. Ibrahim handled Lawal's appeal and the court overturned the ruling in September 2003.
Ibrahim's already busy life became even more hectic after Lawal's ruling was overturned. She lives a complex life, between working at the ARIES law firm, which she founded almost eight years ago in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, and advising various NGOs around the world. She spent the past year as a fellow at the Washington College of Law at American University in Washington, DC, and as an intern with the Council on Foreign Relations. She was honored with the Margaret Brent award at the American Bar Association's annual meeting this summer for her pro-bono work for human rights.
She has been honored at home as well. In Ibrahim's village of 200,000 in Northern Nigeria, she is considered a Queen and is the first woman from her community to sit in a traditional council. Ibrahim says she still has many of the traditional values she was raised with, despite her reputation for breaking the rules.
''I was the rebel child; I was the black sheep of the family,'' she told LawCrossing. ''I was rebellious on one hand, but on the other hand, I never left my culture. I never left the values of where I was brought up.''
Ibrahim, who eventually married the man of her choice and has two children, said the secret to her subversion is to work within the culture she wants to change. Because she has the traditional title of Queen, every time she comes back to Nigeria, she must first report to her village before returning to work at her firm. Reporting to her village is easier said than done.
''My village has no water, no light, no road, no utilities,'' she said. ''When I arrived back in my country (last month), I left my bag and my case in the city and hopped back to my village. And when I get there, I feel at home. When I am there, I am just another village girl, and nothing has changed.''
Some people in the village, particularly the elders, feel Ibrahim disrespects her throne because she sits on the floor and talks with the poorest people in town.
''I am trying to change the perspective, to show that we are just humans, that nobody is a slave to another person. We have to try to change,'' she said, adding that people with traditional titles like Queen and Chief are subject to hero worship in Nigeria and that she wants to change that and promote people as equals.
Ibrahim recognizes that she must work within Nigeria's Shariah courts if she wants to exact social change in her country. She says the biggest challenges to running a firm in Nigeria are understanding the Shariah courts and finding clients who can pay. A majority of her work has been pro-bono; so Ibrahim worries about making a living.
She has been studying the impact Nigeria's new Shariah legal system is having throughout Africa as neighbors consider implementing Shariah themselves on the back of Nigeria's experience. Ibrahim says it is her duty as an attorney to assure that people are treated equally under the law and that she is concerned that many people, including lawyers, do not know their countries have signed international treaties respecting human rights.
''Because most of us don't know our country's commitments,'' she said. ''So these are some of the issues we want to look at specifically, insuring that the new legal systems that people are craving, does not transmit into issues of terror or issues of fundamentalism that have no rule of law.''