The curtains have been drawn to keep out the harsh sunlight. Two Nigerian women relax on a queen-size bed, quietly chatting while a baby lies between them, sleeping soundly. One of them has been sentenced to death. The other is determined to save her.


Hauwa Ibrahim, a lawyer, has embraced Amina Lawal, a divorced mother convicted of adultery, like a member of the family. Ibrahim has helped pay her medical bills and shares clothes from her wardrobe. And because Lawal’s case has drawn international attention, Ibrahim also fields calls from journalists around the world, pleading with them not to overwhelm her client. “Please, don’t stress Amina; she is not well,” she begs. But the pressure is not only on Lawal; Ibrahim feels it, too. After a legal setback in the case earlier this year, she turned away from the photographers and television cameras and sobbed.


What the two women are up against is a strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, that calls for stoning, amputation and other harsh punishments. Since 1999, 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states have adopted this version of Sharia. Supporters say it is a pathway to Muslim piety and justice; critics say it is being used for political control. What’s clear is that Sharia has polarized Muslims and Christians and led to ethnic and religious clashes that have claimed thousands of lives since it was introduced. Last March the Nigerian government declared Sharia unconstitutional and urged northern states to modify harsh sanctions to bring them in line with the country’s secular laws. But the country’s constitution allows states to pass laws that reflect local customs and religious beliefs, and Nigeria’s President, Olusegun Obasanjo, has done little to stop northerners from setting up their own Sharia courts, in part because he’s up for reelection next month and needs their support. And so thousands of women remain vulnerable. Even lawyers like Ibrahim.


For more about the case of Amina Lawal, pick up the March issue of ESSENCE magazine.